Saturday, September 2, 2017

Stubs - The Mad Miss Manton

The Mad Miss Manton (1938) Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Sam Levene. Directed by Leigh Jason. Screenplay by Philip G. Epstein. Produced by P. J. Wolfson. Run Time: 80 Minutes. USA. Black and White. Screwball Comedy, Mystery

To begin with, if you’re a true-believer that fur is murder, then you should skip this film and this review. The film takes place at a time when that was not the concept and rich women, which this film is also full of, wore fur coats as part of their regular wardrobe. You can’t revisionist a movie, so the furs are there for all to see. So, last chance if you’re going to be bothered.

Okay, you’ve been warned!

By the late 1930s, Barbara Stanwyck was already a big star, having appeared in Night Nurse (1931), Baby Face (1933) and Stella Dallas (1937). But she was not RKO's first choice to play the lead in the film. They originally wanted Irene Dunne or Kathrine Hepburn. The latter turned it down, having only recently appearing in another Screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938), a film that didn’t really do all that well at the box office and wasn’t anxious to make another one. Stanwyck, who had a non-exclusive deal with RKO, was already on suspension there and made the film to fulfill her requirements.

Henry Fonda, a stage actor, had only been in films since 1935’s The Farmer Takes a Wife. Up until now, his best-known film may have been Jezebel (1938), in which he played opposite Bette Davis. At this point in his career, his best-known films were still in front of him. RKO got Fonda on loan from Walter Wagner, the producer he was under contract to in Hollywood.

With a screenplay by Philip G. Epstein, who would later co-write Casablanca (1942), the film went into production on July 8, 1938, and be completed on August 17. The exterior New York scenes were shot at the Columbia Ranch in Burbank, CA, which meant the women would be running around in furs in 100-degree temperatures.

The first time we meet Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) is when she gets home at three in the morning. The doorman for her building is waiting for her with her dogs that she wants to take for a walk. While they’re near a Subway construction site, Manton hears the door on a townhouse nearby and sees someone she knows, Ronnie Belden (William Corson), running towards a car and speeding away.

Melsa knows the house and curious as to what Ronnie was running from, Melsa ties up her dogs and goes up the stairs to investigate for herself. The lights are out and there doesn’t seem to be anyone inside. On the floor, she finds a diamond pendant, which she picks up and puts in the pocket of the cloak she’s wearing. In an inner room, she finds the body of George Lane, one of the owners, lying on the floor.

Still in her costume. Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) brings the police to the crime scene.

Frightened, she runs from the room, but her cloak gets caught in the door. She struggles but decides to leave it. Underneath, it is revealed she’s wearing a Bo-peep sort of costume, left over from the party she had attended earlier. Running down to a call box, she summons the police. Led by 
Lieutenant Mike Brent (Sam Levene), the police arrive, but don’t believe her at first; Melsa has a reputation that precedes her. They follow her back to the building, but there is no cloak and no body.

Melsa is part of a group of similar women, which The Morning Clarion dubs "Park Avenue Pranksters”. The editor of the paper, Peter Ames (Henry Fonda), has no patience for their antics and the paper publishes an editorial referring to the events as a hoax and assailing the group for their antics, feeling there is no place for them during the Depression. When she enters Peter’s office, she slaps the first man she sees, Peter’s Secretary (Vinton Hayworth), before asking if he’s Peter. When he answers “No” she slaps Peter, who slaps her back, “To complete the circle.” But Melsa is not through as Mr. Spengler, the Process Server (Irving Bacon), serves notice that she is filing a $1 million libel lawsuit against him and the paper.

Melsa and her fur-wearing band of Pranksters.

That evening, much to the chagrin of her maid Hilda (Hattie McDaniels), Melsa brings together her seven society girlfriends, the members of the Pranksters: Helen Frayne (Frances Mercer), Dora Fenton (Catherine O'Quinn), Gloria Hamilton (Kay Sutton), Lee Wilson (Ann Evers), Pat James (Whitney Bourne), Myra Frost (Linda Terry) and Kit Beverly (Vicki Lester). All are fur-clad, which is sort of their uniform throughout the film.

They decide that in order to save their reputations, they have to help Melsa out and go to investigate the alleged crime scene. But as they’re leaving, they find Melsa’s cloak stabbed into the front door with a knife and a note of warning.

The girls search the crime scene before Peter shows up.

But the girls continue with their mission. At the scene of the crime, one of them thinks she finds something, which doesn’t turn out to be anything.

Helen Frayne: Look! I found a bloodstain!
Dora Fenton: How can that be blood, it's blue!
Gloria Hamilton: Maybe he shot Mrs. Astor.

