Charmed Again: The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dancing As Fast As They Can: Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

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A RKO Production ~  Director: Dorothy Arzner, Based on a story by Vicki Baum, Screenplay by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, Art Director: Van Nest Polglase,  Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson

What a warm, satisfying movie this is. As must happen in post-Code Hollywood, a young woman pays a price, both for her naïveté as well as her ability to pack a good wallop, but becomes a better woman for it, having come to terms with her own nature and realizing her dreams in the process.

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There is so much in Dance, Girl, Dance that it’s hard to know where to begin. What’s most interesting is that Dorothy Arzner has been able to present characters that make many mistakes and yet remain sympathetic. She has an unerring sense of humanity towards these people, hiding their foibles in plain sight by rendering them as charming as they are flawed and struggling.

Their struggles involve primarily finding out who they are but also in finding who they love and it is only in resolving the first that they are able to discover the second. The resolved romances at films end work nicely to underscore this sense that these people have finally come home, only to find themselves opening the door. The film works as a romantic comedy but definitely has serious pre-feminist undertones.

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Our heroine,  Judy O’Brian, played by a luminous and young Maureen O’Hara, admits her Irish feistiness but acknowledges she “keeps it to a low simmer”. Her best friend, also a bit of an antagonist, is portrayed by a gorgeous and scene-stealing Lucille Ball. She plays Bubbles, a gold-digger disguised as a dancer but not necessarily one with a heart of gold. Her comedic gifts are certainly on display but here there’s a toughness and an edge rarely seen. Bubbles’ primary aim is to find that gold and keep it for herself; survival is the name of the game. While she’s capable of being a friend she’s not necessarily capable of being a good one.

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Bubbles offers Judy a chance to finally make a living dancing but it’s a humiliating one where she is actually called a Stooge. Sent on stage to be mocked and laughed at, she’s there to stoke the crowd for the more seductively naughty Bubbles, now facetiously dubbed Tiger Lily White, in a burlesque show.

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Judy longs for the kind of break that would allow her to truly pursue her heart and become a serious dancer, but her lack of confidence gets in the way and prevents her from sensing opportunity when it literally smiles her way. As the one doing the smiling, Ralph Bellamy adds a warm presence and a handy shoulder.

Judy’s nightly onstage humiliation moves her anger from what was a simmer to a slow burn and ultimately a full-blown knockdown drag-out with Bubbles. Ostensibly about a man who takes turns toying with each of them, a smarmy Louis Hayward, the confrontation is more about the women’s relationship and who they are to one another. Bubbles maintains this friendship not just because Judy has been useful to her but because she brings a warmth and depth to her life that would not be there without her companionship. Similarly, Judy admires Bubbles ability to unabashedly pursue her selfish interests and thereby make her way in the world, a man’s world, despite compromises. These are two tough women and they admire each other. But the dichotomy they represent is also why they come to blows.

This film opens with a simple dance sequence, marked by dazzling costumes, that immediately establishes character.  This small troupe is overseen by a wise Maria Oupenskaya, portraying Madame Lydia Basilova, who makes a short but lovely appearance as the original source of strength for these women.  Madame, a former ballerina and  head of her own dance troupe is a role model for Judy and Bubbles in an industry compromised by catering to men’s ogles and desires. Madame is tragically killed when Judy goes to what should’ve been her big break but which instead becomes only a revelatory moment; Judy is too frightened to fully pursue her dreams.  It is only when she finally grabs hold of her own anger that she is able to understand she is entitled to her own happiness.

Much of the story revolves around men who are used as plot devices; this is a woman’s story. In one literally show stopping moment O’Hara delivers a scathing speech to her predominately male audience, best seen rather than described. It’s far ahead of its time.

