This post is part of Movies Silently’s Sleuthathon. Check out other entries on her site!
Imagine pitching this story idea: a Paris Hilton type with a pack of tiny dogs solves a crime New York cops can’t. It sounds like a Beyond Balderdash card, doesn’t it? That couldn’t possibly be a real movie plot. Luckily for us, it is. The Mad Miss Manton stars Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, but as you might guess, it’s not of the same caliber as their later pairing. The mystery is ridiculous, the plot convoluted, and the character development all over the place. But who cares? Just let the film be what it wants to be: crazy fun.
Melsa Manton is a society girl known for “pranks” she claims are in the name of charity. She and her bevy of like-minded friends are suspected of constant mischief, and when Manton finds a body that disappears before help arrives, the police and newspaper editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) cry foul. Manton sets out to solve the crime to redeem the reputation of her crew, and along the way, Ames falls in love with her. As you might expect, this loopy story leads to some sticky problems for the filmmakers, but never fear: Philip Epstein is the primary writer, so some of those problems end up being hysterical to watch, including….
The Heroine with the Vanishing Trait—and Pets
Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress. She can portray a character who is terrified (Sorry, Wrong Number), sinister (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), funny (Ball of Fire), or heartbroken (Stella Dallas). But there’s one thing this tough Brooklyn-born actress could not do, and that’s act like a flake. The problem is, without that trait, the beginning of the film is incomprehensible, even in screwball land. You simply can’t buy this woman with a bunch of precious dogs, prancing around the city on pranks or building mansions for her pooches, as Paris Hilton did.
To make the “madness” of Manton plausible, you would need an actress who could play naïve, who could be as trusting as Carole Lombard’s character in My Man Godfrey or Goldie Hawn’s in Seems Like Old Times. Only an actress like that could have pulled off a heroine who is not lacking in intelligence, but is lacking in cynicism. At first, therefore, I thought Stanwyck miscast.
Clearly, I underestimated the audacity of Epstein and his uncredited cowriters as they developed Wilson Collison’s story. Fewer than 10 minutes into the film, Epstein conveniently erases the airhead tendencies that he created in the opening scenes. Now, it seems, Manton is simply misunderstood (forget the film’s title). From the moment she’s on the case, Stanwyck is in familiar territory, fast-acting and thinking, with the assurance she’ll bring to her reporters in Meet John Doe and Christmas in Connecticut. To illustrate this change in Manton’s character, the screenwriters eliminate all of her dogs. Poof! No Fifis in her apartment. No Fidos tracking her along her crime-solving path.
I think I fell for this movie when they vanished. It reminded me of the kind of bravado later soap opera writers would emulate in developing their narratives, with conveniently erased back stories and children growing up at Chia Pet speed.
A Bewildering Plot
The Mad Miss Manton is only 80 minutes long, yet I could have sworn it ended twice before it actually did. I felt a little like I used to reading Agatha Christie novels, when she conveniently left out information I needed to solve the crime myself. Who are all these suspects? Why do some of them appear on the screen for a few minutes, then reappear twenty minutes later, without my understanding anything new about them? There are multiple crime scenes, attempts on Manton’s life, ranting scenes by the police lieutenant, a hospital visit, an effort to lure in the killer, and much clue following. And, of course, multiple clips of the suspects that are meant to be illuminating/mysterious. But every time the chaos begins to overwhelm viewers, Manton’s friends rush in and save the film, which brings me to….
An Amazing Crew
I love the “Park Avenue pranksters,” the group of women whose help Manton enlists to solve the crime. My favorite is Pat (Whitney Bourne), who keeps stopping to snack at the crime scenes, à la Shawn Spencer.
Who can beat a troop of friends, armed with flashlights and ermine, creeping through the window of a house the cops have inconveniently locked?
“I found a blood stain,” says one woman, perching on the floor.
“Oh, how can it be blood? It’s blue,” replies Manton.
“Maybe they shot Mrs. Astor,” retorts her friend.
Most of these accomplices are clever, and all are fun and fabulous company. They seem to live an endless string of parties and sleepovers. Unlike Blair Waldorf’s Gossip Girl minions, however, these women are sweet-natured without sacrificing their blistering wit, as when they mock their ringleader for starting to like Ames:
“You know psychiatrists say hate’s just a step away from love,” says one.
“Yeah, but it’s the lull in between that drives you crazy,” replies another.
The film suffers every time the crew leaves the screen.
Distracting Minor Characters
I did not feel the same delight in encountering Manton’s maid, Hilda (Hattie McDaniel). While her sassy replies to her employer are sometimes amusing, it’s difficult to view McDaniel in a maid costume without picturing Mammy from Gone with the Wind, the part she’d win an Oscar for a year later. While this is not the type of servile performance the actress would later be asked to defend, the role is not as progressive (and therefore her part less funny) than we might have hoped.
The police lieutenant (Sam Levene) sometimes distracts from the story as well. Like one of the suspects (Penny Singleton), Levene is stolen straight from After the Thin Man (which tells you how seriously the director, Leigh Jason, and his writers take the crime itself).
Unfortunately, Levene can’t turn off the beleaguered, badgering tone he used in the earlier film. While his attitude toward Manton initially adds to the humor, his grumbling soon becomes tiresome. Nick Charles could be just as withholding with clues as Manton, but never was treated with such disrespect. Wouldn’t the lieutenant’s opinion of her alter when he discovered her sleuthing skills, even with their class and gender differences?
Henry Fonda in Screwball Mode
The only actor who surprised me in this film was Henry Fonda. I’ll admit that I’ve never been a fan; I’d usually rather see someone else in his place: John Garfield in The Grapes of Wrath, Joel McCrea in The Lady Eve. But Fonda is exuberant in The Mad Miss Manton, so at home with the one liners and silly antics that I kept checking the credits to make sure it was the same man. (Interestingly, Fonda himself disliked the part.) He’s surprisingly confident and attractive as Peter Ames, the editor in love with Manton, and it’s hilarious to watch him trying to romance her, while admitting that he’s enough of a pragmatist to appreciate that she’s rolling in it.
The relationship begins in hostility. He’s written an editorial dismissing Manton’s supposedly nonexistent body discovery as one of her group’s “escapades.” She slaps him with her hand and a libel suit on their first meeting. Of course, they start to fall in love from there.
The two take turns outwitting one another in His Girl Friday style (though at a less frantic pace). After Manton agrees to pretend they’re engaged to dupe a suspect, Ames comes to her apartment with champagne to celebrate. “Well, if I want to marry a fortune hunter,” she answers, “I can go to Europe and marry a professional one.”
“I’m determined to make you happy if I have to drag your name through the breach-of-promise courts to do it,” he answers.
It’s startling how suggestive the film is. The two are in her bedroom as she smokes in her nightgown and he gets flustered. She ties him up regularly, and once she even takes off his pants. The love/hate battle between them is exhilarating, and while much of the credit goes to Stanwyck, for once she has an equal sparring partner in Fonda.
As you can tell from my review, this is a far from perfect film. But I would encourage you to embrace it just the same: the disappearing dogs, the ever-changing heroine, the unlikely romance, the bizarre crew, even the occasional joke about communism. It’s a bit “mad,” but it’s a lot of fun.