The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

strawberry blonde 14This 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.

James Cagney and Jack Carson

James Cagney and Jack Carson

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.

James Cagney and Alan Hale

James Cagney and Alan Hale

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.

Rita Hayworth and James Cagney

Rita Hayworth and James Cagney

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.

Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney

Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney

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.

Rita Hayworth turning heads

Rita Hayworth turning heads

Cagney and de Havilland

Cagney and de Havilland

Jack Carson and Rita Hayworth

Jack Carson and Rita Hayworth

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49 thoughts on “The Strawberry Blonde (Raoul Walsh, 1941)

  1. I love this film and have seen it many times. Every cast member is just perfect and for one of the few times in his career, Cagney gets a leading lady in Olivia de Havilland that can really go toe to toe with him (another was Sheridan – imagine if she decided to make the film?). Carson and Hayworth shine, as does everyone right down to George Tobias and a preppy George Reeves. Great post – I really enjoyed reading it!

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    • Thank you very much, FlickChick! Must agree that de Havilland makes a great team with Cagney and it is a pity they didn’t work together more often. Hayworth is so perfect in her role that it is hard to imagine anyone else playing it, but I am sure Sheridan would also have done a fine job – as you say she is another actress who is really equal to playing opposite Cagney. And I agree the whole cast is great.

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  2. “The Strawberry Blonde” is an utter joy and your affection for the film comes through nicely in your article. In the earlier version of “One Sunday Afternoon” Cooper’s Biff is not a very likeable fellow. It’s worth seeing just to say you have, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way. It’s easy to fall for Cagney’s Biff, after all Amy loves him.

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    • Very interesting to hear that about the earlier version – as a fan of Gary Cooper as well as Cagney, I’m keen to see that one and compare it, but it sounds as if I shouldn’t hold my breath! And yes, it is very easy to fall for Biff. Thank you for the nice comment, Patricia!

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  3. Good job as always Judy. In truth, this is a film I have not seen or if I did it was many years ago as a kid and just don’t remember it. Your review makes it sound like its kind of a fun, lightweight film to watch, so I will have to be on the look out for it.

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    • There’s a bit of black comedy there, isn’t there, as we see them sniping at one another so bitterly – the toothache is the least of Jack’s problems! Thanks, Vienna.

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  4. This is one of Cagney’s sweetest performances and Walsh perfectly captures the 1890s milieu. I do enjoy Jack Carson in this film, though—he’s slick but, in a way, he’s also not too bright (which is often how Carson came across onscreen; it’s why he’s so funny to watch). And he and Cagney get a great rhythm going in their scenes together (if Cagney had an issue working with him, it doesn’t show). Thanks for such a great post.

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    • ‘One of his sweetest performances’ is a perfect description, G.O.M. – an amazing contrast with Cagney’s character in ‘White Heat’… or in another Raoul Walsh film, ‘A Lion is in the Streets’, where he is the one conning everybody. I also like Carson in this and think he brings a lot of warmth to Hugo so that it’s hard to dislike the character as much as I want to! I haven’t seen many of his films but would like to see more in the future – he and Cagney make a great team in this, as you say, and for me if anything the difference in heights contributes to it. Thanks so much for your comment.

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  5. I absolutely loved your review, and it really makes me want to dust off my copy of this movie and give it a re-watch. Like a few other films covered in this blogathon, for some reason, I’ve never seen this entire movie — just bits and pieces — and now I want to sit down and watch the whole thing. Loved your beautiful pictures, too!

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    • Thank you so much, Karen – I’m finding myself tempted to re-watch movies as a result of the blogathon too and will soon be on a Cagney viewing binge! I’m sure you will enjoy watching the entire movie.

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  6. I have to admit, “The Strawberry Blonde” is a film I couldn’t get into. Not sure why…I ought to love it, as I completely and totally adore James Cagney, and both Rita and Olivia are among my top 10 gals. For whatever reason, though, it just didn’t do it for me, and I turned it off after about 25 minutes. (I usually give a film 15-25 minutes, and if I can’t get into it, I turn it off and move on to something else. In rare instances, I may go an hour before giving up, as I did with “The Wild Bunch.”) I also could not get into the Cooper/Wray version of the film, turning it off even more quickly than I did “The Strawberry Blonde.” (I didn’t know until you mentioned it that these 2 movies were the same story.)

