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In The Lady Eve (1941), co-stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda play out Preston Sturges' sparkling dialogue and witty screwball situations in one of the most notable pairings in the genre; arguably, their onscreen chemistry is the best in any Sturges film. The Mad Miss Manton (1938) was released three years earlier; it has been called a dress rehearsal for the later classic, but it can also stand on its own as a delightful and neglected entry in the comedy-mystery subgenre.
Park Avenue heiress Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) is walking her poodles in the wee hours of the morning, when she sees a man dart out of luxury apartment building on 14th Street and speed off in a convertible. Curious, she investigates and discovers a dead man lying in a pool of blood. When the police arrive ten minutes later, they meet Miss Manton on the street below. Lt. Mike Brent (Sam Levene) and his men have a difficult time believing Manton's story - for one thing, she is dressed as Little Bo Peep under her overcoat, having just come from a costume party, and more importantly, the body has disappeared without a trace. Newspaper editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) sees this latest incident as another in a series of pranks that Manton and her debutante girlfriends pull to gain publicity (in the name of charity). Melsa goes to Ames' office, slaps him, and announces her intention to sue the paper for libel. To the bemusement and irritation of her maid Hilda (Hattie McDaniel), Melsa and her seven society girlfriends ignore anonymous threats while investigating the murder, dragging Ames into the proceedings as well.
Barbara Stanwyck became involved in the RKO semi-screwball comedy when Katherine Hepburn turned it down. Hepburn had already appeared in an RKO comedy earlier the same year, in Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938). That film didn't exactly set the box-office on fire, so Hepburn was not anxious to make a follow-up. Stanwyck, who was on suspension at RKO and in need of a film assignment at the time, inherited the role. For the male lead, Henry Fonda was borrowed from Walter Wanger Productions. As Axel Madsin wrote in his biography Stanwyck, Fonda "...hated his role, hated the script's sneering repartee with his leading lady, and tried his best to ignore everybody." Fonda himself later said, "I was so mad on this picture - I resented it." The script, written by Philip G. Epstein from an unpublished novel by Wilson Collison, is clearly meant as a female star vehicle, and Fonda probably did not appreciate the scenes in which he was beaten up by eight flighty debutantes!
Director Leigh Jason keeps the comedy elements of The Mad Miss Manton sprightly, but he is also willing to let the mystery angle have some bite. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca (who was to later help define the look of Film Noir in Out of the Past - 1947), is appropriately dark and ominous during the menacing scenes. Jason also had a large cast to contend with; as Ella Smith writes in Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck, "...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...it was a challenge just to keep them straight. There was a temptation to put numbers on their backs, but Jason resisted and gave them bits of business that would keep them in the scene." Indeed, one of the socialites is forever finding something to eat, thinking nothing of eating a sandwich in a kitchen in which a corpse has just fallen from an icebox. Another of the debutantes, Dora, is forever politically-minded; in one scene Melsa is attempting to have the girls split up to search a house. She assigns Helen to go upstairs, upon which Helen replies, "Oh, no! I was never much of an individualist. If the upstairs has to be searched, we'll search it together." At this, Dora says, "Why, that's communism!"
Filming on The Mad Miss Manton was sometimes a trying experience. Exteriors of New York City were shot on the Columbia Ranch in Burbank, California in mid-summer, forcing the debutantes to run around in fur stoles in 100-degree heat. There was also a one-week shutdown of production when Stanwyck took ill. Director Jason had the highest regard for his leading lady though; he was later quoted as saying, "I've worked with perhaps eight or nine hundred actors and actresses. Barbara Stanwyck is the nicest."
In 1938, African-American character actress Hattie McDaniel was only one year away from her signature role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939). In The Mad Miss Manton she plays Hilda, the house servant to the title character, but she is not exactly the subservient type: in fact, she gets in several great lines making fun of the flighty debutantes. At one point, Miss Manton mildly berates Hilda for being rude to one of her guests; "I didn't ask her up" is Hilda's reply. One of the socialites says, "Comes the revolution, and we'll start being exploited by our help." Melsa shoots a glance at Hilda and says, "In my home, the revolution is here." A few eyebrows were raised when Hilda, on standing orders from Melsa, tosses water in the face of Peter Ames when he shows up at the door. Hilda approves of him as a suitor though, and says, "It was orders. But I used distilled water!" No doubt such memorable supporting roles as the one she played in The Mad Miss Manton helped Hattie McDaniel win the Oscar® the following year.
Producer: P. J. Wolfson
Director: Leigh Jason
Screenplay: Philip G. Epstein, Story by Wilson Collison
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Film Editing: George Hively
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Melsa Manton), Henry Fonda (Peter Ames), Sam Levene (Lieutenant Mike Brent), Frances Mercer (Helen Frayne), Stanley Ridges (Edward 'Eddie' Norris), Whitney Bourne (Pat James), Vickie Lester (Kit Beverly), Ann Evers (Lee Wilson), Catherine O'Quinn (Dora Fenton), Hattie McDaniel (Hilda).
by John M. Miller