Tuesday 17 April 2007

The Mad Miss Manton (1938) Leigh Jason

1938 was the peak of the Thin Man era. Nick and Nora Charles had made two classics, in 1934 and 1936 and the third nearly classic would come a year later in 1939, and at this point everyone else was trying to milk the formula. So here we have Barbara Stanwyck, as an inquisitive heiress important enough to have Hattie McDaniel as her maid, who can't even walk her four yappy little dogs in her Little Bo Peep costume without discovering murdered men in empty houses. Of course given that she's a Park Avenue prankster, the police don't believe a word of it, especially as the body turns up missing, and the press think she's nuts too.

Stanwyck is Melsa Manton, the Mad Miss Manton of the title and being the headstrong type she decides to investigate herself in collaboration with a bunch of her numbskull debutante friends. When they find the second body and the cops believe them so much that they don't even turn up, they decide to leave the body at Henry Fonda's office at the Clarion. He's Peter Ames, a newspaper editor who initially doesn't believe any of it either but ends up helping her investigate. The two of them are awesome together and it's stunning that it took three years to get them back together again for The Lady Eve.

What surprised me was how little the Thin Man formula was actually used here. The influence is there, certainly, but the plot reads far more like what The Thin Man would be if Nora Charles was Nancy Drew and Nick Charles was on holiday. Fonda gets attacked by a bunch of socialites and tied up, not once but twice: hardly a parity in investigation between the pair of them, though enough of a reason for me to star in a movie! Fonda is solid but it's completely Stanwyck's show with her mildly annoying debs in backup. The script is reasonably tight and has a few interesting twists to it. All in all, a success.

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