Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Classic Films in Focus: THE MAD MISS MANTON (1938)

Although it's not on the same level as their later collaboration, The Lady Eve (1941), The Mad Miss Manton is still an amusing outing for stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. It's a goofy mix of romantic comedy and murder mystery, with Stanwyck leading a pack of socialite sleuths and Fonda falling head over heels as a reporter who gets entangled in the titular Miss Manton's adventures. You won't find a lot of household names here beyond the two leads, but Leigh Jason directs a fairly large cast that includes Sam Levene, Stanley Ridges, Penny Singleton, and the always memorable Hattie McDaniel. Fans of Fonda's funny side will especially appreciate his silly antics in this picture, but Stanwyck's all-girl Scooby gang also proves delightful, even if they're a little too prone to fainting when they find a corpse.

Stanwyck stars as wealthy socialite Melsa Manton, who discovers a murdered man while walking her dogs late one night after her return from a costume party. Her reputation and costume make the cops doubt her report, especially when the corpse in question has disappeared, but Melsa enlists the help of her society girlfriends to search for clues. At the same time, Melsa enters a war with newspaper reporter Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) because of his printed tirades against her and her group, but Peter's ire turns to adoration once he meets Melsa in person, even as he continues to frustrate her schemes. With the suspects and corpses piling up, Melsa and Peter must help the beleaguered Lieutenant Brent (Sam Levene) catch the murderer before Melsa becomes the next victim.

The Mad Miss Manton is not a comic masterpiece, but it moves along briskly and lands enough laughs to be entertaining throughout. It can be hard to differentiate Melsa's gang of friends, who might have more individual development if there were just three or four of them instead of a crowded half dozen. On the plus side, the picture passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test with flying colors as the women scramble to find clues and track suspects. Hattie McDaniel has a much larger role than any of the other supporting women, and she makes the most of it even though she's playing another of her inevitable maid characters. The film does, at least, depict McDaniel's Hilda as a sensible, capable person in contrast to the giddy socialites around her. 

Although Stanwyck's Miss Manton is much saner than the title of the movie implies, she doesn't let anything stop her from pursuing the case, even the death threats the murderer makes to scare her off. She has a general's command over her group of friends, who complain about their lost meals and dates but always follow her orders. Fonda's newspaper reporter is by far the giddier of the pair; he is absolutely smitten from the moment he meets Melsa, which leads him into some truly silly situations. One highlight is the scene in which Peter fakes being on his deathbed in order to trick Melsa into revealing information she has uncovered about the murders. The chemistry Fonda and Stanwyck share here paves the way for the sparks that fly between them in The Lady Eve, and if you enjoy them together in that classic then The Mad Miss Manton is well worth your time.

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda made one additional movie together, the 1941 romantic comedy You Belong to Me. For more of Stanwyck's comedy roles, see Ball of Fire (1941) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). You'll find her solving another comic mystery in Lady of Burlesque (1943). For Fonda's lighter side try The Male Animal (1942), Rings on Her Fingers (1942), and The Magnificent Dope (1942), as well as later career roles in Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) and The Cheyenne Social Club (1970).

Monday, July 10, 2023

A Vivien Leigh Tribute in Stratford-Upon-Avon


As I was walking from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I came across this sweet little tribute to legendary actress Vivien Leigh. Best remembered today for Oscar winning film roles as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Leigh was also a stage actress who starred in productions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Titus Andronicus at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1955. You can learn more about Leigh's connections to Shakespeare in this 2015 post from Sylvia Morris at The Shakespeare Blog. It's clear that someone in the area continues to honor Leigh's memory; one of the two potted plants was a fairly recent arrival and still boasted blooms.

If you're ever in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I highly recommend the backstage tour at the RSC, which includes wonderful stories about classic stars of stage and screen. There's also a free exhibit onsite called "The Play's the Thing," which tells the history of the RSC and features costumes worn by some of the most notable performers to appear there (you will NOT spend a day at the RSC without learning a lot about Judi Dench, but she's fabulous and deserves the attention). You'll also find displays dedicated to Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, both of whom shared the stage with Leigh. Olivier, of course, also shared a turbulent romance with the beautiful actress, who suffered from mental illness and tuberculosis throughout much of her career. If you want to learn more about Leigh and Olivier, check out the excellent blog, Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier, by Kendra Bean.