Skip to main content

Golden Couples: Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck

In the mid- and late 1930s, screwball comedy was in vogue and practically every actress in Hollywood tried her hand at it. Barbara Stanwyck never considered herself a naturally funny person or a comedienne per se, but after delivering a heart-wrenching performance in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), she decided she needed a «vacation» from emotional dramas. In her search for a role, she stumbled upon a «champagne comedy» called The Mad Miss Manton (1938), originally intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle.

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as Melsa and Peter in The Mad Miss Manton.
Directed by Leigh Jason from a script by Philip G. Epstein, The Mad Miss Manton begins when vivacious Park Avenue socialite Melsa Manton finds a corpse while walking her dogs in the early hours of the morning. She calls the police, but they dismiss the incident — not only because Melsa is a notorious prankster, but also because the body disappears in the meantime. Sarcastic newspaper editor Peter Ames is particularly skeptical about the whole thing and writes an article denouncing Melsa's «prank» as an attempt to gain attention from the press. She immediately sues Peter for libel and decides she must find the murderer in order to defend her reputation. The ensuing manhunt results in a series of absurd situations and a little romance in between.
To play the newspaper editor, RKO borrowed Henry Fonda from 20th Century Fox. By all accounts, Fonda resented having to make the film. He hated both the script and the director, who said Fonda «went through the motions» during production. One thing he did not hate was Barbara Stanwyck. The two shared an ability to memorize scripts very quickly and ended up developing a good relationship while shooting The Mad Miss Manton.  
LEFT: Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in a publicity still for The Mad Miss Manton. RIGHT: Original lobby card for the same film.

The Mad Miss Manton was a box office success and received generally positive reviews upon release on October 21, 1938. Although critics felt it lacked the zaniness of the standard screwball comedies of the time, they considered Stanwyck and Fonda to be «refreshingly natural 
Decades later, Fonda would say of his leading lady,
«Everyone who is close to me knows I've been in love with Barbara Stanwyck since I met her. She's a delicious woman. We've never had an affair. She's never encouraged me, but dammit, my wife will verify it, my daughter and son will confirm it, and now you all can testify to the truth. Stanwyck can act the hell out of any part, and she can turn a chore into a challenge.»
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as Jean and Charles in The Lady Eve.
Fonda and Stanwyck were next paired in The Lady Eve (1941), written and directed by Preston Sturges for Paramount. Stanwyck played Jean Harrington, a con artist who makes her living preying on wealthy travellers abroad luxury ocean liners. She sets her eyes on naïve and woman-shy Charles Pike (Fonda), heir to a brewing fortune, and the two begin a love affair. However, he soon discovers the truth about her and dumps her. Furious at being scorned, Jean re-enters his life masquerading as the mysterious «Lady Eve» and plots her revenge on him.
By all accounts, both Stanwyck and Fonda had a great time filming The Lady Eve and he even called her his favorite leading lady after production ended. The atmosphere was so ebullient that instead of going to their trailers between setups, they would sit around with the eccentric Sturges, listening to his fascinating stories or going over lines with him. 
Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Sturges during the making of The Lady Eve.
The Lady Eve was a massive success among audiences and critics alike upon release on February 25, 1941. At the 14th Academy Awards, it received a nomination for Best Story, but the Oscar was ultimately given to Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). It has since been regarded as one of the greatest films of all time and is one of 775 pictures preserved in the National Film Registry as being «culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.»
After the triumph of The Lady Eve, Columbia quickly signed Fonda and Stanwyck to star in You Belong To Me (1941). Directed by Wesley Ruggles and written by Charles Binyon based on a story by Dalton Trumbo, the film begins when rich playboy Peter Kirk (Fonda) crashes practically at the feet of headstrong doctor Helen Hunt (Stanwyck), while skiing in the Rocky Mountains. Peter, a hypochondriac, insists that Helen attend to his (minor) injuries and later persuades her to marry him. They seem happy at first, but when Helen refuses to leave her work, Peter starts imagining that she is having illicit romantic affairs with her patients.
Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck as Peter and Helen in You Belong to Me.
You Belong To Me received positive reviews after premiering on October 22, 1941, but failed to repeat the commercial success of The Lady Eve. Fonda and Stanwyck were again praised for their comedy skills, as well as their undeniable chemistry and appealing screen personas.
The financial failure of You Belong To Me unfortunately put aside the idea of pairing them in another film, although Stanwyck later fought hard to star alongside Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981), in a role that was ultimately given to Katharine Hepburn. The two old friends did get the chance to reunite again in 1978, at the American Film Institute Salute to Fonda, and then in March 1981, when Stanwyck was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck during the American Film Institute Salute to the actor in 1978, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in California..
After Fonda died in August 1982, Stanwyck said her co-star and friend,
«He was delicious to work with. I was sorry when each of the three pictures we did was over. I wish we had done more movies together. I loved Hank.»
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan (The University Press of Mississippi, 2021)
Stanwyck: A Biography by Axel Madsen (Open Road Distribution, 2015) 


  1. I’ve never heard of that last one!! I love their movies together. They were such a great pairing!

    1. Yes, they were! "You Belong To Me" is actually my favorite of their films. It's so much fun!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest . Impressed by Patricia's looks, Vidor approached the young actress and asked if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist, and the studio was then considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.          Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about Patricia, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, « What's that!? » He tried to con

Films I Saw in 2020

For the past four years, I have shared with you a list of all the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 and 2019 , so I thought I would continue the «tradition» and do it again in 2020. This list includes both classic and «modern» films, which make up a total of 161 titles. About three or four of these were re-watches, but I decided to include them anyway. Let me know how many from these you have seen. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favorites. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire and Joe Keaton The Crowd (1928) | Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman and Bert Roach Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) | Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady and Marjorie Weaver Brief Encounter (1945) | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) | Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman The Girl He Left Behind (1956) | Starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood Gidget (1959) | Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson an

Wings of Change: The Story of the First Ever Best Picture Winner

Wings was the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, it has become one of the most influential war dramas, noted for its technical realism and spectacular air-combat sequences. This is the story of how it came to be made.   A man and his story The concept for Wings originated from a writer trying to sell one of his stories. In September 1924, Byron Morgan approached Jesse L. Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players-Lasky, a component of Paramount Pictures, proposing that the studio do an aviation film. Morgan suggested an «incident and plot» focused on the failure of the American aerial effort in World War I and the effect that the country's «aviation unpreparedness» would have in upcoming conflicts. Lasky liked the idea, and approved the project under the working title «The Menace.»   LEFT: Byron Morgan (1889-1963). RIGHT: Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958).   During his development of the scenario with William Shepherd, a former war correspondent, Morga

80 Reasons Why I Love Classic Films (Part II)

I started this blog six years ago as a way to share my passion for classic films and Old Hollywood. I used to watch dozens of classic films every month, and every time I discovered a new star I liked I would go and watch their entire filmography. But somewhere along the way, that passion dimmed down. For instance, I watched 73 classic films in 2016, and only 10 in 2020. The other day, I found this film with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that I had never heard of — the film is Mimi (1935), by the way — and for some reason it made me really excited about Old Hollywood again. It made me really miss the magic of that era and all the wonderful actors and actresses. And it also made me think of all the reasons why I fell in love with classic films in the first place. I came with 80 reasons, which I thought would be fun to share with you. Most of them are just random little scenes or quirky little quotes, but put them together and they spell Old Hollywood to me. Yesterday I posted part one ; here i

Top 10 Favourite Christmas Films

Christmas has always been a source of inspiration to many artists and writers. Over the years, filmmakers have adapted various Christmas stories into both movies and TV specials, which have become staples during the holiday season all around the world. Even though Christmas is my favourite holiday, I haven't watched a lot of Christmas films. Still, I thought it would be fun to rank my top 10 favourites, based on the ones that I have indeed seen. Here they are.  10. Holiday Affair (1949) Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair tells the story of a young widow (Janet Leigh) torn between a boring attorney (Wendell Corey) and a romantic drifter (Robert Mitchum). She's engaged to marry the boring attorney, but her son (Gordon Gebert) likes the romantic drifter better. Who will she choose? Well, we all know who she will choose.   Holiday Affair is not by any means the greatest Christmas film of all time, but it's still a very enjoyable Yule-tide comedy to watch over the holi

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey , based on the eponymous novel by John O'Hara about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day of that year, the show brought Gene his best reviews up to that date. For instance, John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: «A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique .»   One of Gene's performances in Pal Joey was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland , who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub, at 10 East 60th Street. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after whi

Films I Saw in July & August

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in July and August, which make up a total of 18 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Resistance (2011) | Starring Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wlaschiha and Michael Sheen Siberian Education [Educazione siberiana] (2013) | Starring Arnas Fedaravi čius The Last of Robin Hood (2013) | Starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning The Water Diviner (2014) | Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yılmaz Erdoğan Holding the Man (2015) | Starring Ryan Corr, Craig Stott and Anthony LaPaglia The Last King [Birkebeinerne] (2016) | Starring Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju The Pass (2016) | Starring Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene Access All Areas (2017) | Starring Ella Purnell, Edward Bluemel and Georgie Henle

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

  In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer happened to see a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's eldest daughter, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of « Ol' Man River » that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell vehicle Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was «hot,» however, Metro made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in  Anchors Aweigh Being a contract player at the studio that boasted «more stars than there are in the heavens» gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The «g

Films I Saw in May & June

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in May and June, which make up a total of 16 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Pelle the Conqueror [Pelle Erobreren] (1987) | Starring Pelle Hvenegaard The Elementary School [ Obecná škola] (1991) | Starring Václav Jakoubek Female Agents [Les Femmes de l'ombre] (2008) | Starring Sophie Marceau Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe [Vor der Morgenröte] (2016) | Starring Josef Hader ❤ Cold War [Zimna wojna] (2018) | Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig and Borys Szyc Dreamland (2019) | Starring Finn Cole, Margot Robbie, Travis Fimmel and Garrett Hedlund Mr Jones (2019) | Starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard Official Secrets (2019) | Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith an