What I remember:
I saw this movie, believe it or not, in a film class. I think. Damn, my college memories are miniscule. I wonder why? But, seriously, what the hell kind of film course shows “The Strawberry Blonde”?
It’s not an auteur piece. It’s not a genre piece, unless you want to call it a costumer. What it is, is a “Picture”. “Hey, you hear the rumpus about that new Cagney picture? It’s a doozy with a hot redhead named Hayworth. Warner’s really done it THIS time!”
I learned two very important lessons watching this movie.
First, talented people can be versatile even if you’ve got them totally pigeon-holed. As far as I knew, Cagney never showed much of a flair for comedy unless you call shoving a grapefruit in a moll’s face funny. I thought of him as a tough guy. Oh yeah, but then there was “Yankee Doodle Dandy” where he showed off his considerable dancing chops. I’d call him a song and dance guy, but he couldn’t sing a lick, and of course, being a tough guy, he never would sing no matter how brutal the Coppers got with him. As for comedy, Cagney later on showed how great a comedian he could be with his amazing Gatling Gun delivery of Billy Wilder lines in “One, Two, Three”.
My second lesson was obvious, but to a college student it was still a lesson; no matter what era you are in, there will be nostalgia for another era. “Midnight in Paris” hammers this point home, of course, but I saw “The Strawberry Blonde” in 1974, 30 plus years before Woody’s opus.
In 1941, they were pining for a time before the Great War, especially with another huge conflict already in motion, and about to sweep the U.S. into its maelstrom. The turn of the century seemed simple, not very scary, a bit wholesome, and worth a bunch of laughs at how ridiculous the clothes and hair and vernacular were.
Why is the melody for “Take on Me” suddenly screeching it’s falsetto in my mind’s ear? Wait, now it’s “I Ran so Far Away”…..
“Well, that completes the picture. I've been around, they can say an awful lot of things about Biff Grimes, but not that he ever gave a cigarette to a girl.”- Biff Grimes
Biff Grimes (Jimmy Cagney) has been jealous of his childhood friend Hugo Barmstead (Jack Carson) his entire life. When Hugo invites Biff on a double date with the beautiful Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) and a friend, Biff is led to believe that it is he that will be paired off with Virginia. But, as usual, Hugo pulls a fast one and Biff ends up with free-thinking Amy Lind (Olivia DeHavilland) instead. Biff does end up getting a date with Virginia, but she eventually runs off to marry Hugo, leaving Biff with the suddenly attractive Amy. A few years later, Hugo sets Biff up to be his fall guy in a shady business deal, and Biff ends up in jail. He gets his chance for revenge as the film winds up.
Well, maybe the comedy in this film isn’t really centered around Cagney. He gets a few laughs, allright, but most of the best moments belong to Alan Hale, as Biff’s neer-do-well father. Even though our hero is kind of a shit, and not too smart either, Cagney makes him likeable. He’s a tough guy, for certain, but there is definitely good there, despite the fact that he constantly refers to himself in 3rd person. Carson’s Hugo is much more affable on the outside, with a black heart inside. He gets the girl that everyone wants, but you find out that it’s a hollow victory.
The idea that inner beauty trumps outer beauty is as old as the hills. Also, it is as false as a Billionaire’s tax return. I love that episode of “30 Rock” wherein Jon Hamm gets all these amazing perks and deals just because he is so incredibly handsome. Everyone wants to date Virginia, and all other women look unattractive in comparison. The funny thing is, what makes the lovely Amy seem even more of a dog to Biff is her “free-thinking” progressive suffragette attitude. This must have seemed so quaint to the ladies of the ‘40’s, and eventually she does come to be seen as more of a posturer than an actual Libber. When Biff realizes that she isn’t anywhere close to as open-minded as she acts, is when he starts thinking of her as attractive.
All of this subject matter; the beauty inside issue, the women’s liberation front, even our double-dealing/revenge plot, takes a backseat to what is really going on, however, which is full-fledged, no holds barred nostalgia. For the older folks in the theater, this must have been a wonderful excursion, and for the younger folks, a light-hearted escape. Even now, it is entertaining to watch the filmmakers poke good-natured fun at the past. There’s a nice little slapstick scene with the two couples trying to eat spaghetti for the first time, as they make a big deal about Hugo and Virginia’s Italian chef. It’s hard to believe that nobody ate pasta in America in those days, but I guess it must be true. Italians and Jews did make it over here a bit later than the Irish and Germans, and their food and customs had yet to permeate New York culture in the 1890’s.
