The Mad Miss Manton (Warner Archive) Review

Before The Lady Eve, there was The Mad Miss Manton. Released by RKO in 1938, this was the first teaming of Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, done about three years before Preston Sturges immortalized the pair in celluloid bronze. Stanwyck and Fonda later made a third picture together, called You Belong to Me, but few bother to remember that one with any affection. Contrast that with The Mad Miss Manton, a screwball comedy so delightful that most anyone with an occasional pulse can enjoy it. Stanwyck is flighty and cute while Fonda provides his usual charm mixed with decency. The murder mystery plot is reminiscent of the various Thin Man movies, though here we have a combative romance angle instead of the already married Charleses and there's less of a cavalcade of potential perpetrators in this film. No final scene gathering up all the suspects in a room to unmask the killer. The Mad Miss Manton is a bit more, well, mad than that formula would allow.

It all starts off with Stanwyck's fun-loving heiress Melsa Manton walking her dog one night in Manhattan. She's going along in an area where some subway station construction is taking place when a man she recognizes runs out of an unlived-in house and into a car. Curious, she steps into the dark house only to find a dead body! Ahhh! Melsa runs out to phone the police, but when they arrive the body is nowhere to be found. This puts Melsa in a bit of pinch since she has a history of similar antics. Her and her socialite friends - a well-adorned posse of poshness - have gained a reputation as being harmless troublemakers who nonetheless act as one big headache to the police. Naturally, then, Lieutenant Brent (Sam Levene) and his boys think this corpse sighting is just another of Melsa's pranks after realizing who she is. There's a nifty scene here where she gets softly interrogated in the manner of "aren't you the one who...?", with Stanwyck finally responding in the affirmative before her questioner even has the chance to finish his sentence.

Meanwhile, Fonda's newspaper editor Peter Ames prints a story the next day attacking Melsa and the ladies for their irresponsible distractions to the police force. After using the slap first, ask questions later approach, she promptly sues him for a cool million dollars and, undeterred, continues the investigation into her very real dead body sighting. From here, we're off. Director Leigh Jason and his team of screenwriters (including future Casablanca scribe Julius G. Epstein) provide a really fast picture. Everything's in, out, move, move move. Dialogue is delivered in fleeting fashion by the game leads and terrific supporting player Levene. The plot zooms, almost beyond the degree of interest which ideally should be invested in a screwball comedy. This is a picture where the credits roll just before the 80-minute mark. There's simply no time to lose. Even the central romance between Stanwyck and Fonda sort of bounces around to establish a nice love-hate relationship for the two.

It's all shot with a surprising level of shadows and intrigue by Nicholas Musuraca, whose work on later RKO pictures like Out of the Past, The Locket, and several of the Val Lewton productions confirmed that he was particularly adept at using dark spaces. The look of the film and a mood which sometimes alternates between a foreboding opportunity for danger and the more expected breezy lightness has inspired some to even call The Mad Miss Manton "screwball noir," a label which seems a tad contrived. If there was a screwball noir, this might be it, but it's far more of the former than the latter. The film was also made prior to the noir cycle gearing up in Hollywood so I'd prefer viewing it as a darkly lit screwball murder mystery (albeit one where you hardly care about the particulars of the whodunnit). There isn't enough angst to warrant any serious connection to film noir.

It's actually a very joyful, happy film. Those bewitched by screwball who haven't yet found The Mad Miss Manton are in for a treat. Stanwyck is probably at her most likable here despite playing a basically mischievous character who seems to spend her time running around the city with her friends causing cute little problems for others. Not that endearing on the surface, but perhaps because we don't see much of these activities and we do see the ladies all as spoiled yet still inherently decent people there's no real resentment for them. The film also puts you in Melsa's corner from the start since her truthfulness is questioned the one time she's actually being honest, sort of victimizing her in the eyes of the viewer. When she's pursued by Ames, it's given a sweetness by Fonda, again showing his versatility as an actor. He and Stanwyck made such a pleasant pair that it's a tad bittersweet they didn't do even more pictures together. The Lady Eve will certainly do, but there's more of a balance in The Mad Miss Manton between them. Even if there's little question as to which is the better film, The Mad Miss Manton is a nice, fluffy movie full of its own charms.

The Disc

It then comes as a disappointment that Warner Bros., rights holder in R1, dragged its feet on releasing a DVD. This was the same studio that put out a Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection set with six inferior movies in it, leaving The Mad Miss Manton at the curb in furs. And then the WB can't figure out why its classic DVDs underperformed in the marketplace. The apparent solution for the Warner Bros. gang was to raise (and raise) the prices, strip away those superfluous extra features, not restore the films any further, burn discs on demand, and sell them directly (plus through and the Movies Unlimited site) via the Warner Archive. Great way to ensure no money's being lost for the corporate people who thought it was a better idea to include East Side, West Side and a double feature of Jeopardy and To Please a Lady in the Stanwyck box instead of this film. But how's the consumer supposed to feel like anything other than a sucker in this situation?

The Mad Miss Manton doesn't even look that great on this single-layered disc. The opening scenes (about the first two minutes) are hindered by some glaring damage marks on the left side of the frame. Other instances of tears and the like also pop up during the film, and there's quite a bit of dirt remaining in the print. Contrast is unimpressive and detail drowns in the blacks. Because nothing has been cleaned up for this transfer, it's very much like viewing a television print. It's entirely watchable, but you can't help wondering whether the film was excluded from being released previously because it looks somewhat rough (as a lot of the RKO pictures do) and then now it comes out, semi-clandestinely, at a higher price for purchase than if it had been thrown into the marketplace years ago (when, presumably, it could've been earning its keep better than it has been just sitting on a studio shelf). The movie is certainly good enough to not have been reduced to this sort of release. It could look better, and for all the hoops required to jump through to obtain the disc, it should look better.

An English mono track is easily audible. A minor hiss can be heard throughout, but this isn't too bad for unrestored audio of a film over 70 years old. No subtitles, one of the absolute worst failures about these Warner Archive discs, adds to the VHS-ness of the whole thing.

No extras either. The closest thing would be a one-minute advertisement for the Warner Archive which plays before the non-menu loads. Chapter stops, as with all of these discs, come exactly every ten minutes regardless of what's going on in the movie.

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Last updated: 15/06/2018 18:45:40

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