Thursday, September 23, 2010

Guest Review: Star of Midnight (1935)/The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

Back in May, frequent commenter and longtime Thrilling Days of Yesteryear supporter Philip Schweier put his thoughts about Appointment with Danger (1951) to e-mail and submitted it for publication here on the blog. Since I’m currently involved in more anvil-juggling today (I didn’t even have time to do a birthday shout-out) I thought I’d turn over the reins to Phil for another guest review—this time a two-fer, the William Powell vehicles Star of Midnight (1935) and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936). He wrote this review at enormous risk to his well-being, because nothing displeases Mrs. Schweier more than when he deviates from his "honeydew" list. So let’s hear it for him!

In 1934, William Powell and Myrna Loy starred in The Thin Man, the first of six light-hearted mystery films that were very popular until the series ran it’s course with Song of the Thin Man in 1947. What made the series so entertaining was the charming banter between Powell and Loy. But before the first sequel was filmed in 1936, Powell took a few spins in similar vehicles that tried desperately to capitalize on the same formula.

Let’s begin with Star of Midnight (1935), in which Powell plays lawyer Clay “Dal” Dalzell, who seems more successful solving cases rather than trying them. He is constantly pestered by Donna Mantin (Ginger Rogers), the daughter of a former client and who has taken a romantic interest in Dalzell.

Dal’s troubles begin when hapless Tim Winthrop (Leslie Fenton) asks him to find his girl, Alice Markham (Bess Flowers), who dropped out of sight a year earlier in Chicago. Winthrop accompanies Dal and Donna to a stage show, Midnight, but Dal excuses himself. In the lobby, her runs into an old flame, Jerry Classon (Vivien Oakland) and her latest husband, Roger Classon (Ralph Morgan).

Later, back at the apartment, Tim tells Dal how that he’s found Alice. She is the mysterious Mary Smith, star of Midnight (hence the title of our feature). But no sooner did he stand up and cry “Alice!” than she fled the theater, hoping never to be seen again.

Enter newspaperman Tommy Tennant (Russell Hopton), who has followed Tim since he’s the catalyst for the commotion at the theater. He knows why Alice ran away, but before he can share the reason with Clay, Tennant is shot dead.

On the case is Police Inspector Doremus (J. Farrell MacDonald) and his anchor-headed flunky Sgt. Cleary (Robert Emmett O'Connor). Much of the film’s humor comes from Doremus, who seems content to let Dal take the lead in the investigation.

Rather than investigate the murder, Dal decides to look into Mary/Alice’s disappearance, believing it will lead him to the murder. Show producer Abe Ohlman (Frank Reicher) gives him some background on Mary, including her address. At her place, he learns from the doorman that she took a specific route each day at a specific time.

Jerry Classon arrives at Dal’s place hoping to pump him for information (no; it’s too easy), but Donna runs her off. The next day, while taking a break from the investigation over drinks, Dal runs into Roger Classon, a fellow member of the bar (no, the OTHER kind) who reveals he is also interested in locating Alice Markham. She is the only alibi for his client Moroni, who is currently on death row in Chicago for the murder of Fred Dexter.

Dal reluctantly begins to suspect his friend Tim Winthrop, but when he is discovered beaten up, Tim reveals that the reason Alice Markham fled Chicago had to do with her father. Moroni ruined him, causing his death, and it turns out Alice is Moroni’s only alibi.

Meanwhile, Donna has dug up the background on Classon’s wife Jerry, who has a reputation for playing the field, and that would include Dexter and Moroni of Chicago, Illinois. This gives Dal and the audience the clues to put the pieces together, and Dal sets up a nice trap in Alice Markham/Mary Smith’s apartment, luring the killer to shut Alice up. Naturally, tables are turned and the murderer caught.

Basically, Powell is repeating his performance as Nick Charles, this time with a name change, which he would do again in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) with Jean Arthur. Powell plays Dr. Lawrence Bradford; Arthur portrays Bradford’s ex-wife Paula. If you pay close attention, you learn that Paula is a mystery writer, and Dr. Bradford has lost any desire he may have once had to tag along with her as she investigates true-life whodunnits.