    That said, your awesome review of the film—as well as your high regard for it— has encouraged me to give it another try. I see it on the TCM schedule fairly regularly, so the next time it’s on, I am going to DVR it.

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    • Patti, this film is one of my (many!) favourite performances by Cagney and a wonderful contrast with his great gangster roles – sorry to hear that you couldn’t get into it, but glad you are tempted to give it another try! I do sometimes find that a film doesn’t work for me on first viewing because I’m just in the wrong mood for it and that I like it better second time around, so I’m hoping that may be the case for you with this one… though of course it may just not be to your taste. I do want to try that Cooper version too and see how it compares! Thanks very much for the comment.

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  7. Judy, a tremendous post with lots of great insights into the film. When you write that “you could say that charm is this film’s key quality,” you really nailed it! It’s not a quality I normally associate with Cagney (or a typical Cagney film), but it’s a treat to see him play a sweet, sensitive, too-trusting character for once. Like you, I especially liked the period detail (which your photos and screen caps show beautifully), something I also noticed in another film Walsh directed about the same time, “Gentleman Jim.”

    It was interesting to see Rita Hayworth playing such a self-centered, unsympathetic character. And this is one of the best early Olivia de Havilland performances I’ve seen. She seems so intelligent, balanced, and modern in her attitudes. It really makes you see why she was so dismayed by her typical assignment at Warners. Even the serious theme of Cagney being so blinded by Rita’s beauty that he doesn’t see what a shrew she is, while failing to see what a gem de Havilland is, is presented with great charm. I’m glad you chose this one to do for the blogathon because you clearly have great affection for it, and it’s a wonderful film that, if you haven’t seen it, will show an unexpectedly tender side of Cagney.

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    • R.D., I’m interested to hear you mention ‘Gentleman Jim’, a film I haven’t managed to see as yet but really want to – as another 1890s period piece from Walsh with a different role for Errol Flynn, it sounds irresistible. I do agree that both Hayworth and de Havilland are excellent in ‘Strawberry Blonde’, with roles that give them a lot of scope, and it’s nice that they have a real friendship in the film, though they don’t have all that many scenes together. As you say, it certainly showed that de Havilland could do a lot more than Warners usually gave her a chance to do. Thanks so much for your kind comments and for all your work in organising this wonderful blogathon – I’m thoroughly enjoying it and learning a lot from reading all the postings.

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  8. It would be interesting to see this, if only to see Hayworth, Cagney and de Havilland working with one another. I think de Havilland and Hayworth’s opposite natures must have been something to see. I’ve never seen Strawberry Blonde, but I expect after reading this that I would quite like it. As for your comment about dentists not needing to be bright by old Hollywood standards (as referenced by your mention of Greed), I think this was a common stereotype for many years was that there were a bunch of quacks in the profession.

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    • Those three actors make a great combination in this film, together with Carson – I hope you get a chance to see it. Thanks for the comment about the dentists – I remember wondering about this when reading ‘McTeague’ and watching ‘Greed’, so I’m interested to hear that it was a stereotype. I will look out for more dentists in classic films. Thank you, Kim.

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  9. Count me amongst those who love this one. I bet Cagney must have too, this is about as far from the gangster roles as you can get! Thanks for reminding me of “One Sunday Afternoon”–I think TCM aired it a few months ago so I may need to do a double-feature including a refresher on this remake (I’ve yet to watch the 1933 film either). Enjoyed your article and love that still of Cagney practicing on Carson!

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    • Cliff, that sounds like a great idea for a double feature. I also want to see Walsh’s remake with Dennis Morgan, but don’t think I could take all three at once! I put together a lot of stills of this movie a while back and don’t remember exactly where they all came from, but I also love that one of Cagney as a dentist and Carson’s expression. Glad to hear you also love this film, and thanks!

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  10. Another of Cagney’s greats I only got around to seeing recently. A huge change of pace from what I was expecting knowing Cagney was involved, but once again, I was impressed and enthralled by his versatility. Your well-observed post provides a lot of unknown-to me-backstory and makes me smile in remembering how delightfully surprised I was by this Cagney change-of-pace film. Thanks!

