The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)
A movie review, are you shocked? No…didn’t think so. Today’s film seems to be entrenched in the mode of “The Thin Man was a great success, what else do we have that’s like it?” The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is a cute movie but it plays the fact that it’s a direct rip-off of the The Thin Man on its sleeve. Thankfully the two leads, William Powell (see what I mean) and Jean Arthur are so loveable I found myself enjoying this thoroughly. The mystery gets a little too wacky at the end involving jockeys, gelatin, and spiders, but again those two leads elevate this far higher than expected.
Dr. Lawrence Bradford (Powell) wants to relax and take care of his patients after divorcing his wife. Sadly, said ex-wife Paula (Arthur) comes collecting her alimony and until it’s paid up she decides to bunk with Brad and make his life hell. Paula is a mystery writer and becomes obsessed with getting her ex to solve the case of a dead jockey and the nefarious world of horse racing.
I generally don’t like to post full movies on YouTube but what the heck! Here is The Ex-Mrs. Bradford in one part for your viewing pleasure. Just remember to come back and read the rest of the review! The things I do for you:
I’m going to compare this a lot to The Thin Man but I’ll refrain from spoilers. I mentioned in yesterday’s post that I’ve never seen a Jean Arthur film, well scratch that off the list! She is a bright ray of sunshine in this movie as the flighty Paula. Where Myrna Loy plays Nora Charles with a grace that can be swapped with quirkiness and grit with the aid of alcohol, Arthur is all smiles. She can be a taste grating and seems to be using the accent taken on by Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby but it went well with her character. She’s the perfect complement to Powell’s mild-mannered doctor. Paula is so wound up the world of mysteries she can’t leave it; as evidenced by the way she’s introduced. She assumes there’s danger literally around every door and constantly jumps on Brad to the point that he spills his coffee and drops dishes. It seems to lampoon the trope of most murder-mysteries and film noir where danger is lurking in the shadows.
Their relationship is definitely seen through the lens of “What would it be like if Nick and Nora Charles got divorced?” Well, they’d still be insanely in love with each other! Brad says how happy he is to be away from Paula, “Now I can read a murder in the paper and be happy!” Yet as the film unfolds there’s a glint behind Powell’s eyes that lets you know he’s loving this. Sure, Paula drives him insane but that’s the fun. Brad comes off as perpetually exasperated, saying his lines with a hint of a sigh and that all adds to the phenomenal chemistry of the leads. Again, the comparisons to Bringing Up Baby can be seen a mile away, odd considering that film wouldn’t be out for another two years. Paula herself is like a lovesick girl, constantly going around telling people Brad’s going to remarry her.
Compared to The Thin Man, I found more slapstick humor in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford. There’s a hilarious scene where Brad goes to the morgue to check out the murder victim. Of course he tells Paula the morgue is “no place for a lady” and asks his butler Stokes (Eric Blore) to come with them. As soon as Paula enters the morgue she faints. Of course Stokes is meant to be there to carry Paula home and as Brad drags her out, calling for Stokes, we see the butler passed out as well (before even entering the room!). It’s a double whammy of comedy I didn’t expect. There’s also a great moment of written humor where Brad reads a lengthy note from Paula that starts out saying she’s left and she isn’t coming back only to write on the back of the page, “Be back in ten minutes.” You don’t even need Arthur to say the line and it’s funny as it emphasizes how she loves to frustrate her ex-husband. The big running gag is Paula’s attempt to knock the bad guy upside the head with a statue while he’s scuffling with Brad. Of course she hits Brad, and when the big climax happens you wait to see if she finally gets the right guy (I won’t spoil whether she does or not).
The script, written by at least six people according to IMDB, has some great one-liners. Here’s just a few. Brad tells Paula after getting that first conk on the head, “I’m a badly injured man, can you go away and let me suffer in peace?” I’ve said that a time or two. Or Paula’s line at a dinner party with all the suspects, “Brad’s very quick. Nothing escapes him…except the murderer.”
Now, one can’t ignore how this is a blatant copy of The Thin Man which came out two years prior. Powell continues to show he can play any profession (doctor, socialite) and seamlessly re-enter the detective world. The minute you see him in a fedora, smoking a cigarette, you say “Yes! Detective time!” Well maybe you don’t say that but I do. He also shows off phenomenal chemistry with a female lead he’s supposed to hate (shades of Libeled Lady come through here). The biggest issue lies in the plot, the actual mystery. In The Thin Man, the thin man himself was the MacGuffin. Here there’s none of that. We have a murdered group of people, horse jockeys, and a cache of money floating around. That’s all well and good until the murder weapon is revealed to be gelatin laid on the skin containing a black widow spider. When a person gets hot riding the horse, the gelatin melts, the spider is free and than bites said person. It’s a silly way to kill someone and it never feels like much of a threat. Also, the climax takes place when Powell gathers all the suspects together…not to have dinner, but watch a movie! If you haven’t seen The Thin Man, then great, but if you have you start to wonder if they just took the original script and tweaked a few things.
I can’t complain, I enjoyed The Ex-Mrs. Bradford for what it was. It isn’t a classic whodunit a la the film it borrows from, but it’s a fun divergence with witty banter and two phenomenal leads. I’m so happy I finally saw a Jean Arthur movie!
Have you seen The Ex-Mrs. Bradford or The Thin Man? Which do you prefer?
What does everyone think of this new background and theme for the site? Do you like this or would you prefer the old design? Do you like the lack of the custom header or not? Please let me know! Also, the poll seems to have taken an upswing, Cape Fear is leading 3 to 1 (The Tempest and Night of the Hunter). I got enough movies on my DVR so I’ll let this run till Sunday, please vote if you haven’t already.
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Thanks for reading!
I just saw this today. The plot was thin but Powell and Arthur are winners. Arthur was stretching a tad compared to the roles I usually see her in, but she pulled it off masterfully. Powell wore this role like an old suit, he probably could have written his lines himself, even in his sleep. 7.5 or an 8 out of 10.