Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and Sam Levene in The Mad Miss Manton (1938)




(director: Leigh Jason; screenwriters: story by Wilson Collison/Philip G. Epstein; cinematographer: Nick Musuraca; editor: George Hively; music: Roy Webb; cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Melsa Manton), Henry Fonda (Peter Ames), Sam Levene (Lt. Mike Brent), Frances Mercer (Helen Frayne), Stanley Ridges (Edward Norris), Whitney Bourne (Pat James), Stanley Ridges .(Edward ‘Eddie’ Norris), Hattie McDaniel (Hilda, Melsa’s Maid), Paul Guilfoyle (Bat Regan), Penny Singleton (Frances Glesk), Leona Maricle (Sheila Lane), Miles Mander (Fred Thomas), Catherine O’Quinn (Dora Fenton); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pandro S. Berman; RKO; 1938)

“A mildly funny screwball comedy-mystery thriller that is overall more thirties stylish than witty.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A mildly funny screwball comedy-mystery thriller that is overall more thirties stylish than witty and more than anything else grounded in the good chemistry performances by leads Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, a practice run for their more enchanting romantic farce in the 1941 The Lady Eve. In that one, Sturges gets the casting exactly right by having Fonda as the socialite and Stanwyck as the proletarian, which makes things go down easier for Fonda. Director Leigh Jason bases it on the story by Wilson Collison, while Philip G. Epstein handles the screenplay by enlivening it with vintage Depression-era class war dialogue.

It’s 3 a.m. and zany Park Avenue socialite Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) has come home from a costume party and is walking her three poodles when she spots a man darting out of a 14th Street luxury building and driving off in his convertible. Upon investigating the open town house apartment, she finds a dead man lying in a pool of blood. Manton calls the police from a street police box and when Lt. Mike Brent (Sam Levene) arrives ten minutes later there’s no body. Populist newspaper reporter Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) in his column makes fun of Manton and her group of idle rich Park Avenue socialites who are known for pulling pranks to raise money for charity. Manton goes up to Ames’s office and slaps his face and further announces a large law suit against his newspaper for libel. The agitated debutante gathers her circle of scatterbrained lady friends and they attempt to find the corpse and prove that the police are not doing their job.

At her fancy apartment Manton finds her costume cloak, lost at the scene of the crime, stuck to her door with a knife and a threatening note for her not to get involved. But the socialites return to the crime scene, the apartment of a man called Ronny, and they stumble upon Sheila Lane’s clip and Ronny’s corpse. Ames sneaks in on the girls, who leave him gagged and tied up as they bring the dead body to his office when the ill-humored Brent refuses to listen to Manton’s report of another murder. By this time Ames finds he’s in love with Manton and calls her lawyer after the police free him. Manton thanks him for getting her freed from police questioning and tells him about finding Lane’s clip. The police get their hands on it when Ames informs them, worried that Manton is getting too involved in a case involving a murderer. When the cops locate Ronny’s car, they find in the back seat the body of the first victim who disappeared.

From here on the pieces of the puzzle are put together by Manton’s amateur detective work and leads to a tale of blackmail, a secret marriage and a sour grape love story involving both criminal types and Wall Street brokers who are not as wealthy as they make out. It sprints to its conclusion as a mild-mannered love story and an overbaked dullish whodunit; but ends squarely on its feet, on the amusing note that Fonda asks Stanwyck to go on an extended honeymoon using her dough since she’s loaded and he’s not. She lovingly replies “I wanted to live on your income.” He retorts with a liberated man’s modern viewpoint, “That’s foolish. Who’s going to live on yours?”


REVIEWED ON 6/10/2005 GRADE: B –