If you’re a fan of 1930’s screwball comedies than you’re sure to love this wacky murder mystery from RKO starring the winning pair of William Powell and Myrna ….. whoa! Scratch that. Starring William Powell and my favorite leading lady of screwball comedies, Miss Jean Arthur. Anyone who knows their film history will be quick to point out a few oddities while enjoying the film.
First is the obvious casting of Powell in a high society murder mystery built around the race track and a jockey’s suspicious death. It’s practically impossible not to compare his role here as a well known surgeon pairing up with his ex-wife to solve the crime with that of his high society Thin Man series. Secondly is if you know which studios owned the rights to which actors then you’ll know that by this time, Powell, is on loan from MGM and Jean Arthur has come from across town at Columbia to join him for this enjoyable project directed by Stephen Roberts.
Utilizing the classic newspaper plot device to open the film with newsboys screaming “Extra! Extra!” we’ll learn that a jockey has fallen dead off his horse while leading the field down the stretch of a big horseracing event. Cut to Jean arriving at the swank apartment of Powell. She’s his ex-wife who delivers to him an ultimatum. Re-marry her or pay up all the back alimony he owes her. There is little doubt which she would prefer and where this is headed and might I point out in a matter of just a few screen seconds she’s captured the heart of this wanna be tough guy once again.
While they launch into a charming argument over her ultimatum, Frank Thomas, turns up at Powell’s apartment. He wants the surgeon to look over the body of the dead jockey who he acted as trainer for. He suspects the rider was murdered and believes he can trust Powell to uncover the truth in an autopsy. This bit of inside information launches Jean into her favorite pastime. Solving murder mysteries.
In fine screwball fashion she’s moving her entourage of luggage back into his apartment against his wishes and to the dismay of his butler, Eric Blore.
“Stick to your doctoring. It’ll be a lot healthier.”
A stern warning from bookie Robert Armstrong just three years removed from his trip to Skull Island. This following a mysterious envelope with a large amount of cash being entrusted to Powell by Thomas and a shady Paul Fix burglarizing Powell’s office in order to lay his hands on it. Of course during the ensuing struggle between the noted character actor and Powell, Arthur, KO’s the wrong fighter in the darkened room with a flower pot.
The mystery is going to take a serious turn in Powell’s direction when Thomas turns up at his apartment’s doorstep dead promptly followed by James Gleason as the local police detective ready to arrest Powell for Thomas’ murder. Now that he’s the number one suspect in the case of two murders he’ll have to solve the crime on his own and I’d like to add it’s a good thing that his ex-wife, Arthur, is good at this sort of thing. It’s her ingenuity that keeps turning up many of the leads that will take them through the film’s 82 minute running time.
With the race track the origin of the first murder, Powell and Arthur, are going to be pointing their fingers at Armstrong and some of the high rollers who play the ponies and in some cases own them. Like any sophisticated drawing room murder mystery everyone is going to be wearing their Sunday best for the unveiling of the killer at a swank get together hosted by our two leading players.
Yeah it plays like a Thin Man film and while I have no intention of dissing Miss Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, brings a much different comedic style to the film than Powell’s usual leading lady. I find hers to be more zany and that crackling voice never fails to get me laughing. Damn! The more I go on about Jean the more it sounds like I have something against Miss Loy and that’s just not so. I love Loy and her many films with Powell are winners. Plain and simple. And then there’s her work with Cary Grant that never fails to get me laughing.
While this was the final film for director Roberts who died following the production at the age of 40, it was the third film that paired Jean and Powell. They both came into the movie world during the silent era, Powell in 1922 and Jean in ’23. By the time 1929 came around they starred together in a pair of Philo Vance mysteries, The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case at Paramount. It should be noted that Jean played a different role in each film while Powell played the lead, Philo Vance. They’d both turn up for the 1930 “spot the star” outing Paramount on Parade as well. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford proved to be the final film that featured these two major stars of their era. Sad but considering they moved on to opposing studios and MGM finding that dynamic formula of Powell and Loy it really left little opportunity for them to treat us to another film where they were on equal footing.
I’m always looking to see films with both Powell or Jean and thanks to recently scoring a DVD copy of the film released by Warner Archive allowed me to sit back and enjoy this one with my wife while we are in lockdown due to the dreaded Corona Virus. Just trying to make the best of a bad situation. We’d like to wish each and every one of you a safe and healthy time with your loved ones and given the chance to sit back with them and watch a comedy classic from yesteryear. One that can bring smiles and cheer into our daily existence giving life to these films from yesteryear that were, after all, meant to do just that.