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Jean Arthur began her career in silents, playing mostly forgettable ingenue roles in dozens of films before sound came along and gave her a needed boost. Audiences warmed to her distinctive voice - a girlish chirp with a cracked, husky undertone - and it soon became apparent she had terrific comic talents. Just a month before the release of this picture she hit the screen in a winning role opposite Gary Cooper in the Frank Capra film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), which launched her on a path to major stardom. Still, Arthur remained notoriously shy and nervous before the camera (she would get extremely nauseous before takes) but she was happy to be working with William Powell in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936). And she received praise for her role as the daffy ex-wife of a surgeon, whose penchant for concocting murder mysteries puts her ex at the top of the police department's list of suspects.
Like Arthur, Powell also started in silents but had his best years after sound. Following a moderately successful career playing heavies and villains in the 20s, he made the transition in the early sound years to the witty, sophisticated leading man we remember today, primarily via his several screen appearances as the character Philo Vance, novelist S. S. Van Dine's verbose but whimsical high society man who dabbles in amateur crime detection to relieve his boredom. Within a few years, Powell was a major player at MGM, his stardom solidified by his role opposite Myrna Loy as a high society couple dabbling in crime in The Thin Man (1934). When RKO asked MGM to lend Powell's services for a new film, studio head L. B. Mayer was reluctant to allow another studio to capitalize on the popularity of one of his top stars. But MGM Production Chief Irving Thalberg saw that The Ex-Mrs. Bradford would only increase Powell's stock, especially since it cast him to type as a high society doctor who must turn to amateur sleuthing to clear his name in a murder investigation.
Powell, who had script approval for all loanouts, found the screenplay a winner and readily agreed. He was also happy to see that his co-star was to be Jean Arthur, for whom he had predicted a bright future when she was still a supporting player in three of his previous films, including his first Philo Vance picture, The Canary Murder Case (1929), and one other in the series.
Beyond its two leads, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford shares similarities with other popular films of the period. It's got the screwball estranged husband and wife who clearly belong together after all, as in I Love You Again (1940) and Love Crazy (1941), both starring Powell and Loy, and The Awful Truth (1937) with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne; the married couple at the center of a tale combining the dark, often gruesome elements of a crime story with the breezy romantic comedy typical of the time (The Thin Man and the resulting six-picture series); the madcap society girl who won't mind her own business, nearly bringing ruin on the object of her affections (The Mad Miss Manton and Bringing Up Baby, both 1938); and the wise-cracking butler, played here (and in over 20 other pictures) by Eric Blore. Even as early as 1936, critics were saying The Ex-Mrs. Bradford was covering "fearfully familiar ground," and yet most were delighted to report that the work of everyone involved made it all seem fresh and novel.
The two stars were ably aided by a supporting cast that included popular character actors (and real-life married couple) James and Lucile Gleason in one of 13 films they made together; Robert Armstrong, the "master showman" Carl Denham of King Kong (1933); Ralph Morgan, brother of Frank, aka The Wizard of Oz (1939); and once-promising starlet Lila Lee, mother of James Kirkwood, Jr., author of the plays P.S. Your Cat Is Dead and A Chorus Line.
The Ex-Mrs. Bradford was the last film directed by Stephen Roberts before his untimely death of a heart attack at the age of 40, two months after the picture's release. Roberts began his career in 1924 and turned out more than 60 pictures (many of them comedies) over the next 12 years. He had worked with Powell previously in Star of Midnight (1935), which co-starred Ginger Rogers and was about another couple embroiled in a whodunit. One of the writers of that script was Anthony Veiller, who also penned The Ex-Mrs. Bradford. Veiller had a very active and successful career for 30 years as the sole or contributing writer of more than 30 screenplays, including his Oscar®-nominated work on Stage Door (1937) and The Killers (1946).
Director: Stephen Roberts
Producer: Edward Kaufman
Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, story by James Edward Grant
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Editing: Arthur Roberts
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Cast: William Powell (Dr. Lawrence Bradford), Jean Arthur (Paula Bradford), James Gleason (Inspector Corrigan), Eric Blore (Stokes the Butler), Robert Armstrong (Nick Martel).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon