The Bride Came C.O.D.
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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. 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. "You should have seen the long faces just before I called 'action' and the sighs of relief when I called 'cut!'" (Keighley quoted in Lawrence J. Quirk, Fasten Your Seatbelts) 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, while Cagney would have a much better role as a flyer in the wartime drama Captains of the Clouds (also 1942).
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 (Pop Tolliver), William Frawley (Sheriff McGee), Edward Brophy (Hinkle), William Hopper (Keenan's Pilot).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller