Monday, December 28, 2009

The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

I just recently watched the James Cagney/Bette Davis movie The Bride Came C.O.D., and it was pleasant if not totally great! James Cagney was lovable as Steve Collins, the scrappy aviator who must collect $1,180 to pay off his plane so it doesn't get reposessed by kidnapping Bette Davis. This is one of the few Bette Davis films that I have seen, besides that clip from All About Eve (1950) that I watched in film class last year. In fact--and don't take this to heart--I'm not really a big fan of Bette Davis. (There! I said it once again!) For some reason, I find her acting to be really disturbing! Nevertheless, I do think that she and James Cagney were very similar, as both were dramatic and could act in a wide range of film roles. Still, there is something about her that I just don't like. But before I prattle on about my feelings for Bette Davis, I should really focus on the film! So anyway...
Bette Davis and James Cagney went for a change of pace in The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), a slapstick comedy about a runaway heiress kept from marrying a band leader when her father (Eugene Pallette) hires Cagney to kidnap her. They got the hit they were hoping for -- it was one of the year's top 20 box-office films -- but a year later the studio gave them the bird, quite literally, when Chuck Jones spoofed their film in the Conrad Cat cartoon "The Bird Came C.O.D." For Davis' part, she would later complain that all she got out of the film was a derriere full of cactus quills.

Warner Bros. had developed the project for Cagney, who was gradually moving away from gangster roles. (I personally think that Jimmy Cagney's label as a tough guy could not be more wrong! He was a very versatile actor, just like Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep!) He was making the romantic comedy The Strawberry Blonde (1941), and advance word on the film was quite good, so another comedy seemed the perfect choice. Cagney was eager to break into independent production at the time, so he insisted that his brother, William, who was set to be his partner once he went independent, serve as associate producer.

Originally the studio considered a number of established comedic actresses for the female lead. They bypassed the likes of Ann Sheridan, Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell, however, in favor of rising star Olivia de Havilland. Then Davis expressed an interest in the part, and Hal Wallis went to bat for her. Both had read critics' complaints that she needed a break from serious dramatic roles. In addition, she was eager to re-team with Cagney, who like her had a history of battles with the Warner Bros. management. They had not worked together since 1934, when they teamed for the minor comedy Jimmy the Gent. Some biographers have suggested that the studio was punishing her with the film because of her notorious temperament, while others have suggested she may have wanted to emulate Katharine Hepburn, who had been equally successful in serious and comic roles. Also possible is that she was drawn to the film's obvious similarities to It Happened One Night (1934), another tale of a runaway heiress saved from a bad marriage by the love of a simple working guy. Director Frank Capra had tried to cast Davis in that film, but Warners didn't want to loan her to another studio on the heels of her loan-out to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934). Instead, the role had gone to Claudette Colbert, who ended up winning the Best Actress Oscar® most critics think should have gone to Davis for the RKO film.

Any hopes of scoring another It Happened One Night were dashed, however, when production started and the promised re-writes from twin writing partners Julius and Philip Epstein did little to improve the script. (Director William Keighley described the atmosphere on the set as funereal.) Nor were matters helped by ten days of location shooting in Death Valley in January. When Cagney complained about the heat, with temperatures climbing to 100 degrees each day, Keighley could only console him that they hadn't shot during the summer, when the highs hit 130.As for the cactus quills, studio publicity claimed that Davis actually got them by accident when she was told to jump out of Cagney's downed plane into a sand dune that concealed the offending flora. The incident was then added to the script. By other accounts, there was a stunt woman on hand to perform the bit, but when Davis got into the cactus patch for the next part of the scene, she got "quilled" nonetheless. A doctor had to be brought in to remove 45 of the things from the star's stern. Her painful situation got worse a few days later when the script called for Cagney to fire a sling shot at the injured body part.

Although most critics welcomed the comic about face for Davis and Cagney, some were quick to point out that the property itself was hardly up to their talents. The New York Times dismissed it as "a serviceable romp," while Archer Winston in The New York Post pleaded "Okay, Jimmie and Bette. You've had your fling. Now go back to work." More recent fans have looked on the film as one of the low points in both stars' careers, though acknowledging that their first love scene, set in a mine shaft, is a standout for both. Davis would fare better the following year in the more sophisticated comedy of The Man Who Came to Dinner, also written for the screen by the Epstein brothers (adapted from the 1940 Hart/Kaufman play where the Monty Woolley character is based on Alexander Woolcott play and the character Banjo is based on Harpo Marx [True!] ) while Cagney would have a much better role as a flyer in the wartime drama Captains of the Clouds (also 1942).

And while this film is definitely not one of James Cagney's or Bette Davis' best, it is enjoyable when you watch it for the first time but when you watch it for the second or third time...Well, let's just say it all goes downhill from there. Plus I might add that in one scene Cagney and Davis sing to each other discordantly through a closed door. That scene was entertaining in the trailer but in the actual film, it was awful and obnoxious! Although some of you folks may think that Bette Davis can do anything, one of those things is obviously not singing!

Now you folks may think that I judged Bette Davis rather unfairly earlier on, and I probably did, so I thought I could watch perhaps some of her best films just to see that she ain't so bad. But I can't force myself to like her. I've discovered over time that I don't have to go with the flow and that it should be okay if I don't like Bette Davis. Now I'm not complaining or anything but it seems that around here, you folks seem to have uniform interests: You all love the same actors like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant (by the way, did any of you know that Cary Grant was Jewish?), etc, and the same films like The Thin Man, Dark Victory, Alfred Hitchcock films, etc. (And besides, we all know you can't have too much of a good thing! ) At this moment, I should stop before I get too preachy or self-serving, but all I'm saying is we should diversify our interests! To explain my point, just as an example, I have seen no one mention, or express interest in, King Kong (1933).
To make a long story short, I personally prefer Jimmy the Gent to this film but in any case, I would recommend this movie for James Cagney fans who love seeing him in comedies and who are also Bette Davis fans. Happy commenting!!!
(Next blog: A Night at the Opera [1935])

Clips from The Bride Came C.O.D.:

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