“The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” falls into a small, exclusive and unofficial sub-genre called comedy-mystery films. The RKO production is clearly a carbon copy of the much more popular and superior Thin Man series. It is a small group of films, though generally entertaining even if most are not outright classics. The idea behind these films is to have a lot of snappy banter between the husband and wife and a murder or two for them to solve, nothing gory or to intricate to get in the way of the overall lightness of the affair.
Along with the five Nick and Nora films, there is the FAST series, “Fast and Furious”, “Fast Company” and “Fast and Loose.” Surprisingly, the husband and wife detective team in this series was never played twice by the same pair of actors. We also have “Mr. and Mrs. North” with Gracie Allen, “A Night to Remember” with Brian Adhere and Loretta Young and more recently, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in his 1994 homage to Hammett’s sleuths, in “Manhattan Murder Mystery.”
Of course, if the movies do it, you can bet television would reproduce it. Shows like “Hart to Hart” and small screen versions of “Mr. and Mrs. North” and “Nick and Nora” would follow. By the way, there is a great article over at C.K. Dexter Haven’s Hollywood Dreamland that goes into more detail on this topic and is certainly worth checking out. Also, check out CK’s own review of “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.”
Along with Mr. Powell as Dr. Lawrence Bradford, we have here the ever-charming Jean Arthur as Paula, the ex -Mrs. Bradford of the title. The script is by Anthony Veiller based on a story by James Edward Grant and directed by Stephen Roberts. Roberts career goes back to the silent days. His works include “The Story of Temple Drake” and “Star of Midnight”, another reworking of “The Thin Man” only here the couple are boyfriend and girlfriend though not surprisingly, it also stars William Powell, along with Ginger Rogers (Powell seemed to have a lock on this kind of role). “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” was Roberts final film; he died only months later after its release.
Dr. Bradford is involved in a case of two jockeys who are mysteriously murdered. With the help of his eccentric somewhat ditzy mystery writer ex-wife Paula, the couple goes about solving the crimes though the good doctor becomes a prime suspect himself before unraveling the case and clearing his good name. It is all very light and entertaining though the level of wit is nowhere near the Thin Man films. Some of the comedy is telegraphed so far in advance that you get the message before it is delivered; still Powell and Arthur are a treat to watch, though Ms. Arthur comes across as too smart an actress to be convincing as featherbrained Paula. Watching her in this film, I started thinking how interesting it would be to see how she would have faired if she played Nora Charles in “The Thin Man.”
Powell is an old hand at this kind of story, having played Nick Charles for the second time, in “After the Thin Man” that same year for Paramount. A few years earlier, he was Philo Vance in a series of detective movies including “The Canary Murder Case” which coincidently had a young Jean Arthur as a showgirl. Nineteen Thirty Six was actually a big year for Powell. Along with the second Thin Man film, he also co-starred in two classic screwball comedies “My Man Godfrey” with Carole Lombard, “Libeled Lady” with Jean Harlow and Myrna Loy. Additionally, he appeared in “The Great Ziegfeld.” Jean Arthur made a big splash that same year in Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”
The film also co-stars Grant Mitchell, James Gleason and Robert Armstrong who most will recognize as Carl Denham from the original 1933 version of “King Kong.” While “The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” is entertaining, ultimately it is disappointing with a flat script, old jokes, a flimsy mystery and a sense that you have seen it all before and better done.
“The Ex-Mrs. Bradford” was released on VHS years some ago as part of the RKO Collection, however with no DVD release; it is now among the missing.