Some films we watch just for fun. The Mad Miss Manton is very enjoyable through repeated viewings.
The film is a hybrid, mixing genres: mystery, screwball comedy, social satire. It’s about the Manhattan rich, on the one hand, and working stiffs, on the other. It’s about a romantic accommodation between these two groups. It ends, once the convoluted (and irrelevant) murder mystery is solved, with an air of impending marriage circulating around the two lead characters: a madcap debutante, who investigates a murder (abetted by a swarm of girlfriends from her social circle) simply to prove she isn’t idle and addle-brained, and a newspaper columnist, who openly looks forward to living on his wife’s money. It is the first comic pairing, besides, of two glorious actors, Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, who always declared Stanwyck his favorite female screen partner—a refreshing change from all those diplomatic actors who won’t announce their choice of this in public. The two went on to make the brilliant Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941) and the tepid You Belong to Me (Wesley Ruggles, 1941). The quality of The Mad Miss Manton falls halfway in between.
Both Stanwyck and Fonda are intermittently hilarious as Melsa Manton and Peter Ames. Their skill, sparkle and charm are the main attractions. There’s a wonderful scene where Hattie McDaniel, playing Melsa’s bossy maid, Hilda, warns Ames that if he comes through the apartment door he’ll get a pitcherful of water in his face. With Hilda offscreen and the camera fixed on Ames, who crosses the threshold, the next thing we see is a sopping wet Peter Ames. Light entertainment doesn’t get much better than this.
Sam Levene recycles his performance from After the Thin Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1936). The Jewish police detective he plays this time is named Mike Brent. (Levene is always a bit tiresome.) The director, New Yorker Leigh Jason, who was Leigh Jacobson before he changed his name in the 1920s when he switched from screenwriting to directing, knows about such judicious assimilation. Jason, who is spry and visually gifted, would direct the popular television series Richard Diamond, Private Detective, which introduced us to Mary Moore, before she added the Tyler, as Sam, a voice and a pair of gams: the telephone operator whose face the camera never showed.
With Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) still ahead, Philip G. Epstein wrote the witty script (along with uncredited collaborators Fred F. Finklehoffe, Arthur Kober, John Monks, Jr., and Hal Yates) from an original screen story by Wilson Collison—doubtless a pseudonym inspired by Wilkie Collins. (I may be wrong here; for years I assumed that Hermes Pan wasn’t a real name either.) The gorgeously diffuse, luxuriant and ominous black-and-white cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca, who went on to photograph two masterpieces of screen terror: Jacques Tourneur’s The Cat People (1942) and Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1946).
The Mad Miss Manton is an eminently likeable film.
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