Monday, August 31, 2009

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

I finally got to watch one of my most-sought-after movies on TCM last night, 1936’s The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, starring William Powell and Jean Arthur. The film is part of what I call the Husband and Wife Detective Team genre. I did enjoy the movie, which sped by at a brisk eighty minutes. It’s not a great movie like The Thin Man, and it falls short of the 1935 Thin Man knockoff also starring Powell, Star of Midnight (1935), co-starring Ginger Rogers. But The Ex-Mrs. Bradford has enough going for it to recommend to obsessed fans of the Husband and Wife Detective sub-genre. Here we have William Powell on loan from MGM and Jean Arthur was also on loan, as she was under contract to Columbia Pictures until 1944.

Lawrence Bradford (Powell) a successful doctor, is enjoying dinner (prepared by his butler, Stokes; a shamefully underused Eric Blore) when his ex-wife Paula (Jean Arthur) comes in with a lawyer who serves Dr. Bradford—called “Brad” by Paula—with a subpoena for “non-payment of support” which the wealthy mystery writer Paula says was just an excuse to see him again. Paula joins Brad for dinner and drops the bombshell that she wants to re-marry the good doctor. According to Bradford-- in a line I’ve quoted for years—the reason for their divorce was her cockeyed murder mysteries. Why this destroyed their marriage is never explained, except that they made Dr. Bradford “a wreck.” It’s pretty thin stuff, even for a 1930s sleuthing couple movie. Anyway, a jockey dies under mysterious circumstances and the jockey’s trainer asks Brad to investigate. When the trainer ends up dead at Bradford’s door, the doctor must clear himself with the help of his kooky ex-wife; or something like that.

All the Thin Man ingredients are sort of in place but the script lets everyone down. The mystery is somewhat interesting but we never get to know the suspects or their motives. The supporting cast is flat and anonymous—even the usually-dependable James Gleason seems out of his element—and Eric Blore is criminally underused in the potentially hilarious role of the butler, Stokes. He gets one good sight gag, and that’s all. Jean Arthur gets nothing to work with and many of her lines—seeming misunderstandings—fall flat every time. She’s also filmed through an industrial-strength cheese cloth for some of her close ups--extreme even for this era! Arthur looks as though she were filmed through a cloud. And I kept waiting for William Powell to dazzle me with his usual panache, but even the potential gags and one-liners he gets don’t come off with any energy.

The real star of this film is the Art Deco apartment by Van Nest Polglase, whose praises I’ve sung before. It’s a way of fully absorbing this world that I obsess over the living quarters of a detective movie set. Dr. Bradford has a beyond-great apartment—I can’t remember if it's in New York or Los Angeles—and I spent much of the movie trying to navigate its dimensions. It has a foyer with an entrance to the living room and to Bradford’s doctor office on the other, located in the turret of the place on an upper-level floor. The living room is like a wheel with the adjoining rooms spokes leading to and from it. Watching this movie is worth it just for this great apartment. Bradford even has a projector niche hidden behind a painting that allows for movies to be shown across the dining room and on the living room wall. This is what every self-respecting, wealthy, urbane 1930s detective should have! The projector also features in the film’s closing gag and ensures a happy ending. If I ever get the chance to watch The Ex-Mrs. Bradford again, it will be to sketch out a blueprint of his elegant and sophisticated apartment.

Could RKO have had an Ex-Mrs. Bradford film series based on this single entry? Probably, but the movie is slight and half-hearted in almost every aspect of its execution, even for this genre. A better supporting cast would’ve worked wonders here, as would a coherent script with some bite. It’s barely adequate as is and even the titanic star power of Powell and Arthur cannot make it shine. The Art Deco set is a wonder, and anyone with an interest in 1930s high glamour should watch just for that. I’m a big enough fan of the Husband and Wife sub genre to watch The Ex-Mrs. Bradford over and over, but not because it’s a great—or even average—movie.

Now What Would Asta Do...?


  1. I feel so bad that you were disappointed, since you looked forward to this so much!

    On the bright side, at least you only had to watch "eight" minutes of it ;)

  2. Just call me "Mr. Typo"... :o

    Make that "Eighty" minutes!

  3. Definately not in the league with other Powell movies, but I think still entertaining. The Lux Radio version is a lot of fun.

  4. I just recorded this film the other day and look forward to watching it. Arthur is a great commedienne and well Powell is Powell. From your review it sound like a low level Thin Man.
    Still, I am going to give it a shot.

  5. I agree with your assessment, but I still like it very much- Eric Blore's Stokes is a scream if you ask me and like you said, woefully underutilized.

  6. I am not very internet savvy, but I just stumbled across your site, wonderful, is the word, Jean Arthur is always a joy to watch, I often go to Hollywood on vacation just to be where the golden age of cinema was produced, keep up the great site, I will bookmark it.

  7. I had never seen this one. I'm sorry that you were disappointed in it.

  8. Oho! I didn't know Lux did a version. I'll keep an ear out. (So to speak.)

    Yes, it's fluff, but what elegant fluff it is. (I agree about the soft focus, though. There was too much of that.)

    There are a slew of 30s movies on TCM next Tuesday (the 8th, I think) that I've never seen. Beginning at 6:00 a.m. I suggest you tape them!

  9. Really great review! To bad the film was disappointing (I haven't seen it), but Art Deco sets can make any film worthwhile!
    Really nice pictures too, C.K.!

  10. I enjoyed this movie though I agree it wasn't great. RKO sets in the '30s were amazing!

    I've been collecting Lux Radio shows this year -- in the radio version Claudette Colbert stars with William Powell. I enjoy seeing how the shows were recast for the radio!

    Best wishes,

  11. I rewatched this upon receiving the new DVD in September and found that I liked it much better this time around! I concentrated less on the Arthur-Powell banter and instead focused on the plot, as it were. A lot better than last year's review might indicate.

  12. Hi, thanks for your write up on this movie, I was just about to blog on it and did a little google search first, I'm afraid to say I saved one of your photos from it for my post.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it more the second time around, I think I liked it more than you did while recognising a lot of the same faults. I very rarely sit there watching a movie and actually acknowledging that the script has let the cast down but that happened a few times watching this last night. I could watch Arthur and Powell in just about anything and I like you was captivated by that appartment but I was kind of urging it to really reach the top grade as well.

    Thanks for the mention of Star of Midnight, am seeking that one out now as i am a huge Rogers fan.

    my review should be up at soonish


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