Stanwyck the Screwball Sleuth
I heard someone once call "The Mad Miss Manton" screwball-noir, whilst technically that maybe a good term for it it is one I dislike. I say technically because here we have a murder story full of noirish mystery but the screwball comedy of a debutant and her girly friends plus a newspaper editor trying to solve the crime. It is crazy and unfortunately doesn't quite work because the comedy is so good that when it actually focuses on solving the crime it becomes a little boring. Thankfully the comedy outweighs the boring bits with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda making a good comedy pairing.
Whilst out walking her dogs late at night, having returned from a fancy dress party, wealthy socialite Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck - Roustabout) spots something strange happening in a vacant building and when she goes to investigate discovers a dead body. The trouble is that when the police arrive the body has gone and Miss Manton is accused of wasting police time, something which Peter Ames (Henry Fonda - On Golden Pond), editor of the local paper, picks up on publishing a story of Manton being a prankster. Outraged by his slanderous comments Miss Manton and her girly friends set about solving the crime in order to prove both Ames and the police wrong.
Barbara Stanwyck in a very short Little Bo Peep costume, yes that does sound funny and it is one of the many funny moments which fill the opening to "The Mad Miss Manton" as we also get Stanwyck firing off quick fire banter so fast that there is no time to breathe. That is not a complaint because it is so much fun, from the love hate relationship which forms when Miss Manton meets Peter Ames to her gaggle of noisy girlfriends all of which have their own persona. In many ways the first half hour of "The Mad Miss Manton" is up there with the best screwball comedies full of quick fire dialogue as well as sight gags none more so than the slapping scene when Miss Manton meets Peter after she read his article on her.
The trouble is that the longer "The Mad Miss Manton" goes on the more it tries to evolve the crime side of the story and does so with some nice use of noir style styling, heavily using shadows to create atmosphere. The trouble is that the mix doesn't work as the screwball side of the movie is so sharp the actual crime solving side is dull. And unfortunately towards the end of the movie the focus is mostly on the crime rather than the comedy.
Now whilst there have been various memorable screwball pairings Stanwyck and Fonda has to be up there with the best because they get the antagonism of the relationship, the love hate element down perfectly. They also have the banter so sharp that every response is thrown back on a trigger action making it one of the most sparky screwball comedies going. Stanwyck and Fonda are certainly helped by a good supporting cast and whilst every one of the actresses in Miss Manton's clique has their own moment to shine it is Sam Levene as Lieutenant Brent who steals a few scenes with his great delivery of lines, especially those surrounding spanking.
What this all boils down to is that "The Mad Miss Manton" is sadly a movie of two halves which for me don't quite work together. The screwball side of it is so good that the actual crime side with its noir styling ends up dull in comparison. Still the first half is brilliant screwball comedy with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda making a brilliant comedy couple.