The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

The screwball mystery stands as the unlikely historical and genre nexus between the pre-code movies of the early thirties and the Film Noir movement of the 40s and 50s. Don’t believe me? Well, just consider the iconic crossover presence of Barbara Stanwyck. Having made her name in a number of racy pre-code melodramas directed by William Wellman and Frank Capra, she then proved her comedic chops in such screwball classics as Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) before defining the femme fatale for all time in Double Indemnity (1944). But Mad Miss Manton is both a wonderful breezy comedy and a decent mystery too.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“Out of the social register … and into the police blotter” – from the original The Mad Miss Manton trailer

As Hollywood made the expensive transition from silent to sound between 1927 and 1929, with the Wall Street Crash making audience scarcer as the novelty of synchronised dialogue wore off, so the content of movies would become earthier, offering a variety of spicy delights. Stanwyck starred in such films as Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933), deliberately provocative films that pushed the limits of the Motion Picture Production Code. Such films led to the so-called ‘Hays Office’ clamping down from the end of 1933, making producers sublimate or anyway substitute the sexiness of earlier films with comedic variants, a case in point being Frank Capra’s ‘walls of Jericho’ sequence in his hugely popular screwball romance, It Happened One Night (shot in 1933 but released in 1934).

That film, in which journalist Clark Gable romances ditzy socialite Claudette Colbert, also instituted a strategy in which wealthy heiresses are brought to heel by the common man, thus offering Depression-era audiences plenty of glamour but also a satisfying sense that the privileged were not completely getting away with it either. This is certainly true of My Man Godfrey (1936) co-starring real life ex-husband and wife William Powell and Carole Lombard and in that pivotal film, The Thin Man (1934) in which working class detective Nick Charles marries Nora and into the aristocracy, thus combining hardboiled detection, high-class gloss and plenty of comedic banter.

Historically speaking, writer Dashiell Hammett is the crucial creative conduit, moving from the hardboiled tradition he helped establish in Black Mask magazine in the 20s and in such novels as Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930) to the screwball cozy of The Thin Man, a huge success in 1934 enhanced by the classic MGM movie adaptation that same year starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, which led to a series of five more films produced by the studio over the next thirteen years (along with several other movies featuring the team of Powell and Loy). This success led to a series of screwball comedy thrillers, chief among which we should remember:

  • Remember Last Night? (1935) starring Robert Young and Constance Cummings
  • The Star of Midnight (1935) starring William Powell and Ginger Rogers
  • Adventure in Manhattan (1936) starring Joel McCrae and Jean Arthur
  • The Ex-Mrs Bradford (1936) starring William Powell and Jean Arthur
  • There’s Always a Woman (1938) starring Melvyn Douglas
  • Fast Company (1938) starring Melvyn Douglas
  • Topper Returns (1941) starring Joan Blondell and Roland Young
  • A Night to Remember (1942) starring Loretta Young and Brian Aherne

Which brings us to The Mad Miss Manton, where Stanwyck plays Miss Melsa Manton, a carefree ans irresponsible socialite whose regular japes and run-ins with the law brings her into conflict with the crime reporter played by Henry Fonda (who apparently hated the role; he much preferred they re-unions three years later in The Lady Eve and You Belong to Me).

Melsa, after one of her nights out on the town with her posse of half a dozen equally screwy and mink-lined friends (dubbed the ‘Park Avenue Pranksters’) takes her poodles (all four of them) out for a walk and sees her friend Ronnie leaving an abandoned tenement in a hurry. She wanders in and finds a diamond brooch and a dead body of an elderly man – she pockets the brooch in her cloak, but it gets caught as she flees the scene and so it gets left behind so she heads off into the night wearing a very frilly and silly little outfit. Thus attired she calls the police but they are wary after her previous stunts. Eventually the very exasperated NYPD Lieutenant Mike Brent arrives (played by the great Sam Levene) but, you guessed it, the body is gone. He will spend the rest of the film being utterly frustrated by the case and downing in vast quantities of anti acid pills handed to him by his sergeant. Levene was probably constitutionally incapable of giving a bad performance and is clearly having great fun, getting very near to going over the top but never quite going too far. He also gets some interrogation scenes that are fairly Noirish in terms of the expressionistic lighting used.

This latest escapade leads to an editorial in the Morning Clarion and Melsa decides to sue the editor (Fonda), who is not amused by her society antics. That evening Melsa decides to investigate, especially when her cloak is found stuck to her door with a knife and a warning to stay off the case. She goes to Ronnie’s house and finds his body inside the fridge – to get her own back, she dumps the body in Fonda’s office. But by then, despite being hog-tied and gagged by Melsa and her friends in further acts of retaliation that are part and parcel of the screwball genre, Fonda is now thoroughly in love with her so he gets her out of hot water with the police. The body of the old man who Melsa first reported, who turns out to be the rich Mr George Lane, is then found stuffed in the back of Ronnie’s car, after which Melsa is contacted by Lane’s wife, who was having an affair with Ronnie. Further subplots are thrown about as we discover that Lane was nearly broke but that there was an insurance policy that now may be cashed in by his partner (a blink and miss him appearance by noted character actor Miles Mander, suggesting some post-production tampering).

There’s a lovely romantic scene, shortly before Stanwyck ties Fonda up again and pulls off his trousers for good measure, in which they talk about how they feel in skyscrapers late at night, though really it’s about how scared they are about falling in love.

“I couldn’t live in this apartment, it’s too high up for me”

It’s a dreamy, romantic moment and is a little interlude that once again helps shade the tones of the film and makes it a rather unusual screwball mystery. But then the thriller element kicks in again. A likely patsy for the murders is found in the shape of jail-bird Eddie Norris (a wonderfully smooth performance with just a hint of menace from Stanley Ridges), who used to be married to old man Lane’s wife. Once again Melsa gets one over on the police and gets the man freed – but now there are three bodies and too many suspects and a showdown is inevitable. The plot is not the thing here though it moves forwards with several climactic set-pieces including Fonda getting shot and hospitalised; a murder attempt on Melsa at Latin night club where the whole staff has been taken over by undercover policemen; and a nifty little gimmick found on the construction site for a new subway station near her apartment providing the final piece of the puzzle. As the killer is revealed, what’s interesting is again how dark the lighting gets as this part of the film is played fairly straight, making the links to the later Film Noir style all the clearer without really losing its sense of humour.

This is certainly a film of its time (the scenes with Hattie McDaniel as Melsa’ garrulous maid certainly emphasise that) but in its smooth range of style and moods it can, in hindsight, be seen as a film that, along with its lovely leading lady and amusing supporting cast, is definitely  moving the screwball mystery genre forwards. Well worth catching up with. Trailer and clips can be sampled at the TCM site here.

DVD Availability: Most DVD editions world-wide offer acceptable if not stellar renditions of the movie, including the US MOD version available from Warner Archive. As these are DVD-R and are inherently less durable, I would recommend the editions available in the UK, France of Italy though of course these are all affected by PAL speed-up. You win some, you lose some … None of these edition have worthwhile extras.

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
Director: Leigh Jason
Producer: P.J. Wolfson
Screenplay: Philip G. Epstein (from a story by Wilson Collison)
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Sam Levene, Hattie McDaniel, Stanley Ridges, Miles Mander

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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42 Responses to The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

  1. Sergio – Such a thorough and interesting profile of this movie – thanks. Interesting how you place this kind of film chronologically and developmentally as a precursor to the full-on noir films of the following decade. I see a similar development of the noir element anyway in novels. Or maybe that’s just my perception…
     
    And you answered one of my questions just at the end. I think films (and novels) can’t really help but be a product of their times, but I”m glad this one is more enduring than that.

    • Very kind Margot, thank you. I agree that the literary path is probably equal in trajectory though probably slightly less sharply defined – Jonathan Latimer’s books from the mid 30s clearly have elements of both comedy and hardboiled detection – and of course everybody’s favourite author, Rex Stout, could be considered the master of both.

  2. michael says:

    Not surprisingly considering the lighting, the cinematographer Musuraca would later do “Out Of The Past.”

    • Thanks Michael – yes, the technical team at RKO excelled at both screwballs and Film Noir – and Musuraca was one of the giants of the era, no question about it, with a fabulous career stretching over five decaes nearly all of it at RKO, handling many of the great Val Lewton films (including Cat People) as well as such memorable noirs films as The Locket and The Spiral Staircase before switching successfully to TV in the mid 50s (still at the RKO lot working for Desilu).

  3. TracyK says:

    My husband tells me we have watched this (and burned it to DVD from our Laserdisc copy) but I have entirely forgotten it (I am sorry to admit). Will have to watch it again.

    We have enjoyed many pre-code and screwball comedies, however. Most recently The Ex-Mrs Bradford.

    I enjoyed this post very much.

  4. Colin says:

    Sergio, I’ve had the French release of this resting on my shelves for quite a while now, unwatched and all but forgotten. Thanks for reminding me and for giving it such an encouraging write-up.
    I’m going to watch it either tonight or tomorrow, and then get back to you.

    Speaking of cross genre pieces, have you seen Lady on a Train?

    • Hi Colin – funnily enough (!) I’ve got the Italian release (from Sony) … it has decent if not stellar PQ but it also offers a ‘colorized’ alternative version – I couldn’t even bring myself to test it out … Saw Lady on a Train years and years ago (on Italian TV) and remember quite enjoying it (though not really a Durbin fan) – oddly, it was remade by William Link as the pilot for a short-lived mystery show starring Edward Woodward, Over My Dead Body – ever see that?