Peter shows up there as well, but the Pranksters attack him, tying him up and putting a gag in his mouth before they leave him there.

Next, the group goes to Ronnie Belden’s. But once again, there doesn’t seem to be anyone home. Melsa does recover the jeweled broach and they find a match for the knife in Melsa’s door in Ronnie’s kitchen, leading them to suspect he is behind the murder. They decide to leave, but Pat, who is hungry, refuses to go until she finds something to eat. She’s already cut the bread she intends to use and when she goes to the icebox she doesn’t find food, but rather Belden’s body, which has been stuffed in there.

They take Ronnie Belden's body out of the icebox and to Peter's couch.

To prove her point, Melsa and her gang take Belden’s body back to Peter’s office, where they leave it. Lt. Brent interrogates her about the body at the Clarion, that is until Peter calls her attorney. But during interrogation, Melsa admits to having the broach, a detail that Brent doesn’t let pass. As soon as she and her cohorts are outside the Clarion, he arrests her for their possession. He plans to take her downtown using Ronnie’s car and tells her to sit in the rumble seat. That’s where they discover George Lane’s body, which has been stuffed in there.

Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) and Lieutenant Mike Brent (Sam Levene) are outplayed by Melsa.

George was supposedly out of town for the past week. His wife is, of course, a suspect, but no one has seen her since the day of the murder. The Pranksters decide to descend on the charity ball the new widow is also co-sponsoring, as do Brent and Peter. The latter even goes to Melsa’s apartment with hopes of accompanying her. He insists on going in, even after Hilda follows her boss’ instructions and dumps a vase of water on him. But Melsa is adamant about going with her own date.

Hilda (Hattie McDaniels) follows orders and throws water into Peter's face.

But at the party, she sees Brent and Peter talking and tries her best to nonchalantly eavesdrop as they discuss Lane’s life insurance policy. To confuse things, his wife Sheila is not the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, his business partner Mr. Thomas is and the latter is going broke.

Melsa decides to investigate further, so she grabs fellow prankster Helen and sneaks over to Lane's brokerage firm. But Peter is already there and he’s brought with him a professional safecracker. In the company safe, they find incriminating papers about Sheila's first husband, criminal Eddie Norris (Stanley Ridges), who then shows up with a gun. Peter manages to overwhelm Eddie and the police take him into custody.

But Eddie’s girlfriend, Frances Glesk (Penny Singleton), comes to see Melsa and tells her that Eddie loves her and provides him an alibi, even though she claims it’s also enough to get him convicted. They were at a hockey game together at Madison Square Garden on the night of the Lane murder and were only separated for a ten-minute intermission, which she fears would be construed as enough time to have committed the murder of George Lane. The Pranksters agree to help, but before they can leave, Peter comes over to celebrate. He’s gotten a raise of $25 for catching a murderer and wants to share his new bounty with Melsa. When Frances tries to confront Peter, Melsa intercepts and introduces her as Doris’ out of town cousin.

Melsa does her best to get Peter out of the apartment, but no sooner has the door closed behind him then he comes back inside to use the phone. He calls to talk to Lt. Brent having figured out that Frances is not a cousin. But the girls unplug the phone and then gang up on him. They knock him down and then tie him up in Melsa’s bed. Before they leave, Melsa takes his pants.

For a second time, Peter gets tied up by Melsa and her friends.

The Pranksters then try to see if it’s possible to get from the Madison Square Garden to Lane’s townhouse. They try all available means of transportation, but cannot make it back and forth in under ten minutes.

Melsa, as a way of getting back at Peter, gives the story to a rival paper, the New York Star, whose editor (Paul Everton) offers her a job as a reporter if she ever wants one. But Melsa is in a hurry to get down to the District Attorney’s office to stop the injustice she sees is about to happen.

When she gets there, Eddie is already inside, but the District Attorney’s secretary (Grady Sutton) refuses to let her in. She manages, unbeknownst to him, to pin a copy of the Star’s front page to the back of his suit jacket, so when he goes in to deliver a file, Brent notices the paper, while Eddie tells them that he’s gone straight after getting out of prison and is working on the new subway project.

Melsa goes to the DA's office with evidence she thinks will free Eddie. The DA (Robert
Middlemass) does not look amused. Neither does his secretary (Grady Sutton).

Peter is not as upset about the disruption as the District Attorney (Robert Middlemass) or Brent only that she gave it to a rival paper and could cost him his job. But as much as Peter might be upset with her, he realizes that he’s in love with her as well.

Three of the Pranksters wait for their marching orders from Melsa.

