Miss Bette’s back, y’all…
We all know how studios liked certain stars in certain roles. It streamlined the whole casting process to know who could play gangsters, or high society types, or ingenues. Every once in a while, though, studios did color outside the lines, and one example of that is 1941’s The Bride Came C.O.D. A rollicking screwball comedy, it showcases two strong players and the results are sparky.
The film opens in Los Angeles with a radio gossip hound, Tommy Keenan (Stuart Erwin), cruising the town looking for dirt. It’s a slow night, and he’s desperate. Not even a ride-along with a couple of police officers can turn up anything, and he’s supposed to go on the air in forty-five minutes. Thinking he’s going to have nothing to report, Tommy has the squad car drop him off at the Embassy Club, where a friend of his, Allen Brice (Jack Carson) is performing with his orchestra.
Allen just happens to have news, and after a little musical flourish, announces that he’s engaged to oil heiress, Joan Winfield (Bette Davis) after a whirlwind four-day courtship. Only this isn’t exactly news, because, as Tommy reminds Allen, he’s been engaged to three other women. However, if Allen and Joan were to elope to Vegas, then that would be something. They’ll be in every paper, talked about all over the airwaves. Tommy will even pay for the plane.
Across town is Steve Collins (James Cagney), who has an aircraft transportation company. Steve is such a good pilot that he can land a plane perfectly even while kissing his date. He’s also apparently married, and will pull out a photo of his two kids at the drop of a hat. Except…he’s not married, and they’re not his kids, but those of his mechanic, Peewee (George Tobias). And it’s an old photo. Yup, Steve can be a hustler, and he’s the pilot Tommy hires to fly Allen and Joan out to Vegas. Steve has the repo man on his back, so he’s not exactly thrilled with the idea of having passengers but no plane.
Certain people have other ideas about the wedding, however. Joan’s dad, Lucius K. Winfield (Eugene Pallette) thinks Allen is a lothario and doesn’t want him anywhere near his daughter. Not to mention, Pater finds Allen’s habit of reciting song lyrics annoying. So, right before Joan and Allen get to the airport, Lucius calls Steve and asks him to kidnap his little girl. Sort of. He wants Steve to bring Joan to Amarillo and leave Allen behind. Steve becomes very receptive when he learns that he can collect a handsome fee on delivery, and suddenly the repo man doesn’t look so menacing anymore.
Joan’s not too happy about this hitch in her plans to get hitched, and once Steve comes clean with her about her father trying to stop the wedding, she straps on a parachute and tries to jump out. Problem is, she’s got it on backwards, and Steve banks the plane to keep her from doing something stupid. Unfortunately, the engine cuts out, and they crash in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The capper for Joan is getting a tush full of cactus needles, which Steve has to yank out.
After a cold night being serenaded by coyotes, Joan and Steve find out there’s a town in sight, but further inspection shows that it’s a ghost town called Bonanza. The streets are overgrown with sage and sand, and the place hasn’t been inhabited since the 1910s.
Well, not quite. Steve and Joan spy some chickens running through the brush, and they don’t look feral. Then, smoke from the hotel chimney. Our two castaways run in and find Pop Tolliver (Henry Davenport) in the kitchen cellar cutting bacon for his breakfast. Pop is a jovial fellow who owns the Palace Hotel, and stayed when the town went bust, hoping things would bounce back. Pop isn’t completely isolated, though–he’s got a radio, a fellow brings him supplies once a month, plus groups of college students come during their breaks to work in the mine. Pop himself mines in his spare time, and makes a pretty healthy living.
Steve goes out to the plane to check things, and while he’s gone, Joan tells Pop she’s been kidnapped, but he doesn’t believe her until a radio report confirms it. She begs Pop to get her away from Steve, and Pop being a gentleman, goes to get his car out of the garage. Only problem is, it looks as if it hasn’t been started since the 1920s. Still, Pop and Joan persevere, and Pop forces Steve at gunpoint to siphon out some of the gasoline from the airplane to get the car running. Steve warns them that aviation fuel is different than auto fuel, but the two of them don’t listen. Pop locks Steve up in the town jail cell before pushing the car down the hill by way of a jump start, and long story short, the car cracks up and Joan gets more cactus needles in her tush. Shrug.
Joan sort of resigns herself to waiting in town, and there’s comeuppance in her future. Another radio report comes in that Lucius authorized Steve to bring his daughter to Amarillo, so there’s nothing for Pop to do but let Steve out of jail. Even though she’s been caught in a lie, Joan is determined to act like a little brat, barricading herself in her room when Steve comes to tell her they’re leaving. Steve thinks turnabout is fair play, though, and climbs through Joan’s window to haul her off to his old jail cell. The idea is that he’ll spirit her to Amarillo before she knows what hit her, because by hook or by crook, Steve has to deliver Joan to her father unmarried.
Uh huh. Suffice it to say, things don’t exactly go smoothly, but I’m not going to ruin it for anyone.
The Bride Came C.O.D. is a huge treat. The film was directed by William Keighley, the screenplay was written by the Epstein brothers, and the whole package was one of the top twenty movies of 1941. It’s full of plays on words and good old-fashioned hijinks, and never misses a beat.
Cagney seemed very happy in his role of Steve. It must have been a nice change for him, since he got stuck playing gangsters all the time, and twinkles his way through the film. He’s a joy to watch, not only because he was having fun, but he must have also enjoyed the superior writing. Cagney was an avid reader, and for people who love language, well-written dialogue is like a good steak.
Cagney’s costar, however, felt differently. According to IMDb, Bette Davis absolutely hated the film, because, among other things, she felt insulted that her character got cactus needles in her backside. Well, no offense to Miss Davis, but romantic comedies are like that. Sometimes you gotta take a pie in the face…or a seat full of needles. Ten to one, 1941 audiences, who were used to seeing Davis play her usual fervent self, enjoyed the dramatic change.
Davis may not have liked The Bride Came C.O.D., but her performance belies her distaste. Cagney has a line about her that drips with ironic aptness: “Undoubtedly the outstanding screwball of her generation.” That statement could easily apply to the whole film.
For more Bette, please visit Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Crystal–it’s always a pleasure! Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow, when we’ll look at a tuneful cult classic.