Despite being a film about dance the costuming works in homage to the characters and their development. The film opens with the small troupe dancing in unison in glittering black. However, as the women’s paths diverge, they are never again seen in identical costumes. Bubbles rise up the ladder of success involves not just a name change but the donning of gorgeous coats with luscious fur collars. She is expensively accessorized. Similarly, Judy is seen in simple designs, even wearing a Peter Pan collar to a nightclub, until the very end when she finally comes into her own. The costumes in this picture were designed by Edward Stevenson,  known for his ability to enhance story without drawing attention to his own designs. He later became the favorite designer for Lucille Ball who appreciated his eye for character-driven costumes that never overpowered her considerable personality except when needed for comedic effect.

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Maureen O’Hara positively glows with her youthfulness and beauty in this early role. A mere twenty years old at the time, she had already succeeded in starring roles in two motion pictures, this being her fifth film.

For Lucille Ball, the road to fame was a much longer, arduous process. Almost unbelievably this was Ms. Ball’s 60th film, with many more to come before she finally achieved stardom as Mrs. Ricky Ricardo in the famed I Love Lucy television series. The series was a love child for Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz.

Based on a story by Vicky Baum and a script by the frequent screenwriting partnership of Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) Dance, Girl, Dance definitely showcases the perspective of the women who created it and the men who supported their vision.

Recommended, for knowledge of woman in film, lovers of Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball and sheer entertainment. 

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Notes and Extras

  • Bosley Crowther at the New York Times didn’t particularly care for this one, citing it as “a saga of glamour-struck chorines to end all sagas of said glamour-struck chorines” and not in a flattering way.  He does have a few kind words for Lucille Ball.
  • Yet this film is gaining in esteem and this is reflected over at Streamline, the Filmstruck Blog.  David Kalat gives it a fair amount of space and good words, in addition to exploring some other movies in the ‘small town girl hoping to make good’ genre.
  • Crowther also withheld praise from Too Many Girls, Desi Arnaz’s first film, co-starring his new bride, Lucille.  The influential critic had better words for her than for Arnaz who he panned horribly describing him as a “a noisy, black-haired Latin whose face unfortunately lacks expression and whose performance is devoid of grace”.  Needless to say Arnaz persevered.
  • The couple not only persevered but went on to buy  the very property where this was shot, along with the rest of RKO’s soundstages and backlots, subsuming them into the massive empire that became Desilu Studios.
  • Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz actually met during the filming of Dance, Girls, Dance.  Due to the strenousness of filming a morning into afternoon vicious catfight between O’Hara and Ball, shooting was stopped, freeing up the latter for the remainder of the day. Lucy casually strolled over to a stage where the cast of Too Many Girls, already in the planning stages, was gathered.  Desi’s quick eye caught hers and he proceeded to not only show her his rumba but asked her to dinner for the evening.  As Lucy later recalled “we were in love almost immediately”.
  • Lucy and Desi were married on November 30, 1940, three months after the release of Dance, Girl, Dance.  For more on their breath-taking relationship and professional partnership, Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television’s Most Famous Couple by Warren G. Harris is highly recommended.
  • Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball became fast friends during the filming of this picture and remained so until Ball’s death in 1989.  O’Hara, nine years her junior, outlived her by twenty-six years.
  • Costume designer Edward Stevenson first worked with Ball on That Girl From Paris (1936), another RKO film. When seeking a designer for her television show I Love Lucy, Ball sought him out.  He worked for her until his death from cardiac arrest in 1968. At the time, Stevenson had placed a called to Desilu to consult upon a fabric. When Ball got to the phone, she was informed he’d been stricken.
  • Director Roy Del Ruth was initially assigned to direct this film, but left the production, causing Arzner to scramble and pull the film together and quickly.
  • Dorothy Arzner was well-suited to pulling things together.  As the only female director working in the 1930’s, she was adaptable.  Arzner was the first woman to direct a sound film and the first to join the Directors Guild of America.
  • Dance,Girl, Dance is available for streaming through Amazon, to either rent or purchase.  Choices, choices.
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Dorothy Arzner with Lucille Ball on set