Barbara Stanwyck’s Sleuth in The Mad Miss Manton (’38)

By: Megan McGurk

When I suspect a potential convert to the church of the sass mouth dame, my missionary zeal homilises pleasures manifold in woman’s pictures, from watching women installed in rewarding careers, to those who clawed their way from poverty, left an unsatisfying home life, women who boosted each other to make dreams reality, along with women who made short work of men who stood in their way, while draped in exquisite clothes. You have settled for the false goddess of lowered lids and slinky gown vestiary in classic film, I preach, but has she fortified your interior life? Has a sexy dame ever bolstered your core sense of self in an hour of need? I want to submerge them in the restorative powers of woman’s pictures from the 1930s, when we flourished in stories beyond secondary love interest roles, boner management, a noir virgin/whore coin toss, or a bad reputation as deadlier than men twice our size packing guns.

Let me guide you to the promised land, oh my sister, where it’s all about us for a change, when glamour proved a safeguard, a method of protection from ransack and humiliation that awaited us in a man’s world. Votaries of woman’s pictures experience an epiphany that reveals keen seductive skills waste precious time. Sass mouth dames know how to save face and how to fight back—they use lipstick in a lionhearted way to meet the firing squad (Dishonored 1931) rather than roll a tube of lippy toward the feet of an unwitting dupe (The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946).

Barbara Stanwyck channels the sass mouth dame’s fondness for lipstick as a handy exclamation mark when she delivers a spirited warning to bothersome men from the press and police force in The Mad Miss Manton (1938). Backed by her crew of socialites, Stanwyck’s Melsa Manton vows to Henry Fonda’s reporter and Sam Levene’s officer:

You made liars and social parasites out of us. Now we girls are going to collect that million dollars from you. And as for you Inspector Brent, false arrest is a very serious charge and we’ll have your badge before we’re through with you. We’re going to make you all feel pretty small and silly. Who’s got a lipstick?

Their agenda includes crime solving and public vindication, but a lipstick reserve sets a boundary for poise, self-control, and a reminder that a lady upholds standards, even when dragged through the mud by a pack of blockheads. Glamour rituals remain the province of women; male preference never enters the picture. Stanwyck’s lippy acts as a battle cry.

Fonda’s left with little to do other than receive abuse from socialites in this picture. And it’s glorious. He becomes the punching bag stand-in for every guy who ever defamed, undermined, or underestimated women. Watching nine women attack Henry Fonda in The Mad Miss Manton (1938) promises delight. He’s slapped, sued, insulted, bound and gagged, doused with water, bound and gagged again, left pantless and stabbed with a fork. A target for a collective female nemesis, Henry Fonda has never been more appealing on screen. Cathartic moments like this are the woman’s picture raison d’être.

Fonda had it coming. First, his character Peter Ames prints a front page editorial condemning Stanwyck’s Melsa Manton for issuing false statements to the police, claiming that she lied about finding a murder victim’s body during a 3am dog walk. He criticises Melsa and her friends for public menace, distracting the city’s resources for their own amusement. In the previous scene with the police, one officer had threatened to spank her and another shoot her for making a bogus report.

Pressed on all sides, Melsa storms the newspaper office, slaps him and another man on the cheek and sues for one million in libel. Melsa gathers her closest ermine and sable crowd, asking them to pledge themselves to clear their name and solve the case. Whenever Peter enters a scene he spoils their crackerjack sleuthing to wag his finger or destroy evidence, while threatening to publish another scornful editorial: wait til you dressmaker’s dummies read my next editorial, he browbeats. He simply begs for a smackdown. Helen (Frances Mercer), Pat (Whitney Bourne), Kit (Vickie Lester), Lee (Ann Evers), Dora (Catherine O’Quinn), Myra (Linda Perry), Jane (Eleanor Hanson) and housekeeper Hilda (Hattie McDaniel) offer serious challenge for a bossy newshound. Nine muses unite to serve a man comeuppance.


Peter arrives unannounced at Melsa’s door to insist she withdraw her lawsuit. At the same time, he removed the knife that had held her cloak and a threatening note pinned to the door, which ruins the finger print evidence. As they file past him, off to pursue the case, the ladies hiss insults such as: Nasty man/ I’ll take mine in $1 bills/ Rigour mortis is setting in. They’re just warming up. When he follows them to the crime scene, they combine their energy to stop a nosy parker in his tracks. Sotto voce, Melsa commands Get him, girls. Swollen in size with sumptuous fur, the ladies surround Peter, wall him off, take him down and leave him tied in knots with his mouth stuffed, next to where the body was discovered.


