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Legendary director Raoul Walsh made a variety of films in his long career, but he's best known for action stories featuring male camaraderie and violent conflict -- war movies like Objective, Burma! and classic gangster films like White Heat. That makes his nostalgic 1941 hit The Strawberry Blonde all the more of a pleasant surprise. It's like his Errol Flynn light drama Gentleman Jim, except that deeper romantic values have been substituted for most of the slapstick. The source play by James Hagan had been previously filmed under its original title One Sunday Afternoon (1933) with Gary Cooper, Fay Wray and Frances Fuller. The Strawberry Blonde recreates a turn-of-the-century atmosphere with ease ... as director Walsh was born in 1887, he clearly knew the era well.
The screenplay by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (Casablanca) effects a charming reversal on James Cagney's usual screen persona. Cagney is Biff Grimes, a working-class New Yorker whose womanizing father (Alan Hale) has given the family a terrible, if colorful, reputation. Both the roughneck Biff and the egotistical Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) are smitten by the neighborhood's attractive 'Strawberry Blonde' Virginia Bush (Rita Hayworth), who makes it her business to stroll past their barber shop hangout. To set up a double-date arrangement, Hugo saddles Biff with Virginia's friend Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland), a hard-working nurse with ideas of feminine equality. Incensed by Biff's foolish adherence to chivalric values (which Virginia takes full advantage of), Amy tries to shock him with her progressive notions about sexual equality.
Biff takes a correspondence course in dentistry while the slippery Hugo graduates from shaving profits from charity collections to running a contracting and building supply business. Biff doesn't realize that Virginia is stringing him along until word comes that she's married the ambitious Hugo; Amy helps Biff save face. Struggling along in the early years of marriage, Biff and Amy are surprised when Hugo and Virginia invite them to a fancy dinner. Hugo shows off his wealth while Virginia steals a kiss from Biff. Thanks to Virginia's urging, Hugo gives his old friend a do-nothing executive job in his contracting office. All seems fine until it becomes obvious that Hugo is up to his old tricks - he's made sure that Biff's signature is on the documents for a construction job where Hugo has scrimped on safety standards to maximize profits.
The Strawberry Blonde leaps into the "gay '90's" spirit right off the top, with barbershop singing, backyard croquet, beer delivered in open pails and the glorious pastime of watching girls parade down the city streets in their finest. A lamplighter complains that nobody appreciates his work, and we later see the newfangled (and not yet reliable) electrical light system. Neither Biff nor Hugo enjoys any social advantages but both are eager to make good. Hugo hones his skill for petty cheating while Biff, hampered somewhat by his Old Man's status as a barroom clown, thinks he can master dentistry by reading mail-order instructions on how to remove teeth. The stubborn son of a stubborn Irishman, Biff declares his pride in his obstinacy by saying, "that's the kind of a hairpin I am". He rarely questions his conventional preconceptions. Dazzled by the flashy, coquettish Virginia, he doesn't appreciate Amy's honesty and devotion.
Under Raoul Walsh's sprightly direction, every actor performs to their highest standard. Cagney's Biff loses every foolish fight he gets himself into and never admits that he's beaten. His best friend, Greek barber Nicholas Pappalas (George Tobias) uses leeches to bleed Biff's wounds. Biff repeatedly allows Hugo to cheat him, and Cagney makes his trusting nature an endearing quality. Olivia de Havilland's spirited Amy winks at boys, just to prove a point about sexual equality. Too proud to let Biff ignore her on their first date and determined to make some kind of impression, she declares herself a believer in women's rights and asks for a cigarette to smoke. De Havilland is hilarious when her Amy makes the bold suggestion that marriage is a stifling institution -- she looks Biff right in the eye and suggests that it might be best to "ignore the rules". With scenes like these, The Strawberry Blonde distances itself from quaint nostalgia pieces that merely make cute references to the "olden days".
On loan from Columbia (or MGM?), Rita Hayworth embodies all the graces of a beauty of the period, tailoring her manner and behavior to cultivate male attention. Hayworth's Virginia observes the proprieties in public but doesn't mind sneaking off in the park to be alone with Hugo. She's clearly after the most successful male in the pack but sees nothing wrong with wrapping Biff around her finger as well. Ms. Hayworth is captivating, whether dancing a polka in a beer garden or throwing petulant fits at her thoughtless husband ... she only receives third billing, but from here forward would move up to star status.
The screenwriters structure The Strawberry Blonde in flashback form, looking back from ten or so years later, after Biff has served a prison term (where, given a captive clientele, he finally gains some experience pulling teeth) and when he'd like to seek vengeance on the cowardly heel Hugo. The movie doesn't attempt a deep statement about life -- Biff remains prone to foolish fistfights -- but its hero learns that his loyalty and affection don't have to be wasted if he finds a life partner worthy of them. It's a funny and sweet picture about values that apparently seemed in short supply in 1941.
George Tobias does sidekick duty as a funny barber. He has a thick Greek accent, but takes a German singer to task for "muddering" the English language. The venerable Una O'Connor also makes with some amusing faces, reacting to Old Man Grimes' constant suggestion that they "get together when her husband is at work". The Rover Boy collegiate kid in the next yard who gets on Biff's nerves is none other than George Reeves, looking spiffy in a letterman sweater and mustache. James Cagney fans will get an extra laugh when Biff grumbles about these upstart "college kids": in later films like Mister Roberts, we often see Cagney getting big laughs being bitter and resentful of those "smart aleck college boys."
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Strawberry Blonde is a very good transfer of this unappreciated classic, an unusually spirited and even sexy valentine from just before WW2. James Wong Howe gets the most from the film's interiors and the Warner back lot street set -- the show doesn't have a generic studio feel. The clear soundtrack highlights Heinz Roemheld's Oscar-nominated score, which is compiled almost entirely of vintage standards from the period. It's a good reminder that scoring a movie isn't exactly the same as composing one.
The ending segues into a vintage slide show sing-along to the tune ... And the Band Played On, which features the lyric, "the Strawberry Blonde". It caps Walsh's film with an engagingly appropriate finale.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Strawberry Blonde rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.