Friday, July 31, 2009

The bride came C.O.D.

Released 1941 this film comes at the end of the classic screwball comedy era that started with It happened one night (1934) - a film with which it has much in common. Indeed, the 'meet cute'*, that mechanism whereby the two opposing characters are thrown together in a screwball comedy, is almost identical.

Bette plays a flighty oil heiress dead set on marrying smarmy band leader (played by the almost oily Jack Carson), who she's known only four days ('You've known head waiters longer!'). Cagney is the deeply in debt small airline operator who gets paid by Bette's dad (the ever reliable Eugene Pallatte) to kidnap his daughter and so prevent the marriage. Tricking her away in his aeroplane Cagney soon quarrells with Bette - she's outraged to find she's fetching just a small ransom price - and the pair crashland in the Californian desert.
One of you's gonna get married and the other one's going to jail,
so you really got a lot in common.

This film has all the screwball characteristics: slapstick and fast paced dialogue. Though a fairly lightweight contribution to the genre it's a small delight, helped along chiefly by the star quality and sheer charm of its leading actors.

It's unusual to see Bette Davis in a comedy but the gal's a real trooper and her trademark earnestness is used to great effect. She also looks particularly lovely, even (or especially) when having cactus spines plucked out of her rear. Too many people remember Cagney for his tough guy act but he was an accomplished singer and quite a hoofer and he handles the comedy with a likeable cockiness. It was Cagney's talent to rise above trite scripts and cardboard characters with a grace and genial amiability that are a joy to watch (and, I must confess, makes him quite handsome). It seems an unlikely combination - you might be thinking more of Carole Lombard and Cary Grant. Davis and Cagney were actually matched together in an earlier and equally frivolous comedy: Jimmy the gent (1934). Apparently Davis didn't think much of C.O.D. but the pair have such easy chemistry and they really do look like they're having fun.

There is great support from familiar character actors of the time: Eugene Pallette pretty much walks through the role of the nouveau riche fat cat father; Jack Carson his wonderful smarmy; and George Tobias, star of many Cagney films and later the long suffering neighbour in Bewitched, specialises in the role of none too bright pal and here stars as the unscrupulous journalist following the couple's escapades.

The Epstein brothers (Casablanca) script is snappy. As a Warner Bros film it almost seems influenced by the studio's famous animated nuttiness, particularly in its use of music. Here is mirrors Looney Tunes conventions - snatches of appropriate popular and classical music are wittily inserted. An extra bonus is the short features and cartoons that accompany the future - just like going to the flicks!

It's all very light and fun - a delightful screwball comedy and one that sustains the effort.

*A good definition of the classic meet cute, courtesy of Wikipedia:
In the film The holiday (2006), Eli Wallach's character Arthur Abbott (a retired Hollywood screenwriter) described a meet-cute by saying "Say a man and a woman both need something to sleep in and both go to the same men's pajama department. The man says to the salesman Ted, I just need bottoms, and the woman says, I just need a top. They look at each other and that's the meet-cute." It's a reference to the film Bluebeard's eighth wife (1938) by Ernst Lubitsch with Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper.

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