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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.»
 
 
_______________________________________
SOURCES:
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan (The University Press of Mississippi, 2021)
Stanwyck: A Biography by Axel Madsen (Open Road Distribution, 2015) 

Comments

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

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

      Delete

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