The lovely Miss Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) isn’t really mad, although she does tend to make some crazy and ill-advised decisions. For example, just as the film opens and she arrives home from a costume party, she decides to take her dogs for a walk… alone… at night… in New York… in a costume. Sure that might not seem too crazy, but then when she witnesses a man sprinting from a dark house into his car and speeding away, she decides that it’s her responsibility to investigate. After tying the dogs up outside, Miss Manton proceeds inside where she stumbles across a dead body and makes the first smart decision of her evening by calling the police. Of course Lieutenant Brent (Sam Levene) has trouble believing Manton because of her history as a snobbish, trouble-making socialite, and the fact that she is wearing a highly provocative (and childlike) costume. It doesn’t help her case that the dead body has disappeared, leaving no trace to be found; even by a team of screwball comedy detectives that were born to be characters in a film like this one.
Melsa, however, is undeterred by the police and their lack of faith. She, along with her misguided and completely ridiculous group of friends, have every intention of proving that a murder was committed, even at the risk of their own peril. Just to make their mission one of greater importance, a news editor, Peter Ames (Henry Fonda), printed an article about Miss Manton and her seemingly ridiculous antics. That’s when Melsa storms into Ames’s office, threatening to sue for libel. Of course, just as fast as she storms in she also manages to steal Ames’s attention. He’s instantly enamored by her charms and beauty, and is perfectly willing to risk his own safety for her.
“The Mad Miss Manton” is exactly the kind of middle-of -the-road screwball comedy that was being produced in the late 1930’s. It has a delightful yet unrealistic plot, it’s full of characters that make jokes despite being in seriously danger constantly, and the police seem to be the most clueless people on the planet, while our average everyday people (like Melsa) are perfectly suited to be crime fighters. It is also just an average film technically speaking. Director Leigh Jason is not a name everybody knows, not because he didn’t have talent, but because his movies tend to be good, not great.
The funny thing here is that “The Mad Miss Manton”, despite the points I have mentioned, is an above average movie. The reason it is able to rise above its flaws is because of Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda. This was the first of three pairings for the two legendary actors, with the others being “You Belong to Me” (1941) and “The Lady Eve” (1941). Their on-screen (and off-screen) chemistry is electrifying, and every scene that they share leaves a smile on your face. The humor is better and the story is more plausible because of the way they handle themselves as a comedic duo. With other actors in this film it would become quickly forgettable, but Stanwyck and Fonda have created something extremely enjoyable, even if it’s not perfect. It’s their comedic timing and undeniable screen presence that elevates “The Mad Miss Manton” to the level of a “must see”.