The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

(Image via themostbeautifulfraudintheworld.blogspot.com)

Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) is a socialite who happens to be enjoying a late night walk with the dogs after a costume party when she comes across a body in the empty house belonging to a wealthy couple, the Lanes. She calls the police straight away, but when they show up, both the body and Melsa’s cape have vanished from the property. She insists that she’s not pulling a prank on them, but naturally, they don’t believe her. The next day, the papers accuse her of pulling a hoax on the cops.

Angered by Peter Ames’ (Henry Fonda) front page editorial declaring her a crazy prankster, Melsa takes matters into her own hands, enlisting seven of her friends to help her find out what really happened to the body she’s absolutely sure she saw.

What follows is a flurry of craziness as the girls plot and plan to find the truth, contend with the police and try to hide all of the information that they find from Ames and his paper. All the while, Melsa also remains a suspect and is threatened when the true culprit decides that she knows too much.

Leigh Jason directs The Mad Miss Manton, which may sound like a straight-up thriller but is actually a grand mystery-comedy about a merry band of debutantes who set out to solve a crime and find a corpse or two.

(Image via despaginas.es)

A portion of the plot is genuinely mysterious. The viewer only has as much information as the characters discover along the way, so the idea of finding out who committed the original murder and who took the body is very intriguing. There’s also a question of who fill find the truth, if anyone at all: the girls, the cops or the reporters? Quite a few unexpected twists pop up as the mystery begins to unravel, keeping the viewer guessing throughout the film’s 80 minute running time, and it finishes off in an unexpected way as well.

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Though the mystery plot is certainly engrossing, I found myself worrying less about the who-dun-it and more drawn into the characters themselves as they tried to solve the crime. This is a film that has no trouble making the audience care about its characters. Melsa in particular is very endearing to the audience, with her consistent determination. Even with her own life on the line, she keeps on scheming, and the viewer gets the sense that this is not only in order to clear her own name but also to partake in a bit of excitement.

A never-ending stream of flirtation and witty banter between Melsa and Ames keeps the viewer hooked into the romantic edge of the storyline. In some moments it seems as though they truly do dislike each other terribly, but they have such strong chemistry that the viewer knows something is bound to work out between them. For this reason the ending to the romantic side of the plot is a bit predictable, but still very satisfying because these two characters are such fun. This is only helped even further by the fact that two such wonderful performers, Stanwyck and Fonda (who also give fantastic performances individually in this film), fill the roles.

The Mad Miss Manton is one of my favorite types of comedy: a comedy of mishaps. It not only boasts a great cast, but also a fun premise with lots of both hilarity and mystery for the audience to enjoy. The scenarios that these characters end up in are sure to keep the viewer glued to the screen for a fun, exciting and very fast-paced ride. The score: 5/5!

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