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    • I certainly agree this is a change of pace, Ken – I think Cagney might even talk a little more slowly in this than his usual breathless delivery. It certainly does show his versatility and “delightful surprise” is spot on. Thank you!

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  11. R.D. beat me to the punch with his mention of “Gentleman Jim”. In both films I really felt Walsh’s fondness for the era. His crowd scenes in these movies are especially vibrant.

    This is one of my favorite James Cagney performances and one of my favorite films of his. Like you, I would love to see this with a live audience for the sing-along at the end.

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    • Kevin, thanks very much – now I definitely have to see ‘Gentleman Jim’ as soon as possible! I haven’t seen enough of Walsh’s films yet, but am more impressed by him with each one I do see. Sounds as if we are agreed on ‘Strawberry Blonde’ – and a live sing-along would be great.

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  12. I’ve never seen THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE, but I’ll have to dig this one up! I’m really curious to see Cagney take on a role that differs substantially from the wisecracking, mile-a-minute intelligence that he usually displays in his roles—and which you highlight beautifully in this fascinating post. I particularly appreciated the wealth of production details and background you included. When I do finally get to see this one, my experience will be very much enriched by all of these wonderful facts. Thanks for the recommendation!

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    • Diva, thank you so much – it is indeed intriguing to see him taking on a role which is so different from his usual characters, and I think he carries it off very well. I hope you get a chance to see the movie soon and am sure you will enjoy it!

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  13. A great early Cagney turn that is too often undervalued at a time where the towering actor was making his mark with versatility, charisma and vocational command. As he is your favorite actor of all-time, I am not at all surprised by your brilliant analysis and appreciation of the icon’s work here, one that again shows how he can rise over being cast against type. Cagney as a dentist is curious to say the least, but it’s certainly not the only time he raised eyebrows during this period. Great point Judy in making comparison to the way Gibson Gowland as John McTeague is similarly shown as a dentist with limited intelligence. I quite agree too that a big screen viewing of this film would be divine for a number of reasons! Great piece here Judy!

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    • Sam, thank you as ever for your great support and kind comments. I tend to enjoy seeing actors cast against type and find it fascinating to see them serving up something different from what the audience expected. Cagney does get away from the need to keep playing the same type of role here and yet still brings aspects of his usual screen personality with him. Just struck me that I’ve never actually seen Cagney on the big screen in any role – I do hope to get the opportunity one of these days! Thank you again.

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  14. Wonderful review! As much as I like Ann Sheridan, I can’t imagine her as Virginia; Rita Hayworth is perfectly cast. Walsh does indeed evoke a captivating period feel and it’s always a delight to see WB supporting players such as Alan Hale.

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    • Rick, I must agree that Hayworth is perfect as Virginia, although I like Ann Sheridan a lot too. I love Alan Hale and would really like to see him in a lead role – I believe he did play a few leads but I’ve never managed to see any of them. Errol Flynn says in his autobiography that all the leading men were frightened of acting with Hale because he was so likely to steal the scene! Thanks very much.

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  15. Judy, As I am making my way through the blogathon contributions I’m realizing that I haven’t seen quite a few of these films for a very long time. Your review of “The Strawberry Blonde” conveys a real sense of its charms – so much so that I’m going to have to watch it again soon. Your mention of Cagney’s concern about working with Jack Carson reminds me of something I read yesterday about a film Cagney made much later in his career. Don Murray recalled that when they worked on “Shake Hands with the Devil” in 1959, Cagney didn’t seemed fazed at all that Murray was much taller and had to stand in a hole to accommodate certain shots (purely for technical reasons). In time, Cagney must’ve overcome whatever insecurities he had about his height. Wonderful post!

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    • Eve, it’s interesting that Cagney wasn’t worried about the height difference in ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ – I suppose by that time he wasn’t a romantic leading man so that could have been a factor. He and Carson make a great combination, anyway! Thanks so much for the nice comment. And thanks for mentioning ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’, which is another fine film and couldn’t very well be further away from ‘Strawberry Blonde’ with its noirish feel and IRA storyline – I think that one might be the only British/Irish film Cagney made, apart from ‘Ragtime’ which was filmed in the UK.