Next Melsa brings together her Pranksters to search for Sheila Lane, who hasn’t been seen since her husband’s murder. They have already determined that Sheila uses a particular hair color to maintain her red hair, so they fan out to look for her; find the hair color and you’ll find the woman. The meeting is broken up when Hilda comes in to turn down Melsa’s bed for the night. But while she’s preparing the bed, the phone rings and Bat Regan (Paul Guilfoyle) tells Hilda to tell Melsa to stop her investigation.

Hilda calls the Clarion to tell Peter what happened and even though his publisher is telling him his place is behind his desk, Peter rushes over to Melsa’s. Even though she doesn’t want him to, he decides to stay the night to watch her. He tries to give Hilda a gun, but she runs off.

Melsa makes smoking in bed look glamorous.

While she’s lying in bed, Melsa asks for a cigarette and she and Peter talk about his past love when he was five and their shared fear of heights. He confesses to her that he’s worried about her and they come back to their impasse when he asks who is threatening her. She tries to kick him out when one of the Pranksters call, having found Sheila, who is staying at the Hotel Ashton under the name Sharon Lester. She tries to go meet her down on the street, but Peter follows her down, telling her not to go out before the police arrive. Just as they exit onto the sidewalk, Lt. Brent arrives. But that doesn’t stop Bat from taking pot shots at her from a moving car, though Peter is the one who gets shot. Brent returns fire, killing the driver and crashing the car. Bat is arrested. They find money that Bat threw out of the car, money he got from Lane. He claims it was won gambling, but Brent suspects it was blackmail.

Peter is hospitalized, though his condition is not considered life-threatening. In fact, he is given a steak dinner while he’s in bed. Melsa comes to visit him and Brent tells him to play up his condition in hopes of getting more information out of her. Brent hides the tray with the steak under the bed and Peter does his best to sound like he’s on death’s door.

Peter pretends to be dying so he and Brent can get information from her.

Melsa, at first, falls for it, telling them Bat took a shot at her because they were looking for Sheila Lane. She tells Brent where Sheila is staying and her aka. Brent runs out to call for backup. Only when Melsa sits down does she see the tray of food under the bed. She then picks up the fork from the plate and pretends that there is more that she didn’t tell Brent.

Melsa Manton: Remember when I went into Ronnie Beldon's apartment?
Peter Ames: Yes dear.
Melsa Manton: When I went into the bathroom, I found something.
Peter Ames: In the bathroom?
Melsa Manton: Yes, floating around in a foot of water in the bathtub.
Peter Ames: Louder, dear, I can hardly hear you.
Melsa Manton: [ominously] I'll come closer.
Peter Ames: Tell me dear, what was it?
Melsa Manton: [yelling] The Normandie, you black-hearted faker, in full sail!

She then stabs him in the leg with the fork.

At police headquarters, Brent interrogates Sheila Lane. She tells him that she turned to Bat, a man she had worked for and he gave her money and put her up. She admits to having an affair with Ronnie, which kept him from going to the police when he found the body. She had gone there, too, which is why her brooch was there. Ronnie must have taken the body while Melsa was calling the police, but he was killed before he could dispose of it. Brent accuses Sheila of helping Ronnie kill her husband and then killing him.

After Sheila is taken to jail, Brent calls Melsa and Peter into his office with a proposition. Brent will release Sheila from custody if Melsa will agree to be a decoy. They’ll plant a story about her finding new evidence hoping it would bring out the real killer. Peter would be with her in public and there would be police around. She reluctantly agrees. We watch as all of the suspects read the paper.

Peter takes Melsa to a restaurant where the police are undercover.

They go out to an Argentinian-themed restaurant. There is a heavy police presence, including the doorman, the waiter and a couple of the musicians in the club’s band. They dance, with Peter holding her too close at first and then her holding onto him for protection. Despite the police, a gun sticks out between some curtains and a shot is fired at their table. No one is hit and the assailant escapes. The only evidence left behind is a piece of tar paper, which Melsa recognizes. Excusing herself, she calls for the Pranksters to meet in her apartment and then escapes through a window.

The waiter is also an undercover police officer.

Instead of going home, Melsa goes back to the subway construction site, where there are rolls of tar paper. She ventures down inside where she sees a man who appears to be holding a gun. But the gun turns out to be his pipe and the man turns out to be the Subway Watchmen (John Qualen). She bluffs that she’s a stockholder. She asks him about an electric handcar on the track and he admits that it could go to Madison Square Garden in ten minutes.

Turns out Eddie (Stanley Ridges) isn't as innocent as Melsa thought.

When she gets back to her apartment, Eddie is waiting for her and pushes his way into her apartment. He tries to convince her not to be frightened. She tries to pretend she’s not and that she likes him and that he helped her girlfriend Frances. But Eddie says Frances is only a friend and that the only woman he really ever loved was Sheila. He recalls how he would think about her while he was in prison, but he was still happy she had married well. But he heard that Lane used to beat her and that he wanted to kill him as a result. Ronnie had seen him, so Eddie had to kill him too. He then tells her that he’ll have to kill her.