Both films were written by Anthony Veiller and directed by Stephen Roberts, so they, and star Powell, were operating on familiar ground. While Powell’s chemistry with both Ginger Rogers and Jean Arthur seems to work, it pales in comparison with Myrna Loy. Shortly afterward, MGM would take the hint and reunite Powell and Loy in After the Thin Man.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford opens amidst the shots of newsboys peddling their papers against rear-projected scenes of the city, we learn of the mysterious death of a jockey at the local track. Luxury’s jockey dies during a race, permitting Warcloud to win.

Paula is suing the good doctor for alimony with the help of Mr. Frankenstein (Johnny Arthur, recognized as Darla Hood’s father in the Our Gang comedy shorts), which explains why she is at Bradford’s apartment when Mike North, Luxury’s trainer, shows up asking the good doctor to examine the body of the jockey. Bradford agrees (or Paula agrees for him), and he discovers a peculiar gummy substance on the body.

North later contacts Bradford regarding a package (the kind that vaguely resembles letters of transit, but that’s another movie) addressed to North but in Bradford’s care, which turns out to contain money. But no sooner does the package arrive than Bradford receives a call from a bogus Mike North, Lou Penda (Paul Fix), a scar-faced ne’er-do-well with a remarkably transparent desire to get Bradford away from the apartment. Naturally, Bradford opens the package to discover its filled with cash money. A little switcheroo and bob’s-your-uncle. Penda arrives intent on doing a little B&E to collect “his money,” only to be interrupted by Bradford. Penda escapes, thanks to a little misguided help from Bradford’s ex.

Turns out North, who later turns up dead, placed the bet with bookie Nick Martel (Robert Armstrong) and won. Or did he? As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Penda placed the bet posing as North, though why is never made clear.

In the course of the investigation, Bradford encounters Leroy Hutchins (Ralph Morgan, fresh from his performance in Star of Midnight) and John Summers (Grant Mitchell, who looks suspiciously like TCM host Bobby Osborne), owners of the rival horses Luxury and Warcloud, respectively. Turns out Mrs. Summers has been carrying on with Martell, but while the romance is over, she still has a lot to lose should word get out.

The gummy substance found on the jockey’s body is revealed to be gelatin, and when Martell sends Bradford to an apartment believed to be North’s, the good doctor and his ex discover the dead body of Lou Penda, also dead from the same symptoms as the jockey. Bradford kills a black widow spider shortly after Penda’s body comes tumbling from the murphy bed.

The how of it comes to Bradford: by placing a gelatin capsule containing the spider on the body of the jockey before the race, the murderer is able to create a scenario for a near-perfect murder. Bradford is able to give Luxury’s new jockey anti-venom for the black widow bite, but figuring out who the mastermind is becomes a different problem. Of course, he hits on a solution and the audience is kept guessing until the end. As for the who and the why, well, that would be spoiling the ending, so I won’t delve into it here, but suffice to say it could have been any one of the many suspects.

Thin Man-esque is perhaps over-stating the film’s qualities, as the chemistry shared by Powell and Loy just isn’t there with Arthur. Whereas Myrna Loy was on equal footing as Nora Charles, Arthur comes across as scatter-brained, jumping at shadows and often more of a hindrance than a help in the mystery solving. And Nick Charles actually WAS a detective, rather than a doctor playing at one.

Nevertheless, the film is littered with a number of colorful background characters, such as Bradford’s long-suffering butler Stokes (Eric Blore) and criminal-turned-private eye Bert Murphy (John Sheehan), who isn’t about to let a little thing like ethics get in the way of making easy cash.

Star of Midnight and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford are both pleasant comedic romps with a little bit of murder and mayhem thrown in, and while they may never rank as high as the Thin Man films, it would only be fair to say that the latter Thin Man entries – The Thin Man Goes Home (1945) and Song of the Thin Man (1947) – aren’t so solid as the first two. Powell’s non-Thin Man mysteries are fine for completists, but those who choose to pass probably won’t be missing much.

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Pam said...


mndean said...

One thing I must complain about - to put it bluntly, I would no more mistake Grant Mitchell for Bob Osborne than I would mistake John Halliday for Charlie Ruggles.