      • Colin says:

        I have a handful of those RKO Italian releases through Sony – a bit hit and miss in my opinion.

        I wouldn’t call myself a Durbin fan either – I only have Lady on a Train and Christmas Holiday. That Woodward show does seem vaguely familiar though.

        • I did watch it at the time as it was Link’s first series after the death of Richard Levinson and Woodward’s return to series TV after The Equalizer nearly killed him. It was very, very softboiled, perfectly acceptable but very forgettable too. I suspect I made a point of watching the Durbin to see how they compared. Christmas Holiday is an incredibly odd film – apart from anything else, is it just me or is Durbin wearing gigantic amounts of make-up through most of it? Her face, especially in the Noir low-light used for the wrap-around church sequence, looks really peculiar. I suppose it was to make her look older but frankly it kept reminding me of someone in drag, which I’m sure is not the effect they were going for…
          Christmas Holiday

          • Colin says:

            :)
            Christmas Holiday certainly is an odd film in lots of ways. Aside from the unusual casting, there’s so much ambiguity in the script, mood and atmosphere. I quite like it though.

          • Christmas Holiday is a very perverse film, which I do quite like, completely bowdlerising the Maugham original and then casting Kelly and Durbin in a way seemingly designed to wrong-foot audience expectations – in a way it seems to be saying that the emerging existantial angst of Film Noir was so pervasive that it can even undermine the Hollywood musical. One suspects it was more a case of ttrying to have thei cake and eat it (which commercially Universal seems to have managed to do). It would have been better with Ava Gardner and Dan Duryea though!

          • Colin says:

            Bearing in mind that we still find the casting quite jarring 60+ years later, one can imagine the effect it must have had at the time. I reckon both Kelly and Durbin do well in their roles but it may have been even better with more established noir performers.
            Having said that, I feel Kelly did have a mean quality he could tap into successfully, even if he didn’t always use it. His role in Kramer’s Inherit the Wind is a nicely judged piece of bitterness and cynicism.

          • I agree completely about Kelly. I’m a fan of his and yet his nice guy act does feel just like an ‘act’ – and indeed, at around that time he was appearing in all sorts of things like the fairly violent war movie The Cross of Lorraine, which I will always remember for the incredibly gory throat slashing exit of the Peter Lorre character (still cut on TV screenings I noted recently). I haven’t seen him in Black Hand though – any good do you know? It’s out from Warner Archive …
            Black Hand

          • Colin says:

            The Black Hand is also out in Spain – http://www.starscafe.com/en/movie/la-mano-negra.aspx – I have it. I haven’t watched it yet, so can’t comment other than to say the PQ looks fine.

          • Good to know about the Spanish release though, thanks very much – I’d much rather go for that than the MOD of course.

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    I wish they were successful in making madcap screwball comedies today. I really enjoy these no end.

    • You and me both, Patti – I did really enjoy Woody Allen’s hommage to the genre, Manhattan Murder Mystery and I always thought, after Two Weeks Notice, that Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock would be perfect in that type of film.

  6. I love Stanwyck films so I’ll have to see if I can find The Mad Miss Manton. Thanks! Also a big fan of William Powell and Myrna Loy ( and Asta )

  7. Skywatcher says:

    THE MAD MISS MANTON and THE EX-MRS BRADFORD are two films that I would really like to see at some point. I’m a huge fan of THE THIN MAN and its sequels. After being rather let down by the original novel, I’ve always felt that Hackett and Goodrich rather than Hammett are the ones really responsible for the film working. The script is a thing of beauty, balancing out the plot and characters whilst filling the whole thing with an enormous amount of humour and sharp dialogue. The screwball comedy thriller moved from the big to little screen quite easily, and not always in the ways that one thinks. HART TO HART is obviously ripped off from the adventures of the Charles’, but THE AVENGERS is also an heir. Blackman and Rigg and Thorson remind one very much of screwball heroines to Macnee’s oddball hero, and Jo Lumley in THE NEW AVENGERS could walk into any 30 or 40s comedy. There’s a series called VEXED which finished recently which is plainly trying to channel the Screwball idea, but never quite manages it. It has the enormous advantage of having Toby Stephens as the hero, but the writing is slightly off. If they can just get that right it might be a great show.

    • Cheers Skywatcher – yes, I agree about Vexed (well, the first series – didn’t bother with the second) – interesting about The Avengers, a good thought definitely (especially on film, after Blackman). Remington Steele (and to an extent its coarser version, Moonlighting) were nice hommages tot he style too.

