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The Ex-Mrs Bradford (1936) Stephen Roberts

December 15, 2012

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Rather a strange one to review this time, it stars two of my favourite 1930s leads and is a classic example of so many notable tropes that I could talk on it for hours but I was still left hoping for a little bit more while I watched it. It is a definite attempt to ape the success of The Thin Man, as the poster's reference to Powell's star sleuth status reveals, like the original Thin Man movie it attempts to work as a serious mystery as well as a comedy.

Powell was on loan to RKO from MGM and I guess RKO had gone after him solely to start their own franchise. They didnt manage to also get Loy so instead gave Powell his own choice of alternate lead and at his recommendation loaned Jean Arthur from Columbia. Powell had starred with her in several earlier movies dating back to the silent era and while they dont have the chemistry he did with Loy this probably is the sparkliest and sexiest I've seen her. She seems comfortable with Powell and at 36 is a few years younger than in the Capra, Hawks and George Stevens movies she is probably best remembered for. With a better script there could have been a real fizz about the movie.

They play a divorced couple, she a rich and succesfull mystery writer, he an eminent surgeon. They divorced due to Arthur constantly involving Powell in the research for her mysteries; a light enough reason for the audience to never really question whether they should be together or not. Arthur takes the pretext of unpaid alimony to arrive on Powell's doorstep and try and force a reconciliation and they are soon investigating the murder of a jockey.

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Powell is in his element here, playing that bizarre mixture of high and low that he tied together with pure charm in so many of his pictures. He has a butler and chauffeur and an art deco appartment that is the real star of the movie; but he is also the cities top surgeon, on call to the police when they really need to get to the bottom of a cause of death while also being someone at home at the track and with a knowledge of the seedier side of town. It’s an impossibly fantastic combination of riches, talent and the common touch that Powell pulls off in a lot of his films, its definitely there in The Thin Man and he makes each aspect seem slightly like someone playing at it, as much as he oozed charm and sophistication you could tell he was as out of his element bossing a butler around as he was gossiping with the Runyonesque types at the track. I think it plays a large part in his appeal and is somehow allied to just how far he would go in search of a laugh. There is no pomposity there with Powell and it makes his sophistication all the more appealling. His handling of gangsters is visibly fake and it makes his fitting in with the toffs equally so, an important thing in the depression hit thirties where clearly being a haughty member of the upper classes could be box office poison.

Arthur gets a lot less screen time, she wasn’t Loy and they had Powell doing his Nick Charles thing and focused on that. She gets to work her magical voice a few times, particularly while impersonating people on the phone and she has a wonderfully ‘knowing how this will all turn out’ take on her interaction with Powell. For me she is someone who works via the script and that undefinable ‘feel’ she is not a great beauty, she’s not really willing to expose herself emotionally or really turn up the kooky. She just hints at these inner workings that make her lovable and make you fill in for yourself why Powell would have originally fallen for her and take her back. This isn’t one of her classics but she’s very likeable in it all the same. The movie as a whole is as well, there’s a reason it isn’t as findly remembered, if its remembered at all, as some of their other work but they still clearly like being on screen together and do the things that make their remaining fans like them.

The couple work their way through a cast of suspects and uncover an extravagant method of murder efficiently enough. The film only really raises itself when they are playing off each other and at the same time those are the moments that leave you crying out for a better script or direction to allow it to hit the real heights. They are perhaps let down by the supporting cast, Eric Blore as the butler is perhaps the best known but is both under used and annoying. Instead most of the time is spent on the various suspects and police officers who slot in and out without being particularly memorable. The mystery isn’t quite as good as in ‘The Mad Miss Manton’ and the one liners and sex appeal aren’t a patch on ‘The Thin Man’ but it’s still an enjoyable romantic thriller.

I had noticed that this was the 106th and final film of the directors career and wondered if its flatness had perhaps been a career ender but a quick look at his biographical info tells me that he in fact died, aged only 40, in the summer of 1936 cutting short a career dating back to the silent era. Writer James Edward Grant is most notable for a bunch of post war John Wayne movies rather than sparkling comedies. I think that whatever is missing from the movie probably should have come from one of them, there is too much exposition, perhaps a little too much plot, and just not enough zingers.

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The film did leave me musing on the prevalence of divorce and reconciliation in the movies of the time.

Was it a hold over from the romantic lives of the stars and crew themselves?

William Powell was of course already divorced from Carol Lombard before romancing her in ‘My Man Godfrey’ and romanced many of his co-stars.

Was it a way in this movie to allow the female lead to move into the male star’s appartment while maintaining decorum?

Maybe just a way to suggest to show a courtship of two characters who had clearly slept together in the past, to make something more grown up and grounded in a sexual reality than it was possible to show in the movies of the time for characters who had just met.

A time saving way to jump all that expositionary stuff about finding out about their backgrounds and whether to kiss and just let them bounce of each other with the audience able to imagine them properly together?

Maybe just an acceptance that the leads weren’t that young and if the movie was going to end with them finding true love it perhaps should best be with someone they had already loved rather than leaving you wondering why it took them that long or how they compare to their previous entanglements. I’m not sure, but they certainly dont seem like any real divorces, they never seem to really change relationships or financial circumstances and they are always very easily undone with no lasting damage. There’s a thesis in there somewhere that would allow much enjoyable watching of 30s hokum.

Its a likeable enough hour and a half, worth seeing for the leads and the amazing art-deco sumerian inspired sets. Its a movie that you immediately know where you are with, that puts you straight into that bizzare movie created 30s world of do-gooding Park Avenue types who also knew who to place a bet with, divorces that are just an opportunity for a memorable reconciliation and murders that can keep a few flighty minds entertained between cocktails. I’d have liked it with a better script, but then i’ve already seen it with a better script, over at MGM and without Miss Arthur and any attempt to come close to that, even only this close, is fine by me.

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