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The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

Barbara Stanwyck sailed through every genre of film and looked glorious doing int. In the ’30s, Stanwyck cultivated a persona as being a tough dame who could put a man in his place, and while The Mad Miss Manton isn’t hardboiled drama it showcased Stanwyck’s talents as a gorgeous comedienne, ablet to throw out sexual chemistry and bon mots in equal succession.

Melsa Manton (Stanwyck) is that breed of socialite that’s philanthropic, beautiful, and just kooky enough without being daffy. She and her group of equally wealthy friends are known for pulling elaborate pranks, but Melsa isn’t pulling anyone’s leg when she comes upon a dead body. With the police unwilling to believe her, Melsa and the gang decide to get to the bottom of this murder, with a reporter (Henry Fonda) pulled along for the ride.

Stanwyck and Fonda aren’t placed in the group of famous movie couples but they should be. The pair teamed up three times with The Mad Miss Manton being the first film to prove their undeniable chemistry. Directed by Leigh Jason with a superlative script by Philip G. Epstein, both Stanwyck and Fonda are crackling.

Their plotline starts out like something out of Libeled Lady (1936) with Melsa threatening a libel suit against Fonda’s Peter Ames. He’s published that Melsa invented the murder as a hoax. And yet after Melsa gives Peter a piece of her mind, it immediately turns him on. From there he’s knocking down Melsa’s door to be near her, protect her, and tell everyone around them that he’s going to marry her (whether she likes it or not being the unspoken implication).

Sure, Peter enjoys threatening Melsa with violence every now and then – then again, all the men in this movie threaten Melsa with violence, including the police detective (Sam Leven) who, at one point, wants to shoot her – but that’s the style of wooing. Fonda is never threatening, but an innocent who just REALLY loves Melsa. Fonda also is fantastic at acting flustered. When a dead body appears in his office his immediate response is “What are you trying to do? Haunt my couch?!”

But the real star of the movie is Stanwyck. Unlike socialites played by Katharine Hepburn or Carole Lombard, Stanwyck never plays Melsa like a simplistic girl who doesn’t know anything about the world outside her bubble. Melsa is a forward thinker; she’d have to be considering she’s practically Sherlock Holmes. She’s willing to use herself as bait when she needs to and is able to stem off violent attacks. And her ability to wear Edward Stevenson’s lovely gowns are worth watching the movie alone. She’s also blessed with having a group of friends, a sharp contrast considering how the female friendships in ’30s screwball comedies aren’t often presented positively. All the women are utterly darling, but particularly the always hungry Pat (Whitney Bourne).

Melsa even gets help from maid Hilda (Hattie McDaniel). Stanwyck always tried to feature women of color in her films and McDaniel isn’t the typical maid kowtowing to whatever her white employer wants. Hilda decides whether she wants to do something, and when things become too frightening she’s the first person to tell Melsa she’s out of there. Melsa may joke about “the revolution” coming because of how domineering Hilda is, but it’s evident this is just friendly banter between two people who are friendly with each other.

With all the fun interplay between the characters and the romance, the murder mystery becomes a tad ancillary. It lacks the punch of mysteries like The Thin Man (1934) or any of those off-shoot films. By the time the killer was revealed I’d forgotten all the major players because of how fun Melsa and her friends were. I’m really surprised this wasn’t developed into a franchise of some sort.

Though never too madcap, The Mad Miss Manton is a glamorously smooth murder mystery with Barbara Stanwyck in fine form.

Ronnie Rating:

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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