Lt. Brent and the Pranksters are there to stop Eddie from leaving.

The phone rings and he lets her answer so Hilda won’t come in. It’s Peter calling to check on her. After the call, Eddie tries to escort her out when Peter comes in, wanting to hear her say she loves him again. Peter doesn’t know what’s going on until she fills him in. He takes them both hostage, but down in the lobby, Brent and his men are waiting for them. At that moment, the Pranksters arrive in force. There is a standoff, but a police sharpshooter guns Eddie down.

Peter and Melsa arrange to get married right away, which has Brent calling for bicarbonate of soda.
Released on October 21, 1938, the film was not a huge success by major studio standards of the day, 
though it did make a profit of $88,000.

The idea of mixing comedy and mystery had been around since 1930's Ghost Parade and was pretty well-established by The Thin Man (1934) and its subsequent sequels, so this film wasn’t really breaking new ground. That doesn’t mean that it is not funny on its own.

A lot of the credit for the success of The Mad Miss Manton has to go to Julius Epstein’s screenplay, which is filled with a lot of very clever lines of dialogue and keeps the atmosphere very light throughout, even during what might be darker moments in a more serious take. There are moments when a little bit of the time in which the film was made comes through. While no one mentions Nazis, which were already in control in Germany, there are a couple of references to communism and not in a good way.

Plot points come along as fast as the dialogue with characters being introduced and sometimes discarded at a lightning pace. There is a lot to keep track of so the film does demand the viewer to pay attention.

One of the actresses with some of the better lines was Hattie McDaniel’s Hilda. Say what you may about racism during the 1930s, Hilda was free to speak her mind to her boss, Melsa. They had a very interesting relationship, part maid, part mother, part confidant, you get the impression that there wasn’t anything Hilda wouldn’t do for Melsa if asked, even throwing water on Peter when he comes calling. McDaniel was a prominent black actress of the time, even though they were mostly subservient roles to white bosses. She would be the first Black actress to win an acting Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone with The Wind (1939).

The leads, Stanwyck and Fonda, are both very good in their roles; in fact, it is hard to think of any films that either was bad in, though not every film either was in would be considered great or a classic. They seem to have a fairly good chemistry, though they would only make two more films together, The Lady Eve (1941) and You Belong to Me (1941), which were both romantic comedies, though The Lady Eve, like The Mad Miss Manton, was also a Screwball comedy.

Stanwyck and her Pranksters were modern women, in that they seemed to call their own shots. Oh, there were men around, but these women were not controlled by them. They do have the wealth to maintain themselves. There is a certain hive mentality at work, but they seem to be looking for a good time on their own terms. Stanwyck is a true star and vivacious on the screen. You want to watch her and it is like she wants you watching as well.

Fonda’s character is a little more generic. A young man on the rise, a newspaper editor who, at the beginning at least, seems a little idealized. He finds the Pranksters, given the state of the world around them, to be quite frivolous. Even falling in love doesn’t change his attitude, though, in the end, he seems to be willing to drop his worldview for love and her money.

Another actor that always seems to give a good performance and does here as well is Sam Levene who plays Lt. Brent, the often-frustrated detective investigating the murders. While Brent is always jumping to the wrong conclusions, Levene does so with a certain comedic flair. Levene who split his time between Broadway and Hollywood appeared in such films as Golden Boy (1939); Shadow of the Thin Man (1941); The Killers (1946); Brute Force (1947); Crossfire (1947) and ...And Justice for All (1979).

Eyes of a killer. 

I would be remiss in not mentioning Stanley Ridges, who plays Eddie Norris. He is a true psychotic, who loves to kill but still feels a little odd about the thought of killing Melsa, though he has every intention of doing it. Not the sort of character you see so well-defined in a comedy.

The Mad Miss Manton reminded me of another Stanwyck film, Witness to Murder (1954). In this film, Stanwyck plays a shop girl, or rather woman, who looks out her apartment window one night and sees a neighbor Albert Richter (George Sanders) kill a woman. Like Mad Miss Manton, when the police arrive, there is no body and no one believes her. She does find an ally in Police Lt. Lawrence Mathews (Gary Merrill). While romance is not so assured, the murderer is eventually captured. But rather than a comedic touch, the film takes a much more serious look at its subject matter.

The Mad Miss Manton is not a well-known film, but it is one that should you have a chance to watch it, you should take it. Like all screwball comedies, you have to be prepared for the dialogue to come fast, but your attention will be rewarded.

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