Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda team up for the first time in The Mad Miss Manton (1938), a delightful screwball comedy. Stanwyck is Melsa Manton, a wealthy society girl, and a member of the Park Avenue Pranksters, a group of nine young ladies with too much time on their hands, who inevitably end up getting into hot water. After a late night of partying, Melsa takes her little dog out for a walk. She spies an acquaintance, Ronnie Belden run from an empty building. Curious, Melsa wanders inside and finds a dead body. She races to a phone, calls the police, and returns to the house. But when Lieutenant Mike Brent (Sam Levene) arrives, the body has disappeared, and he's convinced that Melsa is having a joke at his expense. The next day, newpaper editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) prints an article condemning Melsa. Incensed, Melsa and her merry band decide that they will find the missing body and solve the mystery of the murder.
This is a hysterical romp, it's delightful and enjoyable - a little candy confection of a movie. Instead male bonding movie, we have a dynamic young woman and her Scoobies. It's not great literature, but it is silly and funny and totally relaxing. Watching Stanwyck is a screwball heiress is great fun; nicest of all is that, while Melsa is a bit of flake, she's a SMART flake. She's brave, and she's always in control One realizes quickly that her lunacy is based on boredom - give her something to do, and she takes it on and runs with it.
Henry Fonda, in his first of three films with Stanwyck, was allegedly not thrilled with the part of Peter Ames. He particularly did not like the scene in which the Park Avenue Pranksters overpower him, and tie him to a bed. On loan from Walter Wanger, Fonda was furious during the shoot, and ignored everyone as much as possible (see this TCM article). Luckily, his dissatisfaction with the picture did not sour him on performing with Ms. Stanwyck, or we would not have the magnificent The Lady Eve! Regardless of his annoyance, Mr. Fonda turns in a good performance, in a role in which he is clearly a very second banana.
Another performance that really stands out (not surprisingly) is that of Hattie McDaniel as Melsa's maid, Hilda. As is to be expected. her part is small, but she makes the most of what she has. According to Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel by Carlton Jackson, some audience members had a problem with Hilda tossing a vase of water in Peter's face (on Melsa's orders). We personally, thought it was a hoot (she did use "distilled water") Ms. McDaniel can do with a raised eyebrow what other actors cannot do with their entire body. Her retorts to Melsa are brief and pointed (Melsa: "Miss Beverly is our guest.". Hilda: "I didn't ask her"), but there is an affection between the two that is undeniable.
The film opened at Radio City Music Hall, which speaks to a film from which the studio expected a great deal of interest. The costumes by Edward Stevenson are quite lovely, especially considering that he is having to gown nine girls in stunning clothing. Interestingly, in 1944, when Dick Powell walks past a movie marquee in Murder, My Sweet (1944), this is the film being shown.
The screenplay was based on an unpublished novel by Wilson Collison. The role of Melsa was also considered for Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne; Stanwyck took the part to fulfill requirements in her non-exclusive RKO contract (AFI catalog). She became ill during production, but despite her having to stay home for a week's recuperation, her director, Leigh Jason, said of her: "I've worked with perhaps eight or nine hundred actors and actresses. Barbara Stanwyck is the nicest."
We will leave you with the scene in which Peter and Melsa meet at the newspaper office, after his article comes out. Next time, more Stanwyck, but with another actor with whom she appeared in multiple films.