Biff Grimes (James Cagney) is an ex-con living in turn-of-the-century New York City who has not found much success in his post-prison career as a dentist. One Sunday afternoon, while preparing to go for a walk with his wife, Amy (Olivia de Havilland), Biff gets a call from the president of the local bank: one of his guests, Alderman Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) needs a tooth pulled. Biff immediately recognizes Barnstead’s name as the man whose schemes put Biff in prison, and as he plots his revenge, the film flashes back a decade to reveal their shared history.
In the past, Biff and Hugo are longtime friends–Biff takes correspondence courses to become a dentist, while Hugo has various shady business dealings that keep him flush. One day, Hugo and Biff encounter a beautiful strawberry blonde, Virginia (Rita Hayworth), and Hugo pursues her while Biff watches resignedly. Hugo and Virginia make plans to “accidentally” encounter one another at the park that evening, and when Virginia says she is bringing along a friend, Amy, Hugo tricks Biff into going along on the double date. Though Hugo gives his “word of honor” that he will let Biff “have” Virginia, he goes back on his word and sticks Biff with Amy, a suffragette whose brash behavior and beliefs about women’s equality horrify Biff.
Biff and Hugo invite the girls to go on a boat ride and picnic, but the boat has been oversold and Biff and Virginia cannot get on the boat. The two of them spend the day together, doing an entire, expensive itinerary of things that Virginia wants to do–a visit to the zoo, dinner, dancing, a carriage ride. Biff adores Virginia and begs for another date, but finding that she is a very popular companion, he can only get her to commit to a date three weeks later. But on the day of their date, Amy shows up instead, and Biff learns that Hugo and Virginia had eloped that afternoon.
The film flashes forward a couple of years–Amy and Biff are married, and Biff is one month away from completing his dental studies. Biff runs into Virginia on the street, and when he reveals that he and Amy are married, Virginia invites them to dinner the following night. Virginia and Hugo are unhappily married, sniping at one another, and Hugo’s irritated at Virginia’s continued interest in Biff. When she urges him to give Biff a job at his contracting firm, Hugo agrees that his “non-too-bright” friend would make a good vice president for his firm. But six months later, Biff has done nothing but sign papers, and it soon becomes clear that Hugo has set him up to take the fall for his misdeeds–when a building collapses (killing Biff’s father in the process), it is revealed that Hugo has been using sub-par materials, and Biff is left holding the bag. He asks Amy to wait for him as he’s arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. In the meantime, he finishes his dental correspondence course and earns his diploma–setting up the film’s return to the “present,” as Biff finally gets the chance for vengeance …
Thanks to the combined efforts of director Raoul Walsh, production designer Robert Haas, cinematographer James Wong Howe, Heinz Roemheld’s score (utilizing popular tunes from the era), the lavish costumes of Orry-Kelly–hell, the whole damn cast and crew–The Strawberry Blonde (1941) lovingly recreates late 19th/early 20th century New York City. It’s a charming and nostalgic film, wistfully remembering a time that seems so long ago–even though the film was made only a few decades after its setting, it might as well be a different world altogether. Blonde is a hard film to classify: not entirely dramatic, not entirely comedic, sprinkled with music, with a bit of dirty dealings thrown in for good measure. And yet the competing genres at work here ultimately blend together seamlessly, due in large part to a well-crafted script from screenwriting siblings Julius and Philip Epstein (the Oscar-winning pair responsible for memorable classics such as 1942’s Casablanca, among many, many others). The Epsteins based the screenplay on James Hagan’s 1933 Broadway play One Sunday Afternoon, which had previously been adapted as the 1933 pre-Code film of the same name. This version, with Gary Cooper in the Cagney role and Fay Wray as Virginia, was an utter disaster at the box office. Knowing this, Cagney was initially reluctant to star in Walsh’s remake, but when the Epsteins reworked the story, deliberately tailoring the script to Cagney’s strengths, the actor eventually came on board.
Biff is a hot-headed Irish banty rooster, quick to throw up his fists and unwilling to back down from a fight. He’s also a horrible combatant who ends up with more black eyes than victories. The character is a definite “type,” but Cagney imbues Biff with enough humor and heart to offset the stereotype–he doesn’t fight simply for the sake of fighting, but generally enters confrontations in defense of someone or something (his father, Virginia’s honor). Biff is not a “violent” character–Cagney portrays him as rash and impulse-driven, but heartfelt in his intentions. And even though he ends up in the worst of circumstances–taken advantage of by his former pal, inadvertently losing his father to Hugo’s machinations–Biff is never a figure of pity; the audience has no doubt that he will overcome his heartbreak and troubles in the end.