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  16. Yet the intelligence of Jimmy’s characters in something I admire, I’d like to see him acting against type. Knowing that there are several versions of the story only adds to my curiosity: I love to compare versions! Of course Olivia and Rita are a great attraction, since they are so talented and pretty.
    Don’t forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

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    • Le, I love comparing versions of the same story too – and I also love to see my favourite actors cast against type. I’ve already watched your contribution and left you a comment. :) Thank you!

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    • Thanks, Colin! It’s great to have that information about the Spanish DVD release – I’m often surprised to learn that a film has been released in one country but not in others. Great to know.

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    • There is also a French DVD version (pressed), from Warner Bros exclusive to the FNAC chain.

      They have released as pressed a few titles available as MOD from Warner Archives. But from reading, depending on the film, it may be a different transfer. They also have a couple of ones available which are not released elsewhere (e.g. Beyond the Forest)

      http://video.fnac.com/a5362217/La-blonde-framboise-James-Cagney-DVD-Zone-2

      And if you’re a Minnelli fan, “Two weeks in another town” is coming in May from Wild Side as “Quinze jours ailleurs”.

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    • Miguel, thanks so much for the information on this DVD and this series of French DVDs – it looks like a great selection of titles and the prices are lower than WA, for proper pressed discs. I will have a good look through the selection.You and Colin have made me realise just how many great English-language titles can be found on region 2 DVD via the other European Amazon sites!

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    • Oh yes, definitely. One of my most luckiest finds was a Mitchell Leisen box from Italy. It came out just before a trip to Rome and I found it purely by chance – I decided to put his name on an online Italian shop on a whim. Just recently I got (though haven’t seen it) “The Left Hand of God” from Germany and my “Beloved Infidel” is Belgium, I think, and it was only available elsewhere in Spain at the time.

      France, Spain, Germany and Italy all have more lively classic film market than the UK (which is shrinking fast), and they don’t always overlap.

      This partly due to a different attitude towards cinema and partly from the fact that licensors vary across Europe. I got a Portuguese version of “My Cousin Rachel” a few years ago (still unwatched as well) for a few euros, much less than the later released and overpriced US version.

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    • I’ve certainly noticed how the classic film market is shrinking here in the UK, Miguel – and am currently lamenting the loss of the Sky Classics TV channel, which used to show quite a few good black-and-white films. I will be doing more exploring on the foreign Amazon sites in future. ‘The Left Hand of God’ is an interesting Bogart film – a fine performance in what at first seems a surprising role for him.

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  17. Glad you chose one of the first classic films I was ever introduced too. An unforgettable one for me :) I saw this one as wee girl. Love Cagney in this film! Great review!

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    • This must have been a great introduction to classic films – hope you sang along at the end as a youngster! Thanks, Bacall.

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  18. 
    I have seen and own all 65 films from James Cagney. I think this film along with Angels with Dirty Faces and Yankee Doodle dandy are my three favorites.

    My favorite scene in this film is when Biff returns to Amy after being in jail. Just alotta raw emotion here as they listen to the song “let the rest of the world go by.” Biff says something to the effect about us always saying the other guy is wrong all the time. I do think he means we never look at ourselves with the same scrutiny as we do others. He then says something about good being in every person if we only would search for it. I think those are really meaningful lines from such a sweet and simple film. This movie has always touched my heart.

    Cagney and DeHavilland do a fine job together and show extremely good chemistry as a couple. Cagney always worked well with Alan Hale with The Fighting 69th being their best pairing besides this one. I think Cagney showed off more of his real life attributes in this movie than any other one he has ever done. His good sense of humor and quiet, humble persona really come through on the screen in The Strawberry Blonde. You just can’t beat this film, it is one of Cagney’s finest! Nice review…..

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    • John, thanks for dropping by and the nice comment. Good to hear from a fellow Cagney fan – I’ve also seen almost all of his films but still haven’t seen the one he directed, ‘Short Cut to Hell’, or his final made-for-TV movie, ‘Terrible Joe Moran’. I’m also hoping to get hold of a couple of TV plays and a couple of films where he just provided the voiceover.

      I also like the scene where Biff returns to Amy, plus the one where he is being arrested and puts on a pretence that the police are just visitors. Must agree that he makes a great team with both Olivia de Havilland and Alan Hale. Thanks again!

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  19. Pingback: Raoul Walsh and James Cagney’s 4 Films Together | Movie classics

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