Monday, July 18, 2011

The Great Barbara Stanwyck & the Screwball Comedy/Murder Mystery Hybrid The Mad Miss Manton

The following is my humble contribution to Film Classics Screwball Comedy Review Contest.  And as fair warning, there may be spoilers ahead, for those who care about such things - ye have been warned.

Oblivious yet just a bit-too-clever-for-her-own-good society dame who is insufferable to the male lead only to have herself fallen in love with by the end?  Check.  Hapless average Joe who stumbles into path of stubborn heiress only to find himself falling in love despite being walked all over?  Check.   Somewhat incomprehensible and quite madcap hilarity full of trickery and implausible happenstance?  Check.  Bumbling secondary characters who are really only there to make the heiress look even more of a lunatic than she really is?  Check.  Fast talking dialogue full of innuendos and half-truths?  Check.  At least one character (maybe more) who regularly smack their head in frustrated disbelief at what they have gotten themselves into?  Check.

Well that does it.  It looks like we have all the makings for a classic screwball comedy.  But wait, there are some more checks to make.  One can also check check check to this being a tale full of foul play and murder as well as a sometimes dark and dangerous mystery and also a film with several dramatically daring moments at gun point for the aforementioned heroine/heiress.  So I suppose what we have here is not strictly a screwball comedy but also a murder mystery.  What we have is a genre hybrid that manages to keep the comic antics rolling while putting our protagonists in a bit of mortal danger.  What we have here is Leigh Jason's 1938 screwball comedy-cum-murder mystery The Mad Miss Manton.  But still, above all else, gun play or not, multiple murders or not, this is screwball.

Granted, this film cannot hold up to the example given by the top dogs of the screwball genre - films such as Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, Arsenic and Old Lace, The Lady Eve, Trouble in Paradise or many of the Marx Brothers' movies - nor does its director (ironically this little known film is probably Jason's best known work) play in the same league as some of the genre's best and brightest - auteurs such as Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Leo McCarey - but as one of the (much) lesser known commodities of this once popular genre, it is still a fun ride to watch.  What the film does have going for it more than anything else is its leading couple.

In the first of three romantic comedies the duo would do together, the film stars Barbara Stanwyck (the best damn actress ever!) and Henry Fonda (the man who can do no wrong!) as the oblivious yet just a bit-too-clever-for-her-own-good society dame who is insufferable to the male lead only to have herself fallen in love with by the end and the hapless average Joe who stumbles into path of stubborn heiress only to find himself falling in love despite being walked all over, respectively.  It is the seemingly natural chemistry of these two stars (Missy and Hank were one of the cutest couples in Hollywood at the time) that make this otherwise rather thin film work as well as it does.

As far as the story goes (which I seem to have evaded talking about until now): At 3:00 am, upon returning from a society event, Melsa Manton (not yet deemed mad) takes her three little dogs for a walk. Near a subway construction site, she sees a fellow socialite, playboy Ronnie Belden run out of a house and quickly drive away. The house is for sale by yet another of Miss Manton's circle, Sheila Lane, the wife of George Lane, a wealthy banker.  Inside, Melsa finds a diamond brooch and Mr. Lane's dead body. As she runs for help, her cloak falls off with the brooch inside it. When the police arrive, the body, cloak, and brooch are gone. Melsa and her friends are notorious pranksters, so the detective, Lieutenant Mike Brent, played by the ever exasperated Sam Levene, does nothing to investigate the murder.  

This brings about newspaperman Peter Ames (Fonda) who writes an editorial decrying Melsa's so-called prank, after which she has him served with papers.  Of course, in typical screwball fashion, Peter instantly falls for Melsa (she's a terrible person he tells her but he loves her and is going to marry her) and grows more and more fond of her as each new conniving piece of the puzzle comes about.  Meanwhile, Melsa and her friends decide they must find the murderer in order to defend their reputation - and perhaps just have some fun.  The resulting madcap manhunt includes searches of the Lane house, Belden's apartment, Lane's business office, and all of the local beauty shops; two attempts to intimidate Melsa; two shooting attempts on her life; a charity ball; and a trap set for the murderer using Melsa as bait. Of course this is all par for the course in the genre known as screwball.

In the end, as I more than alluded to earlier, The Mad Miss Manton may not be the creme de la creme of the genre, but thanks to the great Stanwyck and the Fonda and thanks to Leigh Jason's almost film noir look to much of the film (cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca worked on many darker films from the original Cat People to Out of the Past) it is a film that more than holds its own.  I mean really, how can one not have fun watching the knockout Stanwyck flit and flutter about on madcap feet and the charming Fonda fall more and more in love with each new trick his wouldbe lover plays on him?  Screwball?  Mystery?  Who cares, let's just call it fun. 


Voting has now ended for this contest.  I would like to thank all those who voted for me and my review of The Mad Miss Manton, and helped me come in first place in the contest.  Woo hoo.


Page said...

When you managed to describe the first relationships I had during my 20's in the first paragraph I knew this would be a fun read.

Fonda and Stanwyck together, how can you go wrong and then there's that title. Besides being really creeped out by that doll that I had totally forgotten about and will now have nightmares about, I liked the film and I could watch these two battle it out while having fun a million times.

Thanks for giving your take on a film that seldom gets discussed or re-aired.

VP81955 said...

I wrote about "Manton" two months ago:

Incidentally, I cordially invite you to participate in my first blogathon, "Carole-tennial(+3)" (for the 103rd anniversary of Carole Lombard's birth). It will take place from Oct. 6 to 9; learn more about it (with banners to use) at

Kevyn Knox said...

Page - thanx (and sorry about reintroducing the nightmares).

Yes, this is part of a Screwball blogathon/contest/thingee and I didn't just want to do something on one of the big name movies in the genre. I thought this one would do nicely.