  8. Colin says:

    Just watched this Sergio, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The style is highly reminiscent of The Thin Man – not least because of the presence of Levene, who I agree is fantastic here – but Stanwyck and Fonda put their own stamp on it. OK, it’s not quite up to the standard of The Lady Eve, but that would be asking a lot of any movie.

    I enjoy this genre of movie a lot, or maybe I should say this mix of genres. I guess the various series that were popular (Chan, The Falcon, Bulldog Drummond, Lone Wolf etc) kind of overtook these movies and basically replaced them. Have you ever seen Anthony Mann’s Two O’Clock Courage? It’s more serious in tone, but it does have a touch of lightness about it.

  9. Kipper says:

    And you know, Hammett before he helped create hardboiled, he was writing comedy of manners and similar fiction for THE SMART SET, Mencken and Nathan’s sibling magazine to BLACK MASK.

  10. Bill says:

    I loved this one and pretty much all of the screwball mysteries I’ve seen thus far. I always like to put in a plug for the series based on Stuart Palmer’s detective, Hildegarde Withers. Six of them in all but the three with Edna May Oliver in the main role are arguably the best. And cheers for TCM, while we’re at it.

    • Thanks Bill – I love the Hildegarde Withers series so all plugs very welcome indeed – indeed, here’s one I prepared earlier when reviewing Murder on the Blackboard. Having said that, these strike me more as comedy thrillers rather than screwball mysteries, a slight distinction I grant you …

  11. Sergio, thanks for an engaging review of a screwball mystery as also for spelling out where a film like this falls. I wasn’t aware of something like pre-code movies of the early 1930s and the film noir movement of the next two decades. Timelines are usually lost on me. You make a sound case for a pinch of comedy and a dash of mystery in THE MAD MISS MANTON which, given its lead pair and a decent plot, should make for good viewing. I have seen Stanwyck and Fonda separately, more of the latter, though, and never together.

    • Thanks Prashant – the three Stanwyck and Fonda movies are all worth seeing though THE LADY EVE is undoubtedly a screwball comedy classic. It was one of several films made in a very compressed period by Preston Sturges, who in just a few years at Paramount wrote and directed half a dozen quite extraordinary films. If you can track down any of his late 30s/early 40s comedies you really should make the effort – the others include SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, THE PALM BEACH STORY, THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO – all classics along with THE LADY EVE.

  12. Track down… yes, that’s exactly what I’ll have to do, Sergio, now that TCM seems to have abandoned us. Strangely, VCDs and DVDs of early Hollywood films are often available in select retail outlets here and, I think, I might get lucky there. The VCDs (yes, we still get them!) are no good on account of bad prints. TCM did host William Powell day-long festival on more than one occasion (and Barbara Stanwyck too, I’m sure) but it was never possible to watch all those movies on a working day. Whenever possible I watch snatches of old films on YouTube and elsewhere; perhaps, I ought to start downloading them and THE LADY EVE seems like a good film to start with.

    • Ah, so TCM really is gone for good then? Sorry to hear it Prashant. LADY EVE is wonderfully funny – like a lot of classic screwball comedies, like BRINGING UP BABY, it delights in making people look ridiculous, which can grate some viewers, but as long as you can hang on to the romantic underpinning it all makes sense (no matter how insane the plot gets!).

  13. Skywatcher says:

    What exactly do you think is the difference between a comedy thriller and a screwball mystery? There must be one, although I’m not quite sure what it is. Screwball comedy really requires a battling romantic couple (BRINGING UP BABY, THE LADY EVE etc), but the premier screwball mystery is THE THIN MAN. One of the most endearing things about the Charles’ is that they plainly love one another, get on well, and don’t indulge in the sort of crazed arguments and fights that normally define the screwball couple. What do you think?

    • I think the battling romantic couple of fairly crucial – Stanley Cavell christened the classic screwball as a ‘comedy of remarriage’, which I think is a good way of putting it in many cases as the behaviour can be so extreme that it only really becomes palatable if you buy-in to the idea of a solid, underlying romance at its core between the usually sparring protagonists. Mad Miss Manton is actually more of a screwball than The Thin Man in the sense that the comedy situations are more strident and exaggerated and I suppose I think of the Charlie Chan, Saint and Falcon films (etc) as thrillers with strong comedic overtones. But the comedy is never so nutty (and romantic) as to fir in the screwball category. The Thin Man is a classic movie and is maybe only on the edge of screwball really, being also right at the start of the genre (it is certainly not as wacky as any of the main examples) so should be treated a bit indulgently.

  14. Bill Selnes says:

    I do not often watch vintage movies but of those I watch I like comedies and musicals the best. Miss Manton sounds well worth watching. I will keep an eye out for it on the 200 plus channels we get by satellite.

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