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Film / The Mad Miss Manton

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Positively mad.

From The Golden Age of Hollywood, comes a mystery/ Screwball Comedy from RKO Pictures, The Mad Miss Manton (1938).

Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) and her debutante friends are constantly hounded by the press, especially from editor, Peter Ames (Henry Fonda), who thinks they’re a bunch of rich nitwits.

The girls’ reputations take a turn for the worse when Melsa stumbles upon a dead body in socialite Sheila Lane’s abandoned apartment, and sees one of her society friends, Ronny Beldon, speeding off in a car. But when she calls the police and takes them there, the dead body has disappeared.

Peter Ames writes a nasty article about Melsa and her apparent trick on the cops. This persuades her to sue for libel, and get the help of her friends to solve the mystery and clear their names.

Although thought as a nuisance by Lieutenant Brent and Peter, Melsa and her troop of bumbling friends are much more useful to the case than previously thought.

Miss Manton was the first comedic pairing of Stanwyck and Fonda, and features Hattie MacDaniel, as Hilda, Melsa’s housemaid who whips wise-cracks as quickly as Melsa.

Tropes associated with this film:

  • The Alibi: Melsa and the gals try to find out if Edward Norris and his friend Frances’ hockey game alibi is solid. They find out that he couldn’t have killed old man Lane because that would’ve meant going across town and back in ten minutes. The Reveal shows that it was possible for Edward to get to the crime scene and back quickly because a subway tunnel was under construction. It had a cart used to speedily take workers from one tunnel to another. That’s how Edward committed the murder of Mr. Lane and hid the body. And since Ronny saw him, he had to kill him, too.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Melsa, and by extension, her friends that tag along.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Lots of bickering and witty repartee.
    Peter Ames: Listen, before I knew you, I disliked you intensely. When I met you, I disliked you intensely. Even now, I dislike you intensely... that is, the sensible, sane portion of me... but there’s an insane side of me that gets a little violent every time I think of you.
    Melsa Manton: Getting out of a million-dollar lawsuit wouldn't have anything to do with your change in affection, would it?
    Peter Ames: You're a nasty creature, aren't you, but in time I'll beat it out of you.
  • Big Eater: Pat, who’s always eating or trying to find food. She finds the body of Ronny Beldon by opening the fridge.
  • Body in a Breadbox: Pat finds poor Ronny in the fridge and faints on top of him.
  • Bound and Gagged: Peter Ames. Twice!
  • Cassandra Truth: When Melsa tells the cops about finding the body, it disappears, so they think she’s crazy at first, but then a prankster because she’s Melsa Manton.
  • Chiaroscuro: Although not a Film Noir, this film has the lighting techniques that are characteristic of those films (dark shadows and contrasts).
  • Deadpan Snarker: Everyone, it seems.
    Edward Norris: Don't speak to anyone. I don't want to kill an innocent bystander.
    Peter Ames: Ya know, that's what I like about crazy men; that fine sense of distinction.

    Lt. Mike Brent: [talking about Melsa] She's probably the kind of dame who would come back to haunt me. Otherwise, I'd shoot to kill.

    Peter Ames: Any sign of Sheila Lane, yet?
    Lt. Mike Brent: No! How I wish I could get my hands on that dame!
    Peter Ames: And you a married man, Lieutenant! Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

    Helen Frayne:[after her friend unplugs the phone on her would-be date] He was cut off.
    Friend: Poor boy, and in the prime of his life, too.

  • Emerging from the Shadows: The night-watchman in the subway tunnel. He freaks out Melsa with his lead-pipe that looked like a gun.
  • Idle Rich: All the girls are viewed this way by the public, but they do a lot of charity work and try to solve this murder-mystery.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Peter.
  • Mistaken for Dying: Shots were fired outside of Melsa’s apartment, and Peter gets hit. Fortunately, nothing happens to him, but Lt. Brent tells Melsa that Peter is on the verge of death, so Peter uses this as a way to get information out of her. Melsa eventually figures out the con, but not before giving out vital information. She does get her revenge:
    Melsa Manton (has just discovered Ames is faking being near death to pump her for information, she finds a fork): Are you still in pain, sweet?
    Peter Ames (from hospital bed, faintly): Oh its nothing, nothing... only when I move... but it's nothing...
    Melsa Manton (hovering over hospital bed, and getting closer): Peter, perhaps I did wrong in not telling Inspector Brent everything.
    Peter Ames': You mean you held something back?
    Melsa Manton: Yes, Peter.
    Peter Ames: [this is what he's hoping to hear] Oh sweet, you're so clever.
    Melsa Manton: Remember when I went into Ronnie Beldon's apartment?
    Peter Ames: Yes, dear.
    Melsa Manton: When I went into the bathroom, I found something.
    Peter Ames: In the bathroom?
    Melsa Manton: Yes, floating around in a foot of water in the bathtub…
    Peter Ames: Louder, dear, I can hardly hear you.
    Melsa Manton (ominously): I'll come closer.
    Peter Ames: Tell me, dear, what was it?
    Melsa Manton (yelling): The Normandie, you black-hearted faker, in full sail! (She stabs him in the leg with a fork.)
  • Never One Murder: Two bodies show up.
  • Police Are Useless: Melsa does all the work and doesn’t get much of the credit for finding out who the murderer is.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Dresses. The girls are never seen without beautiful clothes. Evening gowns, day and night.
  • Pretty in Mink: The gals wear a whole assortment of furs.
  • Running Gag: A certain abhorrence of communism:
    Melsa Manton: Helen, you search the upstairs.
    Helen: Oh, no! I was never much of an individualist. If the upstairs has to be searched, we'll search it together.
    Dora Fenton: Why, that's communism!
    • And again:
    Helen Frayne: If you kill her, you have to kill all of us.
    Dora Fenton: Oh! You’re always talking communism.
  • Shot Gun Wedding: Peter jokes about having one with Melsa.
    Peter Ames: Sometimes these kinds of marriages work out very well!
  • Stalker with a Crush: Edward Norris, Sheila Lane’s former lover. He decides to kill her husband. Sort of justified in the sense that Mr. Lane wasn't a very good guy to begin with since he would beat Sheila.
  • The Stool Pigeon: Peter is always willing to rat the girls out: first, when he finds out Melsa is withholding evidence with the diamond clip, and then when he finds out they’re keeping Frances Glesk, a suspect, with them. The last one backfires, though:
    Melsa Manton: [to her friends] Get him, girls!
    Peter Ames: Hey, wait a minute, girls...Take it easy, girls...Look...Help!
  • Take That!: To Brooklyn:
    Lt. Mike Brent: Look, lady, it's been ten minutes since you called us. The murderer, that is if there is a murderer, could be in Brooklyn by now - that is, if anybody wants to be in in Brooklyn.
  • Would Hit a Girl:
    Melsa Manton: [storms into the room and slaps the first man she sees] Are you Peter Ames?
    Peter's Secretary: No...
    Peter Ames: But I am...
    Melsa Manton: [Slaps Peter]
    Peter Ames: [Slaps Melsa] To complete the circle.
  • The Villain Knows Where You Live: Stabs a knife onto Melsa’s door with her cloak and a threatening letter attached saying, “Next time you’ll be in it.”