As with all nostalgia pictures, music is front and center. Nothing brings back the feel of an era quicker and more effectively than its music does. The title of the picture comes from the great waltz “The Band Played On”. Just the sound of that song conjures straw boaters, striped shirts with armbands, hoop dresses and handlebar mustaches.
Hoop dresses and handlebar mustaches? Why did “The Lumberjack Song” just come into my head?
There’s also a barbershop quartet moment that actually takes place in a barbershop (in case you didn’t remember how the genre got its name). Apparently everyone in the Gay ‘90’s could sing their bustles off. And perpetually off camera is “Schultz”, with his brass band playing all the favorites outside in the park.
Raoul Walsh, eye-patch wearing Hollywood legend, was at the helm of this lighthearted romp. One generally associates him with macho crime fare such as “White Heat” and “High Sierra”, but over the course of his career he directed a good amount of comedies and musicals, like “Artists and Models” with Jack Benny, and “Every Night at Eight” with Alice Faye. With 139 films to his credit, you must assume that he rarely turned anything down. Norman Mailer said that Walsh was pulled off his death bed to direct Mailer’s war epic “The Naked and the Dead” in 1958. Walsh lived another 22 years, so that might not be too trustworthy!
Raoul Walsh was born in 1887 in New York City, so I have to assume that he has some very authentic and strong memories of this era. I grew up in New York City in the ‘60’s, so when I watch “Mad Men” I can tell you exactly where they are on target, and where they stray a tad from time specificity (and those are rare moments—the show is amazingly accurate in its depiction of the era).
Walsh and Cagney know how to portray a tough guy, and Biff is certainly that, if none too successful at it. He gets in, and loses, a lot of brawls, many of his own instigation. The fact that he is basically an honest sort helps you to identify with him. Walsh keeps the fights brief, and somewhat off-camera, spending more time on Biff’s shiners (“you shoulda seen the other guy”) than on the actual fisticuffs. That works just fine in a film that centers more on the time, place and people than on the story.
Cinematography was by the genius James Wong Howe, a good friend of Cagney’s, and the man behind the lens for such classics as “The Thin Man”, “The Sweet Smell of Success” and his Oscar winning efforts for “Hud” and “The Rose Tatoo”. Howe captures the place and the era beautifully despite probably having zero familiarity with it. His lighting was always perfect, and he makes Hayworth’s striking looks even more lustrous. The scenes that take place in the park at evening are particularly evocative.
There’s not much more to say about the music, other than the score was overseen and original music written by Heinz Roemheld, who was the only person to receive an Oscar nomination for the film. He was probably a bigwig at Warner’s music department, and he provided this picture with the perfect selections and orchestrations.
The chemistry between Cagney and DeHavilland is the thing that elevates this lightweight to a higher class. They are funny as can be when sparring over her free-thinking, even though it’s obvious to both of them that Biff’s real problem is not getting a chance with Virginia. When Biff finds out that Virginia has stood him up on a date to elope with Hugo, the way he enlists Amy to lie that SHE was the actual object of his affections, and the way she carries it through is a master-class in subtext. There is so much going on under the surface, and you catch it all. Later on, when Biff returns from jail, they meet in the park instead of at the train station. It is possibly one of the most moving, touching moments in a film of this order that I can think of, and that is thanks principally to the actors.
Hayworth shows a great sense of comedy, when she turns shrewish after years of being married to a jackass like Hugo. I am always impressed by a glamour girl who can pull off an ugly personality, and she does it marvelously. Jack Carson’s Hugo is typically one-dimensional. He is the braying ass of a foil, and is exactly what’s needed. I remember him doing the same role as a used-car salesman in a Twilight Zone Episode I loved. Though 20 years later, it’s the same guy!
Supporting cast members, especially Alan Hale, are all exactly right. Hale’s comic presence has just enough pathos and humanity, and you can see why Biff loves him even though he is a no-account. Also in the cast is a very young George Reeves, 15 or so years before he was Superman on the TV series. Whatever happened to the great Urban Myth that he jumped out a window thinking he could actually fly? He did commit suicide, but by gun. Rumors back then had him being knocked off by an MGM executive whose wife and Reeves were having an affair. That’s a picture idea right there! Get me Jack Warner on the horn!!
ON SECOND LOOK
“The Strawberry Blonde” is a sweet piece of nostalgia, that is lifted by the professionalism and artistry of it’s cast and crew. Compare this to “Hot Tub Time Machine” or “The Wedding Singer”. On second thought, don’t put yourself through watching that trash again. This one is worth your time, even if you have no idea what many of the references mean. What I am trying to say is, these folks really knew how to make a picture!
On First Look: ✭ ✭✭ On Second Look: ✭✭✭