The heiress was a frequent figure of comedies from the mid- and late 1930s. Carole Lombard's Irene Bullock in 1936's "My Man Godfrey" was among the most famous of such characters, though the first to reach popular consciousness came two years earlier, when Claudette Colbert portrayed Ellie Andrews in "It Happened One Night."
Many of the great actresses of the era became comic heiresses on screen (including Myrna Loy, the de facto title character in "Libeled Lady"). This entry examines what happened when another classic star gave it a try...specifically, Barbara Stanwyck in an RKO film called "The Mad Miss Manton," which aired on Turner Classic Movies the other day:
Stanwyck portrays East Side heiress Melsa Manton, ringleader of a group of fun-loving young socialites whose pranks exasperate police and give her a rather screwy reputation. This causes trouble for Melsa when she comes across a corpse in an empty mansion on 14th Street one night; in fact, editor Peter Ames (Henry Fonda) writes an editorial castigating Manton for causing more pain for city authorities.
Feeling like a libeled lady herself, Melsa visits his office to threaten a lawsuit, and while she and Peter initially can't stand each other, as so often happens in such films, that negative attraction soon turns positive as he helps Melsa and crew track down the culprit. En route to solving the murder, Peter is frequently victim of the Manton troupe.
This was the first of three Fonda-Stanwyck teamings, and truth be told, during filming Henry often felt as constrained as his character did in that shot. "I was so mad on this picture -- I resented it," he later said of the film. Understandably so, as it was a female comedy vehicle and not the strongest of screwballs. (Philip G. Epstein of "Casablanca" fame wrote the screenplay, as he did with another unsuccessful screwball heiress film, Bette Davis' "The Bride Came C.O.D.," in 1941. Perhaps that's why he decided not to make Ilsa an heiress.)
"Manton" is hardly prime Stanwyck, but she goes at it with her usual elan in a role one can imagine Lombard playing (though by mid-1938, when the film was made for an October release, Carole would have deemed it "been there, done that"). However, RKO initially envisioned this as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, a followup to the solid, if somewhat overrated "Bringing Up Baby." Kate turned it down and Stanwyck, who needed an assignment, took over.
Manton's army of seven demented debutantes -- sort of a prelude to the "seven dwarfs" that would be seen in a later Stanwyck film, "Ball Of Fire" -- parade around in fur coats much of the time. If you're a fur fetishist, you'll love this movie, which one site labels "the best fur fashion film of all time" (http://furglamor.com/2010/01/03/furs-on-film-the-mad-miss-manton/). But it wasn't an easy shoot; exteriors were shot on the Columbia ranch in Burbank in midsummer 100-degree heat, not much fun in a mink stole.
Stanwyck is her usual professional self, and Fonda holds up well despite his obvious disdain for the film, but the best performance in "Manton" may arguably be Hattie McDaniel (billed on screen as "Hattie McDaniels"), a year before her Oscar-winning triumph in "Gone With The Wind." She plays Melsa's maid Hilda, but she's no subservient black stereotype by any means.
Hilda greets Peter with a pitcher of water (though she actually likes him, telling him she used distilled water) and makes snide remarks about some of Melsa's dimwitted society pals which her employer appreciates. When one of them says, "Comes the revolution, and we'll start being exploited by our help," Melsa glances at Hilda and says, "In my home, the revolution is here."
Such impudence caused some tension in Hollywood, and Joseph Breen reminded RKO that it “may be objectionable in the South where the showing of Negroes on terms of familiarity and social equality is resented.” Some cuts were apparently made, but the core of Hilda's character remained.
"The Mad Miss Manton" isn't top-flight screwball, but it's worth seeing once. And Fonda and Stanwyck would make a more memorable teaming in 1941 for Preston Sturges' "The Lady Eve":