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Movie Critique – The Mad Miss Manton

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: It is a movie for every kind of fan out there - has fashion, mystery, pretty girls, dashing men, murder, love and triumph. Above all thoroughly enjoyable. For all those old movie fanatics this is a treat to every one of their senses.

The Mad Miss Manton is a 1938 American screwball comedy-mystery film starring Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in the lead cast. Directed by Leigh Jason and Produced by P. J. Wolfson, the central plot revolves around our heroine with her debutante girlfriends trying to find a killer amongst sipping cocktails, eating bonbons and flirting with our hero.

Melsa Manton (portrayed by Barbara Stanwyck) finds a body in an abandoned building. But when she returns with the police the body and all evidence surrounding it disappears. The police ignore her considering this as one of her pranks, as she & her friends are notorious pranksters. Peter Ames (portrayed by Henry Fonda), editor of The Morning Clarion gets sued by Melsa for his article about her prank on the dead body. Now both try to find the dead body and the murderer in the process, although with different goals - while Melsa wants to prove that this wasn’t a prank, Ames actually wants to solve the case.

A few weeks ago I posted about 1944 American film noir Murder, My Sweet. In the beginning of the film when the character Phillip Marlowe (portrayed by Dick Powell) is walking the streets, he passes a theater showing two RKO films - 1938 Gangster's Boy and 1938 The Mad Miss Manton. I was looking forward to watch these movies. At least one I am down with now. :P

Stanwyck and Fonda appeared in three films, of which this was the first. The other two pairings were 1941 American screwball comedy The Lady Eve and 1941 American romantic comedy film You Belong to Me. Having seen Stanwyck in a few of the serious films, this comedy side of her was new for me. I loved her in these comic flicks as well.

Sparks fly between Stanwyck's Manton and Fonda's Ames from the very beginning; first hate and then turns to love. Their chemistry is supreme, impeccable timing of comedy between them and the romantic gestures seem very natural. 

There is however comedy at every turn of the page by every character including in the film. One moment you are laughing out loud, the next you are worried for our heroine, the very next you feel sorry for our hero. A mixture of funny emotions with tons of laughs all through the film.

Watching Miss Manton's debutante friends going daringly into dark corners to find out clues for her is pretty cool, specially with all their sparkly dresses, expensive furs and impeccable makeup and manicures. These certainly set a stage for all those amateur investigative women we come across in many books but they add a flair of comedy and fashion to their style. Go Debutantes, Go!

Checkout the opening credits. Every page is lit by a flashlight. You can see a hand picking up a flashlight and turning it on before the first credit can even start.

It is a movie for every kind of fan out there - has fashion, mystery, pretty girls, dashing men, murder, love and triumph. Above all thoroughly enjoyable. For all those old movie fanatics this is a treat to every one of their senses.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. In one of the scenes set in a nightclub, the stairway set has been previously used in another of RKO's 1938 screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. 

b. One of the characters, Vickie Lester (portraying the role of Pat Beverly, one of Melsa's friends and has love for food), got her screen name from Janet Gaynor's character in the original 1937 film A Star is Born. However, her stardom didn’t take off as expected and after a few films she retired from acting, and had her own dress making shop. Her original name was Dorothy Gertrude Day. More about her here.. I wonder if that dress shop still exists.

c. Penny Singleton (portraying the role of Frances Gelsk) can be later seen in the Blondie film series that were released from 1938 thru 1943. She had dyed her hair blonde for the role.

d. We see the posters of the following in the film - poster of the 1937 musical comedy A Damsel in Distress appears on a wall; poster of the 1938 romantic comedy film Having Wonderful Time is seen in front of the theater marquee. You can also see Lucille Ball's name on the marquee above the poster. Rest of the details are not clear other than "JR" right before Lucille's name. Since the poster is of Having Wonderful Time I presume the marquee is announcing the movie and it's star cast Lucille Ball and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. In the beginning of the film, Melsa is seen using a lighter when she enters into the abandoned building. However, during the middle of the film in a romantic scene, she tells Peter that "she's had dozens of cigarette lighters but none of them worked." 

b. When the police cars are running to the scene of murder at the beginning of the film, they pass a street with store signs such as "Jones Drug Co" and "Barber Shop", but only the signs are backwards (mirror images). Perhaps the reel was reversed when being edited and stitched together.


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