For all that Cagney is the main focus of The Strawberry Blonde, de Havilland gets the meatier role. As the unapologetic suffragette and crusader for women’s rights, de Havilland is the source of some of the best moments of the film. Amy talks a big game about being a “loose” woman, but when Biff calls her bluff, she is terrified and bursts into tears. She’s a steadying force, anchoring Biff and providing an unobtrusively moral center for the action. At the same time, Amy’s the most entertaining character of the bunch. One of the highlights of the movie is the laugh-out-loud double-date scene–Amy and Biff, stuck together while Hugo and Virginia engage in a clutch, reluctantly engage in conversation, and Amy proceeds to shock Biff by claiming that a woman doesn’t need marriage to enjoy the benefits of a home and children. De Havilland’s body language speaks louder than her dialogue here–she stands nonchalantly, hands behind her back and swaying forwards and back as she speaks, finishing her offhanded diatribe with a wink that has an outraged Cagney reeling back as if she’s struck him. It’s a moment of sheer, hilarious brilliance that really demonstrates de Havilland’s sometimes underrated comedic ability.
The two female leads are modeled as foils for one another, with Amy’s directness bothering Virginia just as much as Virginia’s hypocrisy bothers Amy (though, admittedly, Amy is just as much a hypocrite in her own way). Virginia insists upon maintaining the facade of respectability, excusing her behavior through niceties. And though Virginia looks upon Amy’s forthrightness as “unseemly,” Amy is the more “virtuous” of the two by far. That virtue, however, does not make Amy an unbearable character (as so many virtuous onscreen ladies are); she is a fascinatingly deep character, in stark contrast to Virginia’s shallow nature.
While de Havilland is undoubtedly given more to do in the film, Hayworth’s only job, it seems, is to look pretty and act enticing–not what you might call a “difficult” task for the starlet, at least based on her screen persona. Hayworth is the title character, and yet at this still relatively early stage in her career, she was third-billed behind Cagney and de Havilland. Though Hayworth had been appearing in films for more than a decade–first under her birth name, Rita Cansino, and then under her new “non-ethnic” moniker–she had never really broken through as a full-fledged star. A supporting role in 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings gave Hayworth’s career a boost, but it wasn’t until Columbia loaned her to Warner Bros. for The Strawberry Blonde (after the studio’s own Ann Sheridan refused to star) that Hayworth finally “arrived.” Audiences and critics alike were enamored with Hayworth in this film, with Variety labeling her “an eyeful,” and notoriously fussy New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who lauded the film as “lusty, affectionate, and altogether winning,” singled out Hayworth’s turn as the “classic ‘flirt'” for a mention.
Still, there is more to Virginia than just being the flirt. It takes brains and talent to convincingly portray vapidness without delving into caricature, and Hayworth is more than up to the task. Virginia has some of the most cringe-worthy lines in the film–for instance, when Amy tries to talk to her about gender equality, Virginia sticks her nose in the air and snaps, “I refuse to listen to advanced ideas.” But there is no mistaking Hayworth’s ability in presenting Virginia, whose behavior easily invites the audience’s dislike, as an appealing (if ultimately unsympathetic) character.
The movie is helped greatly by a talented supporting cast featuring some very familiar faces. Jack Carson is slimy perfection as the devious Hugo. For someone used to Carson’s more genial comedic roles (generally opposite buddy Dennis Morgan, who, interestingly enough, would later star in yet another remake of this story directed by Walsh, 1948’s One Sunday Afternoon), his turn here might seem disconcerting. But one need only look at Carson’s performance in Mildred Pierce (1945) to see that playing the schemer was not entirely out of his wheelhouse. Character actor George Tobias pops up in yet another stereotypical Greek role as Biff’s buddy, Nick; Blonde marks the second of several films in which Tobias would co-star with Cagney (after 1940’s Torrid Zone). Other notable supporting roles are filled by Alan Hale as Biff’s drunken father; future Superman George Reeves as a belligerent college boy who raises Biff’s ire in the “present-day” scenes; and the ever-delightful Una O’Connor as the sharp-tongued neighborhood busybody, Mrs. Mulcahey.
The Strawberry Blonde may not be as well-known as other films featuring its three big names, but it is enjoyable nonetheless, filled with charm and humor, strong performances, and a truly entertaining story. It is, in a simple word, delightful.
This post is an entry in the 2012 TCM SUTS Blogathon hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. For more information and to view other entries throughout the month, check out their sites or follow the blogathon on Twitter.
The Strawberry Blonde airs this afternoon at 6PM EST on TCM.