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Bette Davis and James Cagney went for a change of pace in The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), aslapstick comedy about a runaway heiress kept from marrying a band leaderwhen her father (Eugene Pallette) hires Cagney to kidnap her. They got thehit they were hoping for -- it was one of the year's top 20 box-officefilms -- but a year later the studio gave them the bird, quite literally,when Chuck Jones spoofed their film in the Conrad Cat cartoon "The BirdCame C.O.D." For Davis' part, she would later complain that all she gotout of the film was a derriere full of cactus quills.
Warner Bros. had developed the project for Cagney, who was gradually movingaway from gangster roles. He was making the romantic comedy TheStrawberry Blonde (1941), and advance word on the film was quite good,so another comedy seemed the perfect choice. Cagney was eager to breakinto independent production at the time, so he insisted that his brother,William, who was set to be his partner once he went independent, serve asassociate producer.
Originally the studio considered a number of established comedic actresses forthe female lead. They bypassed the likes of Ann Sheridan, Ginger Rogersand 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 forher. Both had read critics' complaints that she needed a break fromserious 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 minorcomedy Jimmy the Gent. Some biographers have suggested that thestudio was punishing her with the film because of her notorioustemperament, while others have suggested she may have wanted to emulateKatharine Hepburn, who had been equally successful in serious and comicroles. Also possible is that she was drawn to the film's obvioussimilarities to It Happened One Night (1934), another tale of arunaway heiress saved from a bad marriage by the love of a simple workingguy. Director Frank Capra had tried to cast Davis in that film, butWarners didn't want to loan her to another studio on the heels of herloan-out to RKO for Of Human Bondage (1934). Instead, the role hadgone 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 twinwriting partners Julius and Philip Epstein did little to improve thescript. Director William Keighley described the atmosphere on the set asfunereal. "You should have seen the long faces just before I called'action' and the sighs of relief when I called 'cut!'" (Keighley quoted inLawrence J. Quirk, Fasten Your Seatbelts) Nor were matters helped byten days of location shooting in Death Valley in January. When Cagneycomplained about the heat, with temperatures climbing to 100 degrees eachday, Keighley could only console him that they hadn't shot during thesummer, when the highs hit 130.
As for the cactus quills, studio publicity claimed that Davis actually gotthem by accident when she was told to jump out of Cagney's downed planeinto a sand dune that concealed the offending flora. The incident was thenadded to the script. By other accounts, there was a stunt woman on hand toperform the bit, but when Davis got into the cactus patch for the next partof the scene, she got "quilled" nonetheless. A doctor had to be brought into remove 45 of the things from the star's stern. Her painful situationgot worse a few days later when the script called for Cagney to fire asling 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 totheir talents. The New York Times dismissed it as "a serviceableromp," while Archer Winston in The New York Post pleaded "Okay,Jimmie and Bette. You've had your fling. Now go back to work." Morerecent 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 mineshaft, is a standout for both. Davis would fare better the following yearin the more sophisticated comedy of The Man Who Came to Dinner, alsowritten for the screen by the Epstein brothers, while Cagney would have a much better roleas a flyer in the wartime drama Captains of the Clouds (also1942).
Producer: William Cagney, Hall B. Wallis
Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein
Based on a story by Kenneth Earland & M.M. Musselman
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Steve Collins), Bette Davis (Joan Winfield),Stuart Erwin (Tommy Keenan), Jack Carson (Allen Bruce), George Tobias(Peewee), Eugene Pallette (Lucius K. Winfield), Harry Davenport (PopTolliver), William Frawley (Sheriff McGee), Edward Brophy (Hinkle), WilliamHopper (Keenan's Pilot).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller