' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

When Bette Davis, along with a myriad of others, failed to land the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind”, she took the lead part in “Jezebel” instead, an unabashed “Gone with the Wind” ode that nonetheless had scads of its own quality to offer. Why Ms. Davis’s performance in the latter earned an Academy Award for Best Actress. “The Bride Came with C.O.D.” essentially seems like a response to another film in which Ms. Davis was not featured – namely, “It Happened One Night”, the famed travelogue comedy in which Claudette Colbert’s runaway heiress is brought home by and made to fall in love with Clark Gable’s newspaperman. “The Bride Came with C.O.D.” isn’t quite the same template. Davis is a wealthy heiress, yes, but she’s not a runaway. Instead, she’s kidnapped. She’s kidnapped by James Cagney.

If Gable was known for his coolly mirthful smile then Cagney was known for his tough guy persona, which means that as opposed to the elegant give and take of “It Happened One Night”, “The Bride Came C.O.D.” was seriously primed for a more heated affair. Especially if Cagney’s Colbert was the combative, candid Bette, a woman who didn’t suffer fools and sometimes wouldn’t even suffer geniuses. Imagine the Walls of Jericho between Bette & Cagney; they wouldn’t come tumbling down, they’d be torn to shreds. Yet despite having this potentially ferocious twosome as his cornerstones, director William Keighley never truly unleashes their power in combination, as if he’s Cameron Frye’s dad, keeping that 1961 Ferrari cooped up in the garage when it’s begging for an epic spin.

Davis is Joan Winfield, an heiress to the fortune of her father (Eugene Pallette) who desperately doesn’t want his daughter to marry self-impressed nightclub crooner Alan Brice (Jack Carson), so much so that when he learns they are on the verge of eloping to Las Vegas he convinces the debt-ridden pilot, Steve Collins (Cagney), set to squire them to Sin City to kidnap his daughter as a means of preventing the union. That seems a decent set-up, a means of putting of our stars at veritable odds, allowing for bickering that will give way to gushing when they realize their commonalities.

But that never really happens. I mean, they fall in love, sure, because they have to. The movie’s route to that point, however, is dreadfully unconvincing, a series of screwball delay tactics sprung from a plane crash that seems intent to hold out on the consummation of their courtship for as long as possible, though without actually conveying the courtship itself. They wind up in a ghost town, save for one man, Pop Tolliver (Harry Davenport), hanging on and waiting for a boom that will likely never come, who gives them food and shelter, and initially becomes an ally of Joan in thinking that she’s been kidnapped before becoming an ally of Steve when she realizes Joan’s father paid Steve to kidnap her. Why this would prompt him to turn on Joan, I have no idea, but I’m not sure the script does either. This keeps the two stars apart for significant chunks of the movie, and when they come back together in an abandoned mineshaft, where Steve acts as if they’re lost even though they aren’t, their interactions remain oddly un-spirited, an unconvincing impetus to sprout love everlasting.

You keep waiting for Bette Davis to come alive and take charge. Instead she’s reduced to quivering from coyote howls and getting pricked with cactus quills. It’s difficult to detect what might draw Cagney’s character to hers, and vice-versa. To say they have no chemistry would be wrong because the film never really tries to harness Davis’s best elements. She mostly stands by while he dallies about. When she first realizes his intent is to kidnap her, she straps on a parachute, intending to escape by jumping. That skydive never happens but by the end you wish it would have; it never occurred to anyone to kidnap her from the movie.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame that this one doesn't come together as well as it should. Davis was such a firecracker, that not using her to her full potential seems like such a waste, indeed.

On slight correction, It Happened One Night was released in 1934, not 1939.

Nick Prigge said...

Gah! Thank you! Fixed. The joys of self-editing...

joel65913 said...

The movie is middling and wastes the major skills of its stars but is a pleasant enough time passer. Both of them undertook it as a break from the heavy duty dramatics that was usually their lot and neither was satisfied with the result. Bette was quoted as saying they both hit rock bottom with this one, I don't think it's that bad but definitely a minor credit for both stars.