THE MAD MISS MANTON (1938) B/W 80m dir: Leigh Jason
w/Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Sam Levene, Frances Mercer, Stanley Ridges, Whitney Bourne, Vicki Lester, Ann Evers, Catherine O'Quinn, Linda Terry, Eleanor Hansen, Hattie McDaniel, James Burke, Paul Guilfoyle, Penny Singleton, Leona Maricle, Kay Sutton, Miles Mander, John Qualen, Grady Sutton, Olin Howland
From Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck by Ella Smith: "Stanwyck's next picture --- The Mad Miss Manton --- remains one of the finer examples of 'screwball comedy.' It takes its attempts to solve murder very unseriously.
"In this one, Stanwyck leads a pack of seven 'public-spirited' debutantes through a series of daffy encounters with corpses and police --- playing a character that is best described by the film's much-harassed police chief, Sam Levene: 'She's probably the kinduva dame that'd come back ta haunt me. Otherwise I'd shoot ta kill!'
"Leigh Jason's direction puts the picture together with rapid pace and a clear idea of what it is after. Roy Webb's score and Van Nest Polglase's art work are tasteful. And the film owes a lot to the work of Nicholas Musuraca, a most gifted cameraman, whose eerie shadows provide fitting atmosphere.
"The Mad Miss Manton was shot in the summer of 1938. And Jason (who says 'I've worked with perhaps eight or nine hundred actors and actresses. Barbara Stanwyck is the nicest.') had his hands full with the rest of the cast and some conditions similar to those in the script.
"First, the picture was an exercise in group directing. There were seven lively girls surrounding Stanwyck. And most of them --- except for Frances Mercer, who played the largest of the roles --- had never been before a camera. This made things take longer. In fact, it was a challenge just to keep them straight (there was a temptation to put numbers on their backs, but Jason resisted) and give them bits of business that would keep them in the scene. The fact that some of the outside work was shot on the Warners ranch with fur coats and 100o temperatures did not help either.
"Second, Henry Fonda, who starred opposite Stanwyck --- as the reporter who questions her escapades, and ends up falling for her --- had not fallen for the script. He says: 'I was so mad on this picture. I resented it.' His experience with a character who didn't appeal to him --- and who had to spend time being attacked by eight squealing females --- makes him remember little except his frame of mind, which was none too healthy. Naturally this did not stop a pro like Fonda from doing his usual fine job, but it did interfere with the fun he and Stanwyck would otherwise have had. Fonda says he wasn't receptive to anyone, including Stanwyck, and that later --- when they hit it off during the making of The Lady Eve (because 'as my daughter would put it, we had the same "vibes"') --- Stanwyck reminded him of Manton in a friendly but direct manner: 'You son of a bitch, you didn't pay any attention to me!' (Today this would not happen because Stanwyck remains for Fonda the favorite of all of his leading ladies. He says: 'She is one of the dear people of the world --- a perfect delight to work with. Great in her profession --- not only in comedy but in her ability to tear you apart emotionally.' He adds that there aren't enough superlatives in existence to describe her, and 'I don't know a person who has been so loved by everyone as Stanwyck.')
"For all its differences of ability and opinion, Manton is a successful ensemble film. However, its best moments are --- naturally --- those which bring the pros together. A parody of a death scene is milked to the fullest:
"Fonda has been shot --- with no ill effects --- and is attacking his dinner with gusto in a hospital bed when Levene suggests they pretend he is dying, in order to pry information about the murder from Stanwyck.
"Levene: I told her you were dyin'. She's out there in the corridor cryin' her head off for you. ... In the condition she's in, she'd even tell ya her age if ya asked her.
Stanwyck bursts in weeping, and they go into action. A groaning Fonda requests his 'favorite song' --- 'Home on the Range' --- and policeman James Burke comes through in his finest Brooklynese. Against this, clichés get the works. Stanwyck breaks down and talks --- in one of the funniest line readings of the scene --- and Burke and Levene rush out with their information.
"But then she notices the tray of half-eaten food hidden under the bed, does a double take, catches on, and grabs a fork from it. Holding this behind her back, she baits Fonda:
"Stanwyck: Are you still in pain, sweet?
"Fonda: Oh, it's nothing, nothing --- only when I move. But it's nothing.
"Stanwyck: Peter, perhaps I did wrong in not telling Inspector Brent everything.
"Fonda: You mean you held something back?
"Stanwyck: Ye-e-s, Peter.
"Fonda: Oh, sweet, you're so clever.
"Stanwyck: Remember when I went into Ronnie Belden's apartment?
"Fonda: Yes, dear.
"Stanwyck: When I went into the bathroom? I found something.
"Fonda: In the bathroom?
"Stanwyck: Yes. Floating around in a foot of water in the bathtub.
"Fonda: Louder, dear. I can hardly hear you.
"Stanwyck: (with intent to kill) I'll come closer.
"Fonda: Tell me, dear, what was it?
"Stanwyck: The Normandie, you black-hearted faker, in full sail!
"She gives him a spectacular jab with the fork and leaves.
"You will not find more skillful timing or a better flair for comedy anywhere in the profession than that which characterizes the Stanwyck-Fonda combination. Watching this gifted duo clown, one can't help wishing that they had made more than three films together. (There are two actors who have been the perfect foils for Stanwyck's wit: Fonda and George Brent. Brent provides a bland opponent [in, for example, THE PURCHASE PRICE and BABY FACE] --- Fonda a sharp one. She plays off both with ease.)
"The New York Times observed that
"Seven debs playing Philo Vance are almost as much fun as a barrel of monkeys --- not quite, of course; but fun enough to encourage a visit to the Music Hall's current zoo.
"The ... script is dredged with bright lines and cheerfully absurd situations. The Ames-Manton romance, in the hands of Mr. Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck, is refreshingly natural, considering the unnatural background it moves against. And Leigh Jason's direction has kept suspense and comedy in exactly the right proportion."