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