In the years following the success of Warner Brother’s “The Thin Man” (1934), a whole slew of imitations and copycat films were produced (as well as the five sequels, of course). Some of these films were good… and some not so good. None, however, seemed to duplicate that perfect blend of light-hearted ease, and suspenseful drama as well as “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” (1936).
The story revolves around Dr. Lawrence Bradford (William Powell) and his mystery novelist ex-wife, Paula (Jean Arthur). It seems they got a divorce because Paula’s cravings for adventure and danger during her preparations for her novels became too much for the Dr.’s quiet way of life. Their marriage certainly didn’t crumble from a lack of attraction, or love, as is obvious whenever they are in a room together. Paula has returned from traveling the world (and pushed her way back into his house) because of a growing desire to rekindle things with her dear husband.
Coinciding with her return is the mysterious death of a jockey, right in the middle of a lucrative horse race. Paula is sure foul play was involved, and will stop at nothing to get her ex-husband to help investigate. Reluctant as he may be, Paula’s charms are more than he can handle, which works out conveniently since Dr. Bradford shows up as suspect number one. He also may very well be the only man capable of solving this particular mystery.
See what I mean? This could have been another “Thin Man” movie, except for the whole divorce angle.William Powell is as delightful as ever in a role that is perfectly suited for his comedic abilities, leaving the audience desiring nothing. So, sure, Myrna Loy isn’t in the film- which is a great travesty, but Jean Arthur’s no slouch herself. In fact the one major difference between “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” and the “Thin Man” films is that in this movie the wife character is just as tough as her husband- thus the need for Arthur. Nobody can say that Jean Arthur isn’t capable of being tough. (It also doesn’t hurt that she’s as beautiful as ever in this film.)
If there is any time that you want me to start spouting off about what an amazing actor William Powell is- all you have to do is ask. He seems to always have his character’s thoughts running through his head, and even when the dialogue or staging becomes over the top, Powell knows how to play the part in order to ensure laughs. His career has many notable moments, but the reason I am singling him out today is because of my admiration for his ability to turn out magnificent performances one on top of the other. “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” was not the only movie in which he appeared in 1936. Just a few months later he could also be seen in one of his best roles, alongside Carole Lombard in “My Man Godfrey” (1936). But Powell wasn’t done there either. Before the year was out he also starred in the comic hit, “The Libeled Lady” (1936), and the second installment in the “Thin Man” series, “After the Thin Man” (1936). If that wasn’t enough, he also headlined an amazing cast in that year’s Best Picture winning “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), bringing his grand total to five films in one year, all of which were successful, including three of them being among the highest eleven grossing films of 1936. How he was able to put in so much energy, day after day, to ensure the highest possible quality, I’ll never know.
“The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” was directed by Stephen Roberts, who to me was not a “known” filmmaker. After a little research I learned that he directed his first film in 1923, at the age of 27, and proceeded to direct more than 100 movies between that time and the release of this film in May of 1936, before his untimely death of a heart attack just two months later. His filmography is impressive to behold, even if many of the films are unheard of or obscure, and one can’t help but think about what could have been.
Is “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” a masterpiece of filmmaking? No, but it is entertaining and showcases two of Hollywood’s most entertaining actors in all their glory and splendor.