James Cagney, Bette Davis, Harry Davenport. Dir: William Keighley
It took me a long time to like Bette Davis. Much longer than it should have. When I was a teenager I didn’t like her looks and I didn’t like her attitude. Once I warmed up to both, I still didn’t like the movies that she chose. I thought she was one of those actors who only did dramas because she was incapable of comedy. Then I saw The Bride Came C.O.D. And everything changed. When I saw that she could do comedy, I started appreciating her in her other movies and now I’ll watch anything she’s in.
And on to James Cagney. Look, you have to understand this about me. I love his forearms and I don’t know what my attachment to them is. I have recently learned, however, that liking forearms is an actual thing, so I no longer carry shame about it. I sometimes watch his movies to see how long he’s onscreen before his forearms will come out, because they always do, usually within 5 minutes. Except in this movie. He even works on a car with his sleeves all the way down. I just don’t even understand it. To make up for it, I will insert a photo of his forearms here.
The movie is a screwball comedy about a woman (Davis) who is about to elope with someone her dad doesn’t want her to marry, and a man (Cagney) who is a pilot that offers to keep said elopement from happening- for a fee. So he kidnaps her and they end up in a ghost town called Bonanza, which is located at the California/Nevada border. There is arguing, cacti, more arguing, lying, more arguing, more lying, more cacti, and then it’s over.
When the film was released, Warner Bros billed it as the first screen pairing of Davis and Cagney, but they lied. The duo was previously seen in a 1934 movie (which I also recommend) called Jimmy the Gent. The story goes that the two of them enjoyed working together and were looking for something to do. The story also goes that they picked this movie because they both wanted to step away from their usual roles for once. I don’t know if the story is true or not, given the fact that Bette Davis wasn’t even considered for the role. There was Ann Sheridan (who was on suspension from Warner because she wanted to start getting paid what she was worth), Ginger Rogers (my idol), Rosalind Russell (who was often not first choice in many of her roles), and finally Olivia de Havilland (I just don’t see it). Somehow Bette Davis wrestled the role away from deHavilland and here we are.
The public loved the movie, but the critics did not. If you would like to see the most meh review of all time, please read this from the New York Times in 1941. Bette Davis, apparently, did not like the movie either- or at least that’s what she indicated later in life. I couldn’t tell you if she felt that way before or after she read the reviews though. She is quoted as saying that “all (she) got out of the film was a derriere full of cactus quills.” She was literally butt-hurt about it. I did mention earlier that cacti were involved.
The following is a conversation that I made up between a studio exec and the director, William Keighley:
Studio exec– Let’s take the brightest Hollywood starlet on location to film, because a desert just can’t be recreated on a studio backlot. Where should we take her? I know! Let’s take her to Death Valley! Because what actress that can pick and choose her own projects doesn’t want to be subjected to that amount of heat?
Keighley– Sounds like a party to me!
Obviously there were all manner of problems due to the temperatures. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had issues with the film melting like it did for Buster Keaton’s Go West (which was filmed in Arizona on days where the temperature extended well into the triple digits), though I can’t find any record stating so. I will say that the actors were miserable and leave it at that.
It’s not the best film either of them made, but it’s my favorite Bette Davis film because it turned the tide for me. If you’re already a Davis fan, you may not like it as much, but watch it anyway because she may surprise you with her amazing comedic timing. I really do wish she had done more comedies, and if you watch this, you’ll understand why.