Friday December 18, 2020
Movie Review: The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Raoul Walsh directed two of the great Cagney flicks—“The Roaring Twenties” in 1939 and “White Heat” in 1948—and this is the one he did in-between those.
It’s a romantic comedy set in the Belle Epoch, so a bit of a departure for both men. Cagney plays Biff Grimes, a dentist forever losing fights and playing patsy to fast-talking sharpie Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson). Biff not only loses the titular girl—Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth)—but also his freedom, when he takes the fall for Hugo’s corrupt business practices. Despite all that, the movie has a happy ending. Its lesson is basically Saint Therese’s: More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
It's surprisingly good. Well, not so surprising when you look at the talent in the room. Walsh was just coming off “High Sierra,” screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein were about to write “Casablanca,” and film editor William Holmes would win an Oscar for “Sergeant York” the following year. The cinematographer was the legendary James Wong Howe, the costumes were by the legendary Orry-Kelly, and the music was by Heniz Roemheld, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film.
Casts don’t get much better. Along with Carson and Hayworth, we get Olivia de Havilland as Amy, the would-be suffragette, Alan Hale as Biff’s blarney-loving father, George Tobias going Greek as Nick the barber, and George Reeves, the once and future Superman, here as a next-door collegiate with a Y on his chest rather than an S. Plus it’s one of Cagney’s better comedic performances. I’ve ragged on his comedic chops in the past but he’s great here. The way he shrugs off a hug from his father, for example, on his first day as a saloon bouncer, saying, sotto voce, “Cut it out, will ya? I’m supposed to be a tough guy.” Love that. You could begin a Cagney documentary with that.
The grape of happiness
Overall, it’s a loving tweak at a more innocent time. Men puts up their dukes like John L. Sullivan and spout turn-of-the-century locutions like “Tell it to Sweeney” (get lost, basically), “23 skidoo” (I’m gone), and “She’s all the fudge” (she’s hot)—as well as Biff’s repeated phrase, “That’s the kind of a hairpin I am!” (Apparently Cagney inserted that one himself because it’s something his father used to say. According to Douglas Harper’s Etymology Dictionary, hairpin was simply slang for “a person.” So it’s said proudly, not disparagingly. It just sounds disparaging.)
The movie opens in 1906, as Biff and Nick play horseshoes in the backyard. It’s Sunday but Biff is hardly relaxed. He’s only had two dental customers in eight months, his wife wants to go for a stroll, and the college kids next door keep playing “And the Band Played On,” with its lyric, “Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde,” which reminds him of Virginia, the strawberry blonde who got away.
Nick: You were stuck on her, ain’t you?
Biff: [Looking around] Me? No …
Nick: Well, I was.
Biff: Oh, I liked her—in a nice way.
Nick: Yeah, I liked her too, but I forget which way.
Great line. Plus the dialogue prefigures much of the movie, since almost every character pretends to be something they’re not: Biff tough, Amy rebellious, Hugo and Virginia respectable.
At this point we get a coincidence so large they call it out. There’s an emergency tooth that needs pulling, and the sufferer turns out to be Hugo Barnstead—the man responsible for so much of Biff's misery. “What a coincidence!’ Nick cries. “He’s gonna want gas,” Biff responds bitterly. “Alright, I’ll give him gas.” And on that macabre note, we flash back 10 years earlier to the gay ’90s.
The first thing we see is a man carrying beer-filled buckets on a long pole. That’s also one of the first images we see in “The Public Enemy,” too, Cagney’s breakthrough film, and I’m curious if it was homage or just an easy turn-of-the-century trope. (Anyone know?) Then we’re introduced to Biff’s father trying to sweet-talk a neighbor lady, Mrs. Mulcahey (Una O’Connor): “You and I are no longer young, so we must grasp the grape of happiness.” He’s distracted by a Bock Beer sign, goes into a saloon, where his son is working his first day as bouncer. Biff’s first assignment? Toss his father. Which he does with the old man’s help. But then he gets into it with the saloon owner, and they put up their John L. Sullivan dukes and we cut to Nick’s barbershop, where Biff is getting a leech applied to his black eye. It’ll be a running gag.
After a good ol’ fashioned racist barbershop quartet song (“In the evening by the moonlight/ You can hear those darkies singing…”), someone shouts that the strawberry blonde is heading their way, and all the men crowd by the door to tip their hats and politely stare. Only Hugo makes a move. He gets a date, but she insists on a second so he has to find one, too. And there’s Biff. We get a good set-piece at the gas-lit park, where Amy and Virginia argue over decorum, while, nearby in a car, Hugo and Biff argue over who gets which girl. In the end, Biff winds up sitting with Amy, miserably, while Virginia, his crush, necks and giggles with Hugo in nearby bushes. So it goes.
