This is my contribution to the James Cagney blogathon being organised by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector. Please do visit and read the other postings. There is also the chance to win a two-DVD special set of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ – scroll down to the bottom of the Movie Projector blogathon page for details of how to enter.
Both James Cagney and director Raoul Walsh are best-known for their tough-guy dramas – and they made two great ones together, gangster classics The Roaring Twenties and White Heat. Yet this pair also teamed up to make one of the sweetest of romantic comedy-dramas, a period piece suffused with charm and nostalgia. With not one but two great leading ladies, Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland, a sparkling script and an irresistible musical soundtrack, The Strawberry Blonde is a film which deserves to be much better known. Sadly this title has never had a full DVD release, and old VHS videos used to change hands at scarily high prices – but now it has been brought out on Warner Archive in region 1, and it has also been shown in a fine print on the UK TCM in the last few years.
Most of the film unfolds in flashback, so we know from the start that young dentist Biff Grimes (Cagney) has been disappointed in love and spent time in prison after somehow being framed by a friend. The film then shows how it all happened – before we finally discover whether Biff will be tempted to take his revenge on the friend in question, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), when he finally turns up in his surgery as a patient.
As with another film I reviewed here recently, little-known John Garfield movie Saturday’s Children, The Strawberry Blonde was based on a popular stage play, which was adapted for the screen numerous times. The play, One Sunday Afternoon by James Hagan, was first staged in 1933, and adapted as a film that same year, directed by Stephen Roberts and starring Gary Cooper and Fay Wray. I haven’t yet managed to see this version but have heard it is quite a bit darker than Walsh’s take on the story in The Strawberry Blonde. Later, in 1948, Walsh remade his own hit film, this time reverting to the title One Sunday Afternoon, as a musical starring Dennis Morgan and Dorothy Malone. There were also no less than five TV adaptations between 1949 and 1959.
However, there is no doubt at all about the most popular version of the tale – definitely the Cagney one. For this film, Hagan’s script was reworked by brothers Julius J and Philip G Epstein, so the dialogue has all the wit and delicacy that they always contributed. There is a small-town feel to the film, but, as a TCM article points out, it is actually set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, a period which both writer Hagan and director Walsh would have remembered well. That vanished world is vividly evoked through a wealth of loving period detail, covering everything from dances and picnics in the park to the arrival of electric light, and new-fangled foreign dishes like spaghetti. Orry-Kelly’s breathtaking costumes add to the atmosphere, as does the use of period songs like The Band Played On, written in 1895, which provided the film with its title – from the line “Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde and the band played on.” Wikipedia’s article on the film suggests there were rows over Walsh and cinematographer James Wong Howe’s use of close-ups, which producer Hal Wallis felt were obscuring the period backgrounds, but I don’t think there is any problem with this in the completed film. It all seems to work together seamlessly.
In most of his films, whether Cagney is playing a nice guy or a villain, one thing is constant – his intelligence. He’s the fast-talking character who is always at least one step ahead of everyone else. However, in The Strawberry Blonde he is slightly cast against type, because for once he is not the clever one. Instead, his character, Biff, is a daydreamer, a sweet-natured character who allows himself to be exploited by others. In particular, he is exploited by his so-called best friend, Hugo , who is always organising grand outings where somehow Biff ends up footing the bill. Biff is also ordered about by his father, shameless womaniser William (Alan Hale), who wants him to become a dentist, via correspondence courses, so that he can sort out his troublesome teeth. (It’s odd that apparently it was felt you didn’t have to be very intelligent to be a dentist – this view is also there in the great silent film Greed, which similarly features a character learning the trade by mail order.) The father and son have some great scenes together, allowing Cagney to send up his own image in one sequence where he is playing a pub bouncer and has to throw out his father, who is clearly much more skilled in fighting than he is. (“I’m supposed to be a tough guy,” Biff laments.) Biff actually gets into quite a few fights in the course of the film, but loses them all, usually ending up with a black eye.
Both Biff and Hugo fall under the spell of spoilt beauty Virginia Brush. It’s clear from the start that she is more attracted to the self-confident Hugo, but she enjoys dating a different man every night – and, when Biff finally gets his turn to take her out, he falls completely under her spell. He doesn’t even mind that she is spending his money just as recklessly as Hugo does. Ann Sheridan, who had starred with Cagney in two recent films, was originally lined up to play Virginia, but decided to opt out because of a contract dispute. Warner Brothers arranged to borrow Rita Hayworth from Columbia instead, in what proved to be a star-making role for her. Hayworth is perfect for the part, making Virginia selfish and demanding and yet so charming at the same time that you can see how she gets away with everything. (Jack Carson is also charming as conman Hugo – in fact you could say that charm is this film’s key quality.)
However, the real heroine of the film is Virginia’s friend, down-to-earth nurse Amy (de Havilland), who outrages Biff by her forthright views on everything from women’s suffrage to free love and smoking. When Hugo elopes with Virginia, a heartbroken Biff marries Amy on the rebound, but continues to carry a torch for his first love. However, he gradually learns to appreciate Amy after marriage, and the couple have some lovely scenes together – I especially like one where she asks him to give her one and a half kisses to celebrate their 18-month anniversary.
The plot moves from comedy to melodrama when Hugo persuades Biff to become his vice-chairman at a construction company, but it turns out his friend is once again being set up to foot the bill. This time it is a heavy one, as Biff is made to sign various incriminating documents, and, when his own father dies in an industrial accident, Biff is carted off to prison. Although casting Cagney as a ‘none-too bright’ character might be surprising, the fact that he plays a victim here isn’t. He was quite often cast as a victim in films at this period in his career, from the newspaperman who is wrongly imprisoned in Each Dawn I Die to the boxer forced into the ring once too often by his girlfriend in City For Conquest. The Strawberry Blonde is a much lighter film, but brings out the same sense of the character’s underlying vulnerability.
According to Wikipedia, Cagney was reluctant to act with Jack Carson because Carson was so much taller than him, and at one point the star nearly opted out of the production, with John Garfield being suggested as a replacement. I was quite surprised to read that Cagney had this objection, because if anything the film emphasises his small stature – when he dances with Rita Hayworth, who was about the same height as him, she appears to be much taller – helping to give the feeling that the odds are stacked against him. I think it’s also true to say that there are elements of his ‘mama’s boy’ personality in this film, even though he doesn’t have a mother here. Wife Amy mothers him, pulling him back from fights and worrying that he is working too hard and isn’t getting enough sleep.
However, despite all the poignant moments and occasional outright sentimentality, the main mood of the film is one of sunshine and high spirits, and this is perfectly brought out at the end, when the lyrics of The Band Played On are put up on screen “by popular demand” and the audience is urged to sing along. I’m not sure if this was the first time this had been done, showing the way forward to modern singalong screenings of musicals, but, in any case, I would love to see the film on the big screen with an audience joining in.