The Ex-Mrs. Bradford

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, William Powell. Directed by Stephen Roberts. B&W, 81 minutes.

Paula Bradford (Jean Arthur) and Dr. Lawrence “Brad” Bradford (William Powell) are divorced, yet enjoy a cordial relationship — perhaps enjoyed a bit more by Paula than Brad. The ex-Mrs. Bradford believes the two should re-marry, and to that end, she’s moved back into his roomy apartment.

But that isn’t the only conflict in their relationship. Paula is convinced the recent death of a jockey, who mysteriously fell off his horse during a race, is murder. Brad sees no reason to think this, until someone close to the situation confirms it is, indeed, suspicious.

The two are drawn into the case, with their relationship evolving just as the clues do. But Paula’s meddling truly gets Brad involved when her “work” on the case leads authorities to make him their number one suspect.

William Powell, Jean Arthur star in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell, Jean Arthur

Clearly playing on the popularity of The Thin Man (none of the sequels had been made at this point), this film holds its own and was one of the most popular comedies of the year. It was the last film for director Stephen Roberts, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 40 two months after the movie’s release. Roberts had directed more than 100 films in his 14 year career, including Star of Midnight just one year before, with Powell and Ginger Rogers.

Powell and Arthur had both worked for Paramount studios several years earlier, where each got his or her film career start in silent movies. While the transition to “talkies” was easier for Powell, in part because of his smooth voice, both were a hit in Arthur’s first major talking film, The Canary Murder Case (1929). That was also one of Powell’s first detective roles, a type of character he went on to play in numerous films, including The Ex-Mrs. Bradford.

William Powell in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
William Powell

The film also features Eric Blore, the character actor who appeared in more than 80 films throughout his career, including such Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films as Swing Time and Top Hat.

This is a charming, albeit lesser-known mystery-comedy with an outstanding cast, a plot that, while not of the calibre of Dashiell Hammett, is nonetheless clever, and a number of the elements of popular comedies of the day, including a divorced couple whose reunion we eagerly anticipate right from the start, a scatterbrained yet ultimately clever female lead and a convoluted, improbable path to resolution and reconciliation. Fans of screwball comedies of this era will thoroughly enjoy this film.


The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve, 1941, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda. Directed by Preston Sturges. B&W, 94 minutes.

Charles “Hopsie” Pike (Henry Fonda) is fresh on the boat after a year-long expedition up the Amazon studying snakes and other assorted reptiles. The first evening on board the luxury liner he meets socialite Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) and her father, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn)…only father and daughter aren’t who they claim to be. Unbeknownst to Charles, they are card sharks and con artists, out to fleece their latest victim.

Jean, however, finds herself falling for Hopsie. She’s ready to go straight and begin a life together with her new love, when his friend and bodyguard Muggsy (William Demarest) discovers the truth about the Harringtons. Charles dumps Jean and leaves her heartbroken, as well as out for revenge.

She returns to his life as the Lady Eve Sidwich, ready to break his heart just as he broke hers. But she is at risk of being sidelined by her own desires.

Charles Coburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The third film both written and directed by Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve is considered by many to be his finest work. It is a smart combination of satire and slapstick comedy, with plenty of sexual innuendo and mockery of the wealthy. Sturges, who had once been married to a socialite, was known for poking fun at upper crust society.

But the fun isn’t all at the expense of the privileged. Others in this film have a moment of having his or her foibles exposed or dignity bent.

Paulette Goddard and Brian Aherne were the studio’s choices for the lead roles, but Sturges, who had clout after the success of his first two films, insisted on Stanwyck and Fonda. It was one of the few comedies Stanwyck had appeared in during her career so far, and its success led her to the starring role in Ball of Fire later that year.

Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda

The film was well-received by critics and audiences alike, with The New York Times critic writing, “It isn’t often that this corner has good reason to bang a gong and holler ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry!’ As a matter of fact, it is all too rare indeed that we have even moderate provocation to mark a wonder of the cinematic world.”

The film received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Writing, Original Story (Monckton Hoffe, who wrote the original short story the final script was based on). It lost to Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Stanwyck was long known for her professionalism on the set, including always being prepared for the day’s shooting schedule, as well as her kindness to fellow cast members and crew. It was a rare actor who met the high standards she set, but Fonda appears to have been one of them. He later wrote she was his favorite co-star, and is even rumored to have had a long-time crush on her.