Biff finally gets his shot thanks to Hugo’s larceny. Hugo oversells tickets to a Sunday picnic, the boat only takes so many, and the cutoff is right after Hugo and Amy board—with Biff and Virginia still on the gangplank. So the latter two make a day of it: picnic at the Statue of Liberty, evening at an outdoor beer garden, where Biff bribes the bandleader to substitute his name into the “Strawberry Blonde” song. Virginia’s so taken with it she kisses him on the cheek—and again at the end of their date. Things are looking up! Except she breaks their next date to marry Hugo.
If the first part of the flashback is how Biff loses Virginia to Hugo’s machinations, the second part is how he loses his freedom to same. Biff gets a job, a sinecure really, with Hugo’s company, but I’m not sure why. It seems at Virginia’s insistence—does she really like Biff, or does she just like the power she has over him?—but his sole job is to sign papers that make him liable for shoddy building supplies. This is when the comedy turns a little dark. One of the deaths the equipment causes is Biff’s father, who, on his deathbed, with his dying breath, says: “Biffy. See that Mrs. Mulcahey and the others … don’t take it too hard.”
Great line, and the scene is sweet and sad, prefiguring the paternal deathbed scene in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; but it also means that Hugo is responsible for Biff’s father’s death. Except the movie kind of ignores this. Instead, it goes right into Biff’s arrest and five-year incarceration, where he finishes his dentistry schooling and practices ineptly on the warden. The dentistry bits are the weakest part of the movie to me. They’re like mother-in-law jokes. Worse. It's laughing at other people's pain. Real pain, not banana-peel pain.
Anyway, when Biff released from prison, he's startled to see a motorized vehicle (nice bit) and reunites with Amy. Thus endeth the flashback.
Dies and diminutives
So the question we’ve been waiting on: Will Biff kill Hugo with the gas? Of course not. This is a comedy. Hugo arrives in pain, sees the man he wronged and tries to get out of it. But he’s henpecked into the chair by Virginia, who’s become a harridan, bossing and humiliating Hugo at every turn. This is the St. Therese part. Biff realizes the great disappointment of his life—losing Virginia—was actually a blessing: “I’m a happy man,” he tells Nick, “and he’s not.” He realizes that being stuck with Olivia de Havilland isn’t that bad. Yes. We should all have such fallback positions.
So after a final fight with the collegiate boys next door, in which Cagney decks the once and future Superman, Biff finally goes on that Sunday stroll with Amy—even shocking her by kissing her on the street. “When I want to kiss my wife, I’ll kiss her anytime, anywhere,” he tells her. “That’s the kind of hairpin I am.” The End.
It’s tough to pick a standout in the cast, but I’d probably go Alan Hale, who’s so funny he should’ve done this role a thousand times—and maybe did for all I know. Hayworth, too, is surprisingly adept at comedy. Her early coyness is perfectly calibrated. I’d love to see the movie on the big screen rather than via Amazon’s cheap-ass, blurry version that I watched. I think it would dazzle.
Historical footnote: This is the first movie Cagney made after he was accused of being a Communist and dragged before the Dies Committee in August 1940. It’s probably not a coincidence that the four movies he made for Warners after that moment contain not a shred of left-wing controversy. He went from Belle Epoch rom-com to contemporary rom-com (“The Bride Came C.O.D.”), to patriotic Canadian war drama (“Captains of the Clouds”), to playing the Yankee Doodle Dandy himself and singing about our Grand Old Flag. Take that, Dies.
Historical footnote II: This is also the first Cagney movie where the diminutives stop. When became a star in 1931, and was touted by Warner Bros. as “Jimmy”—he hated that; he was always Jim to his friends—most of his characters’ names are either diminutives or diminutive-sounding: Jimmy, Lefty, Danny, Patsy, Jerry, Chesty, Eddie, Tommy, Rocky, et al. That stops here with Biff. Did he request it? “Look guys, I’m 40. Give me a break.” Whatever reason, they stopped. For the rest of his career, the only diminutive-sounding name he had was Cody.
Over the next few years, we would get a spate of movies set in the Belle Epoch: from “The Magnificent Ambersons” to “Meet Me in St. Louis“; from “Hello Frisco, Hello” to the Cagney production ”Johnny Come Lately." Nostalgia will always be with us, of course, but I assume there’s another reason why that era appealed then. In the midst of World War II, who wouldn’t want to go back to a time before even World War I? Before it all went wrong.