As the film progresses, the socialites discover two more bodies and still Peter along with Lieutenant Brent refuse to take them seriously. Brent listens to Peter’s theories and consults him as an equal, since they’re in the penis club, what they think matters. When Peter calls into Melsa’s flat, Hilda informs him that she has orders to throw a pitcher of water in his face if he forces his way in. He smiles and says he’ll risk it. Hattie McDaniel then hoists the pitcher, which drenches him from top hat to tuxedo shirt front. She tells him that it was ordered, but reassures him that she used distilled water. Peter decides that he’s in love with Melsa, yet demonstrates how much he needs additional dousing when he says: You’re a nasty creature, aren’t you? I’ll beat it out of you in time. Get the pitchforks, girls.

On another evening. Melsa and her friends repeat the previous scene from when he interrupted their investigation, only it plays much better the second time because the bright lighting allows viewers to savour details that suggest a particicution ritual from The Handmaid’s Tale. Sadly, the don’t actually rend flesh from Fonda’s character, but it’s still pretty radical and utterly satisfying. He turns up again at Melsa’s door like a bad penny when they try to get answers from another woman involved with a suspect. To cover their plans, Melsa introduces the woman as one crew member’s cousin. Peter asks his own questions and then holds up her monogrammed handbag as though it were a smoking pistol. He uncovers the ruse and dials the lead Inspector. They won’t allow his interference. One of their crew unplugs the phone just as Melsa again whispers Get him, girls as they close ranks and pounce. This time around viewers can see how women in elegant evening clothes relish pummelling him with their hands and ignore his pleas for help. The scene cuts to him bound and gagged, tucked under the covers with a doll laid on the next pillow for company. Just when they’re ready to leave, Melsa thinks better of it, reaches under the covers, removing his pants. Peter’s no longer an obstacle or a threat. I should also point out that he doesn’t have any visible injuries when we see him next. Later, he feigns death’s door in hospital, but she catches his fakery and stabs him with a fork in punishment. Like I said, Fonda had it coming.

In genuine woman’s picture fashion, the men in The Mad Miss Manton appear as raging ego monsters who patronise and disparage women. Levene’s Lieutenant says of Melsa

She’s probably the kind of dame who would come back to haunt me. Otherwise, I’d shoot to kill.

Stanwyck’s Melsa and gal pals climb above the limited deductive powers of men with job titles, who enjoy solid reputations as guardians of public trust. Melsa and her crew compensate for living in a man’s world with an arsenal of rapid-fire comebacks that leave men spluttering in vapour trails.

Lt. Brent: Everybody suspects you of holding out, even I do.

Melsa Manton: Oh, I bet you say that to all the girls.

The murderer, when he confesses, picks a motive that validates Melsa’s rationale for corralling her friends together to fight the powers of ‘he’ in the first place, to ward off the rank misogyny they must battle on the regular.

I’m class conscious, see? I don’t like society dames.

It doesn’t matter if men hail from the law, the fourth estate or the criminal underworld, they’re united in belittling women. The elderly newspaper owner shows up in a brief scene to recognise Melsa’s savvy and offer her a job as a reporter. He’s the only man who identifies her brains and talent, of which everyone in the audience has long since been convinced.

Aside from the artful drubbing administered to Fonda, The Mad Miss Manton hosts one of the best screwball scenes in cinema history. Melsa and Helen plan to search an office for incriminating documents. They come equipped with a clanging bag of tools, dressed in full evening wear. An incongruous match of glamorous women with a sack of heavy tools sets the stage for choreographed slapstick, highlighted by thundering booms throughout a scene that calls for silence. How many tools have they brought and for what purpose? Then, Stanwyck whispers for the tools and as she takes them, crashes her elbow through the plate glass office door.  Stanwyck plays it like she knocked over a glass of water. If Stanwyck lowers her voice, take cover—destruction soon follows.

There’s also a lovely bit about how Melsa reckons they could track down one witness by stakeouts on beauty salons, since the woman in question relies upon a bespoke red hair dye: find the hair preparation and you’ll find the woman, she reasons. She displays detective skills on par with Agatha Christie. During her analysis of how to find the witness in the case, she sits in front of a vanity table brushing her own lustrous tresses while the other ladies loll around the bedroom. It’s the slumber party of sass mouth dames from your dreams.

Among the three pictures Barbara Stanwyck made with Henry Fonda, most critical attention regards the merits of Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941), where she manipulates his clueless snake fetishist. The less said about a dreary jealous husband plot in You Belong to Me (1941) the better, let alone one that styles itself a comedy, when for most women, it’s a scenario that promises grim drama, bereft of humour. I prefer The Mad Miss Manton because the point of view remains locked on Stanwyck, and when Henry Fonda appears, he takes an expert and much deserved clobbering.