The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) Stephen Roberts

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  “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.”

Ex Mrs Bradford-VHS1   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.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) Charles Laughton

 
 

 

“Beware of false prophets that come in sheep’s clothing…………
It is a shame Charles Laughton never directed another film. Not many first time filmmakers are as impressive as this the first time out. “The Night of the Hunter” is a dark atmospheric thriller that grips you like a vise and never let’s go. The screenplay written by famed film critic and writer James Agee and Charles Laughton, who received no screen credit, was based on a novel of the same name. The novel used a true life incident as the basis for the story. Agee is known for his book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, ignored when first published, and is now considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century. In the 1940’s Agee began work as a film critic for the magazine “The Nation” and wrote his first screenplay, “The African Queen” in 1951 based on C.S. Forester’s novel. “The Night of the Hunter” was his second screenplay. Laughton, of course, was already a successful actor in such movies as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “The Canterville Ghost,” “Rembrandt,” “The Big Clock” and so many others. The film is beautifully and richly photographed by Stanley Cortez. Cortez other works include “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The Three Faces of Eve” and two Sam Fuller films, “Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss”. Cortez was also the Cinematographer on the 1991 TV movie remake of “The Night of the Hunter” which starred Richard Chamberlain.

The film was not a hit with critics or the public at the time of its release and did not win any awards or even receive any nominations. Laughton who made one of the best expressionistic film noirs never directed another film .
 

 

Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is sentenced to hang for his part in a bank robbery and the killing of two people. Before being picked up by the law Harper hides the stolen money at his home and gets his two young children to promise not to reveal where the money is hidden to no one. While in prison, Harper meets the self anointed preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who tries to get Harper to reveal where he has hidden the money. Believing that Harper told his two kids, John and Pearl, where the money is, Powell, upon his release makes his way to Harpers home where he woos Willa (Shelley Winters), Ben’s gullible widow, and the whole town. The one person who is not won over by the hell preaching reverend is young John. Powell marries Willa but rejects her sexually telling her that her body is only for “begettin’ children.” Eventually convinced that Willa does not know where the money is he kills her in a superbly composed and horrifying ritualistic bedroom sacrificial scene. As she lies in bed, he raises his hand; the one with LOVE tattooed on his fingers, and comes down toward her plunging the knife into her. Being 1995, this is off screen. Not getting anywhere with the two young children on confessing where the money is hidden he begins to lose his patience locking them in the cellar. John and Pearl manage to escape and runaway traveling along the river eventually making their way to the home of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) a woman who takes in wayward children. In these scenes, the film takes on a more lyrical fairy tale twist. Powell goes out in search of the children and eventually finds them but Rachel, unlike most adults before her, sees through the phony preacher. After a tense night and a confrontation, Rachel calls the police and they arrest Powell. The town people rise up and demand justice forming a lynch mob led by Walt and Elsie Spoon (the luncheonette owners where Willa worked). The police take Powell out the back door of the jail to escape the mob transporting him to somewhere safer as Rachel Cooper gathers all her kids to get them out of harms way. The film ends with a homey Christmas scene at Rachel’s place.
There’s one scene that takes place in the luncheonette where Willa worked. It takes place after Powell killed her. To cover up for her disappearance Powell is telling Walt and Icey Spoon that Willa ran off leaving her children and him behind. The couple try to console him and at one point Walt tells him don’t worry, she’ll come back. Powell, sitting at the counter, head hanging down replies “She’ll not be back I reckon I can promise you that.” As he finishes the last few words his eyes are raised upward and there’s the most chilling evil sinister look on his face. A wonderful piece of acting by Mitchum that has stuck with me and even sent a chill down my spine.

Other wonderful scenes include the discovery of Willa’s body at the bottom of the lake; the cellar scenes where the two kids are hiding are some of the most gripping in the film and the entire sequence with the two kids going down the river. There’s also a visually stunning scene of Powell riding on horseback as he pursues the kids shot completely in silhouette. The list just goes on. It is difficult to believe that Cortez was not recognized for his work on this film. I found the scenes with Rachel Cooper, reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s work and Laughton may have intentionally done that, or maybe it is just me associating Gish with Griffith.

The only disappointing part of the film was the ending, which seems a little forced and frankly, it is unbelievable that nosey bodies Walt and Icey Spoon are the type to lead an angry lynch mob of town folks who felt betrayed by the deceptive Powell.

Today most agree that Robert Mitchum gives one of his best performances in this film. The entire cast is good but Mitchum is superb. He is the personification of evil dressed in the Lord’s clothing. With the letters spelling out LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers he preaches the word of the Lord while stealing and killing his way toward hell. As most film lovers know a few years, later Mitchum would create another memorable villain, Max Cady, in the 1962 version of “Cape Fear.”