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Heiress, pre-Paris: Bette pitches a screwball



The heiress was a stock comic figure long before Paris Hilton came on the scene. Back in the golden age of Hollywood, Paris' figurative grandmothers (or would that be great-grandmothers?) could be found on the screen...and while they weren't making sex tapes, they were causing a ruckus in other ways.

Two of the most famous of these characters were Ellie Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert in "It Happened One Night," and Irene Bullock, portrayed by Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey." But a number of other actresses also played heiress roles -- Constance Bennett in "Merrily We Live," Myrna Loy in "Libeled Lady" and Barbara Stanwyck in "The Mad Miss Manton," to name but three.

Another film featuring the escapades of a heiress had many features of classic screwball; Jack Carson, who worked with Lombard in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," played the man this bride intended to marry, while foghorn-voiced Eugene Pallette, who portrayed Irene's dad in "Godfrey," does the same thing here. But what makes this film so unusual is the actress cast as the heiress, someone rarely associated with comedy and certainly not the screwball kind...

...Bette Davis.



It's "The Bride Came C.O.D.," released by Warner Bros. in June 1941 and co-starring James Cagney, who had done his share of comedies in the pre-Code era (including "Jimmy The Gent" with Davis) but hadn't really tackled the screwball genre.

It's been labeled sort of a remake of "It Happened One Night," and the script has some of those elements (it's written by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, about a year before they wrote a little film for Warners called "Casablanca"). In "The Screwball Comedy Films," Duane Byrge and Robert Milton Miller describe the plot this way:

"A runaway heiress, intending to marry an unctuous dance-band leader of whom her father disapproves, is kidnapped by a daring young pilot hired by the old man. Antagonism gives way to amour, but only after the couple endures several comic indignities while stranded in a desert following a forced landing."

Of all the studios in Hollywood, Warners was probably the least adept at screwball, as it showed when the poorly-written "Fools For Scandal" managed to derail Lombard's career when she was at her most popular. This is somewhat better, though by 1941 the screwball cycle was beginning to fizzle.

Over the years, Davis had few nice things to say about this film, although little of her rancor was directed at Cagney. Rather, you can tell she's not comfortable about making this type of movie, though trouper she is, she does her best with it. Some of the humor lacks subtlety (there's a recurring theme where her character gets cactus stuck on her posterior).

Also, Bette understandably didn't like having to wear a fur coat for some of the outdoor scenes filmed on location in Death Valley. And keep in mind that when this movie was shot, Davis was nearing 33, a bit long in the tooth for a debutante.



As for Cagney, who's always comfortable in comedy, he's his usual crafty, energetic self as the pilot, and seeing this makes you wish he had been loaned out to star opposite Lombard, Stanwyck, Loy or Colbert for some screwball hijinks -- but Warners would have demanded a lot to loan out its meal ticket to a rival studio.

All in all, "The Bride Came C.O.D." is a fascinating curio, thanks more to its cast (Harry Davenport and William Frawley have crucial supporting turns) than the script. It sort of answers the question, "What would a Carole Lombard comedy be like if Bette Davis was cast instead?"

Oh, and since we earlier mentioned "Libeled Lady"...



...you should know that Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. will air this 1936 gem at 2 p.m. Wednesday. It's literally a four-star movie -- Harlow! Loy! Powell! Tracy! -- and none of them disappoint. (Powell's scene where he tries to pass himself off as a fisherman is a hoot.) Walter Connolly's splendid in it, too. It ranks with "The Front Page," "Nothing Sacred" and "His Girl Friday" as one of the best newspaper comedies, and shows that when conditions were right, MGM, unlike Warners, could hold its own in the screwball race. Well worth watching.
Tags: bette davis, eugene pallette, jack carson, james cagney, jean harlow, myrna loy, spencer tracy, william powell
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