The Lady Eve is sophisticated despite its slapstick comedy, and a prime example of Preston Sturges at his finest. It does lose a little shine with a few details such as Stanwyck’s distinctly bad English accent, although perhaps that was a deliberate element, but overall remains sharp and funny today.


Top Hat

Top Hat, 1935, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Music by Irving Berlin. B&W, 100 minutes.

A simple story told with wit and charm, a top-notch score by Irving Berlin, and of course, the superb dance numbers with Astaire and Rogers make this musical a lovely escape, just as it was fully intended to be.

The plot is a familiar one to fans of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films: a mistaken identity, an unsought attraction between a man and a woman already entangled with someone else, a love that grows through one dance number after another. It isn’t the storyline that keeps you captivated. It’s the dancing, the music, the Art Deco sets, the one-liners, and the glimpse at a world that probably never existed.

Dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is practicing his latest routine, a tap number, in his hotel room one night, much to the chagrin of Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who is in the room below. She forcefully complains; he falls in love. For her part, Dale could fall in love, but for one thing: she believes Jerry is actually Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), husband of her good friend, Madge (Helen Broderick).

Fred Astaire

All five songs of the classic Irving Berlin score went on to become big hits, and several are frequently-heard standards today, particularly “Cheek to Cheek.” Also notable is one of Astaire’s best-known tap numbers, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” in which he famously “shoots down” a chorus line of like-dressed men with his cane. Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan worked closely together to create each routine.

The dress Rogers wore in “Cheek to Cheek” is known as the “feather dress,” an outfit she loved but was burdensome to many others, in part because of its tendency to shed while the couple was dancing. Much of that problem was fixed prior to shooting, but if you look closely, you can see feathers flying and a few scattered on the floor.

Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire

The film was made shortly after the production code went into effect, and a few changes had to be made to make it acceptable to censors. In one scene, Astaire states, “he didn’t give a dam” when referring to a horse’s lineage, and the censors required the word “dam” be struck, so a door is heard slamming shut as it is uttered. Censors also warned the director to take care not to make the character of dress designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) “too effeminate,” and while he is decidely all that, apparently director Sandrich curtailed enough of what would be offensive to make it past the censor’s strict eye.

Top Hat is one of the best Astaire-Rogers films, and one that showcases all these films were capable of bringing to an audience that delighted in them.


Swing Time

Swing Time, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures, Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore. Music by Jerome Kern &  Dorothy Fields. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 102 minutes.

Quite possibly the best musical from the Depression era, including all other Astaire/Rogers films, is Swing Time. The plot is fun, engaging, and not particularly complex, but the best storytelling happens through the moves of this incomparable pair.

“Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is set to marry his long-time sweetheart, but numerous delays postpone the wedding, and the father-of-the-bride insists he earn $25,000 to prove his character.

Through one mishap after another, Lucky and his friend Pop end up in New York and on the bad side of Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor. To gain her friendship, Lucky takes a lesson from her, and the fun — and magnificent dancing — begins.

Astaire Rogers I
Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Fred Astaire’s notorious perfectionism in creating & refining each dance number and tireless work with famed choreographer Hermes Pan paid off. Three numbers in particular stand out; the first, “Pick Yourself Up,” is fun and exuberant, showcasing Ginger Rogers in top form. The second, “Waltz in Swing Time,” considered by many to be their finest dance together, is romantic and complex, with a slightly more subdued spirit than seen in “Pick Yourself Up.”

Yet it’s the final number in this film, “Never Gonna Dance,” that is likely the most evocative and beautiful Astaire/Rogers performance from any film. This poignant dance took place on an incredible Art Deco set and was shot almost completely in one long take (there’s one cutaway in the end), using one camera. When you watch it, you’ll understand why it took 47 attempts to achieve the final perfect result.

Ginger Rogers is often quoted as saying she did everything Fred Astaire did, “only backwards, and in high heels.” Almost true. She didn’t dance backwards too often, but she did wear high heels in virtually every number, and managing those dresses while dancing was a feat in & of itself.

The deceptive simplicity of the dress in “Never Gonna Dance” is amazing as well. A close look shows how complex the design is, fitted through the waist and flared out below the hips, all done with pleats.

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers The Way You Look Tonight
Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

You may recognize the Academy Award-winning song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” which went on to become Fred Astaire’s most popular recording and has been recorded by countless others since.

Years later in her autobiography Ginger Rogers would say “though I love all the films I made with Fred Astaire, I have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time.”  This depression-era film provided a much-needed escape for its audiences when it was released, and still offers that break from reality today.   If you watch only one Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film, choose this one.