The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). 92 minutes. Directed by William Keighley. Starring James Cagney (as Steve Collins), Bette Davis (as Joan Winfield), Eugene Pallette (as Lucius Winfield), and Harry Davenport (as “Pop” Tolliver).
The Bride Came C.O.D. is reminiscent of two other films that I have reviewed recently. Like von Stroheim’s Greed, it was filmed in Death Valley when temperatures were high. Like It Happened One Night, it features a wealthy heiress who wants to marry a dashing celebrity of whom her father disapproves, and the plot involves her displacement and an elaborate hunt to locate her.
By the early 1940s, Bette Davis and James Cagney were looking for new material. Cagney had flourished playing gangster characters in movies such as The Public Enemy, and Davis had had great success in melodramas such as Jezebel and Of Human Bondage, but both actors thought a comedy was necessary to move their careers in fresh directions. What they ended up with in The Bride Came C.O.D. is a movie that is deeply reminiscent of earlier screwball comedies, and of It Happened One Night in particular. Davis plays heiress Joan Winfield, and Cagney plays Steve Collins, the pilot whom Joan’s father Lucius (played by Eugene Pallette) hires to deceive her and to fly her away from her fiancé and the site of her impending nuptials. Collins agrees to the father’s schemes because Collins’s plane is in danger of being repossessed, and Lucius has agreed to pay Collins ten dollars for every pound that Joan weighs upon her arrival at an airfield in Texas–if he can get her there. They never make it there, however: Collins crash-lands the plane in the desert on his way out of California, and the two are stuck sleeping on the desert sands with the threat of predatory animals in a scene that recalls Peter and Ellie’s night alone in the hay as they travel the countryside in It Happened One Night.
In the latter movie, Ellie was a willing passenger alongside reporter Peter Warne: she consented to travel with him to New York to reach her beau, and she also consented to grant Warne the rights to cover her story. Davis’s Joan is at the mercy of Cagney’s Collins in The Bride Came C.O.D. She is at first a prisoner in his plane, then later when they arrive at the ghost town owned by “Pop” Tolliver (played by Harry Davenport), she is locked in the jail for a time by Collins, and then she is kept in a mine that Collins convinces her is completely sealed, although as it turns out there is an exit into Tolliver’s basement larder. But she is feisty, and there is a great deal of squabbling between Collins and Joan, which we, as diligent movie watchers, know of course will lead to love.
It is a difficult task for any filmmaker to take a tale of kidnapping and bring forth a romance from it. The film was successful upon its initial release although it was somewhat criticized by members of the press, who were perhaps uncomfortable with Cagney and Davis in screwball roles. I think that in recent years the film has also suffered in the eyes of critics, in part because the romance is only barely kindled in those scenes in the mines, and Cagney and Davis never achieve the kind of playful chemistry that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert did in It Happened One Night. Additionally, perhaps the fact that the film plays on the 1934 It Happened One Night resulted in its appearing out of touch in 1941, and has presumably also resulted in its being labeled as derivative, especially in the contemporary era, in which we value the Gable-Colbert film so highly.
But in spite of these criticisms, there were so many times when I laughed at this movie, especially at the humiliations involving cactus that poor Bette Davis’s bottom is often subjected to. She is quoted as having remarked about the film, with which she was dissatisfied, that “all she got out of [it] was a derriere full of cactus quills.” There are also many humorous jokes about the diminutive Joan’s appetite, her weight being a crucial factor (unbeknownst to her) in Collins’s calculation of his fee for the kidnapping. And of course, there is the marvelous Eugene Pallette, that large bullfrog of an actor with the trademark low voice, playing yet another of his exacerbated fathers. I Love Lucy fans will get a kick out of seeing William Frawley (who played Fred Mertz) as an ornery, fast-talking detective who does not like to be confused with movie policemen.