A RKO Production ~ Director: Stephen Roberts, Story by James Edward Grant, Screenplay by Anthony Veillor, Art Director: Van Nest Polglase, Costume Designer: Bernard Newman
By far the greatest pleasure of The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is seeing two quick and witty actors engage their mutual talent and tangle. While William Powell and Jean Arthur had shared screen space in two previous films, this is the first and sadly only time they were paired for a romantic comedy. One wishes they might have had a slightly better script as well as future opportunities but the two certainly give it all they’ve got and that’s saying quite a bit.
In a twist on the usual gentleman detective rom-com, William Powell plays a doctor reluctantly ensnared, and in more ways than one, by his ex-wife Paula Bradford, a brightly charming Jean Arthur determined to effect a reconciliation. Arthur plays a novelist of mysteries, one who seems far more eager to solve them in real-life than on the page. In fact, her zealousness in doing so appears to have been more than Powell’s Dr. Lawrence ‘Brad’ Bradford was willing to tolerate. Despite being unwilling to maintain his alimony, he is determined to maintain his distance from Paula. However, her charms and enthusiasm as well as her curious intelligence once again entangle him in unraveling the murder of a jockey in a somewhat convoluted mystery whose murderer’s motive once again comes down to love and not so sweet revenge.
The movie is intent upon throwing a number of suspects at us as these types of films tend to do. When a second killing occurs James Gleason, playing to type as an inspector, pegs Brad as the potential murderer. This leaves our hero with little option but to solve both murders and thereby clear his name. Another body falls, the doctor almost succumbs and somewhere along the way Paula and Brad find a way to not only solve the case but also solve their differences.
The film builds upon Powell’s popularity as Nick Charles, also a reluctant detective, in a number of ways. Although divorced these two crime-solvers share chemistry and some camaraderie; one wonders if Brad’s reluctance to pay his alimony is not an invitation of sorts. They are definitely equals. Once again the female lead is the one with the money. Paula Bradford pursues her alimony on principal and he avoids paying it on the same grounds; she doesn’t need it. What an enviable position for a woman of the thirties, with the effects of the depression still in full swing. Paula’s affluence is emphasized throughout the film as Arthur is lovingly draped in satins and luscious furs by costume designer Bernard Newman. Combined with the art deco decor of a doctor’s bachelor apartment the film at times makes for sumptuous eye-candy. Along with that apartment comes the services of a butler, Stokes, played by Eric Blore, who again seems to have made butlering an occupation endowed with all manner of comedic potential. As always he adds much to the hilarious goings on.
Being a romantic comedy of the 1930’s there are also sight gags and numerous bits of physical business. With Brad (and Powell) being the gentleman he is, it is Paula who does the knocking out of her ex-husband and intended at least twice in this film to hilarious effect*, although she takes a swift kick to the shin as well, later exacting revenge and saying “now we’re equal”. Less ditzy and more persistent than usual, Jean Arthur makes good company for Powell. She matches him in wit and bests him in his pacing, which only compliments his vast repertoire of reaction shots. These two make a lovely comedy team. If they hadn’t been contracted to other studios we may have seen more of this pairing.
Appreciating a film like this requires a bit of a slowing down. Bits by Blore, reaction shots from both he and Powell and the witty exchanges between our loving couple require a savoring of moments. The film works on these instances and on character and charisma more than plot. And the plot does slow at times. The first third seems to work far better than the bogged down middle and it’s no wonder as it focuses more heavily upon the relationship between our two co-stars. Expository dialogue in the whodunit phase while persuasive, comes at the expense of the amusing repartee and banter that makes the introductory scenes sparkle, yet the film entertainingly comes through with a unique denouncement.
Spoiler Alert: An interesting aspect through modern eyes is that the perpetrator is eventually caught not only through deduction and a twist on the dinner party suspect round-up but specifically through the use of film. Brad places cameras strategically throughout the race track in order to find the killer. In reviewing the footage he is able to conclusively prove guilt. Little did the filmmakers know that the use of such footage would one day become commonplace. End Spoiler.
There’s a slightly frustrating unevenness here that’s evident on multiple levels yet The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is a more than worthwhile watch as a showcase for the interplay of two sophisticated charmers working their skills on each other and on us, their appreciative audience. Or put another way, its always a treat to watch Wlliam Powell and Jean Arthur.
Recommended, to savor the chemistry and luster of its stars.
Notes and Extras
- The Ex-Mrs Bradford comes in the middle of an highly successful stretch for William Powell. It was released in 1936 at the height of his film career, one that was to last four decades.
- In 1936 Powell released The Great Ziegfeld, Libeled Lady, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, My Man Godfrey and After The Thin Man. It was an incredible year, one that could’ve potentially challenged Clark Gable’s crown as King at MGM but of course didn’t not only because Gable was Gable, but because several of these films were made on loan-out. Yet MGM remained pleased as each success only enhanced the box-office potential of their talented and debonair star.
- MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld was the second top grossing film of the year beaten only by San Francisco, a Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald musical-disaster vehicle. Libeled Lady and My Man Godfrey both ended up in the top 20 for gross earnings in 1936. It was actually a wonderfully creative and successful year for films, despite the ongoing Depression-era struggles.
- The year 1936 was pivotal not just for Powell but for Arthur. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford was released just one month after one of her most enduring and beloved films, Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. She also starred in five films that year.
- Despite the competition, The Ex-Mrs Bradford still managed to gross just over a million and was widely considered a successful and entertaining film.
- Arthur and Powell shared something more than their three movies. Both had their start in silent films. Powell made his debut in Sherlock Holmes starring John Barrymore in 1922. Arthur was in numerous shorts or minor roles for seven years, making her screen debut the following year. Both actors benefited greatly by the advent of sound with unique, personality-filled speaking voices that enhanced their careers.
- Despite her effervescence it took John Ford to discover Arthur’s comedic potential. The wildly successful and prodigious director cast her in The Whole Town’s Talking in 1935, twelve years after her first film, finally establishing her importance in film history as one among a handful of smart and snappy film comediennes of the golden era.
*Powell, a gentleman in private as well as public life, was continually conscious of his image and hopeful, as his career advanced, to find redeeming qualities in all of his characters. Unlike other male stars of the era, Grant and Cagney come easily to mind, I’ve yet to see Powell hit a woman in his talking films. It’s possible he may have nicely avoided that his entire career. If anyone has information to the contrary, I’d be interested in knowing.