Ex-Mrs. Bradford, The (1936): Comedy-Mystery, Starring Jean Arthur and William Powell

Jean Arthur and William Powell star on The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, a comedy mystery about a divorced couple who investigate a murder at a racetrack, and in the process fall in love again.

This feature belongs to the sub-genre of the comedy screwball known as “the comedy of remarriage,” a category that includes such gems as Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (both starring Cary Grant, both in 1940), and others.

This was the last film directed by Stephen Roberts before his untimely death from heart attack, and it was made in the midst of the vastly popular Thin Man series, in which Powell co-starred to even greater success with partner and wife in crime, Myrna Loy.

Arthur, then at the prime of her career (Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, with Gary Cooper) plays wealthy murder mystery writer Paula Bradford, who returns from her world travels to see her former husband, surgeon Dr. Lawrence “Brad” Bradford (Powell).  The divorce was caused due to Paula’s involving him in real-life murder cases, but now she wants him back.

When a jockey riding the favorite dies in a race, she is convinced it was murder.  She and Mike North (Frank M. Thomas), the horse’s trainer, persuade the doctor to investigate. Initially reluctant, Brad joins in and soon finds traces of Gelatin on the corpse.

North calls to say he will come to Brad to pick up envelope sent to him.  Someone claiming to be North also calls, asking Brad to meet him but without the money.

Opening the envelope, Brad finds a lot of  money, which makes him suspicious.  A burglar in his office, looking for the letter, precipitates a fight. When Paula tries to help, she ends up knocking Brad out instead, and the intruder slips away.

Soon after, North’s body falls into Brad’s apartment, and police Inspector Corrigan (James Gleason) thinks Brad is suspect in the second death. To clear himself, now Brad has to solve two murders.

Along the way, we meet other suspects, Nick Martel (Robert Armstrong), a bookie who owed North $100,000 for a winning bet; Leroy Hutchins (Ralph Morgan), the winning horse owner; John Summers (Grant Mitchell), the favorite’s owner; Mrs. Summers, who has an affair with the married Mrs. Martel; Summer’s lawyer, Henry Strand (Frank Reicher), and even Brad’s receptionist, Miss Prentiss (Lila Lee).

Going to the address provided, Brad and Paula discover the body of Lou Pender (Paul Fix), the would-be burglar, who had masqueraded as North. While is examining the corpse, an unseen person shoots and wounds Brad through the window.

It turns out that the killer put a deadly black widow spider inside a gelatin capsule, and then attached it to the victim’s body. Since the same horses are to race against each other the next day, Brad sets up cameras around the racetrack. The murderer strikes again, but had inoculated the jockey beforehand.

Brad invites the suspects to his suite, and screens the footage he had taken, which shows Mr. Summers slipping a capsule down the jockey’s back. Summers then admits his motive was revenge against his unfaithful wife and Martel.

In the end, during a struggle between Brad and Summers, the careless Paula again knocks out her ex-husband.  However, realizing they can’t live–or work without each other–they decided to marry again.

While the acting of the central couple is good, their rapport doesn’t begin to suggest the strong chemistry that prevailed between Powell and Loy in their long film series, The Thin Man.

Even though made on a relatively low budget, The Ex Mrs. Border was successful at the box office, largely due to the star power of the leads.

It’s worth noting that 1936 was the best year in Powell’s career, in which he starred in one of his best known in the Best Picture Oscar winner, the MGM musical The Great Ziegfeld.