Warner Archives’ The Strawberry Blonde

Hey fellas! Here comes the strawberry blonde!

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Thanks to Warner Archive I came across one of the most charming movies I’ve seen in a long time, Raoul Walsh‘, The Strawberry Blonde (1941).

The Premise

Dentist, Biff Grimes is getting ready to go for a Sunday afternoon walk with his wife when he receives a call from the president of a bank in town to say that a Mr. Barnstead needs urgent dental care for an aching tooth.  Biff would normally have declined anyone’s request that he work on a Sunday, but it so happens that Mr. Barnstead and Biff are connected.  It’s poetic justice that Barnstead should need Biff’s help so desperately.  You see, Barnstead is responsible for Biff having spent several years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.  Biff hasn’t thought of the man in years but the call brings back the memories and as he recalls his story, which we see through a long flashback sequence – the story of his affections for the strawberry blonde.

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The strawberry blonde and Biff

And the story goes…

One day, several years before (the naughty nineties), as Biff practices his correspondence course dentistry on his father, his friend Hugo Barnstead invites him to go on a double date with two local girls, one of which turns out to be the object of his infatuation, Virginia.  During the date, however, Virgina and Hugo end up getting “acquainted” and Biff is stuck with Virgina’s friend, Amy.  Everyone can see the strawberry blonde is way out of Biff’s league, except Biff.  He continues to pursue Virgina and is caught off-guard when she and Hugo run off to get married.  Having no other recourse in the romance department, Biff starts paying attention to Amy, who he ends up marrying.  The best decision he ever made.

Well, without recounting the entire tale, which is highly entertaining, I’ll just say one couple ends up successful financially and the other barely making ends meet.  But true love shines bright in the end for one of them…And the Band Played On.

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The Cast

The Strawberry Blonde is a warm and charming movie that caught me by surprise – with its affection.  Among the many things to celebrate is the film’s cast – James Cagney takes a repose from the tough guy role he is best remembered for and plays a hot-tempered, but likeable – even loveable, Biff.  But then, Cagney could do anything.  Olivia de Havilland plays “fresh thinker,” Amy Lind who becomes Mrs. Grimes –  a lovely, supportive wife.  Another wonderful portrayal and a reminder of the gift this great actress is to us still at age 97, a birthday she celebrated earlier this week.

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Cagney and de Havilland

Lent to Warner Bros. by Columbia Pictures to appear in the film is a pre-Gilda Rita Hayworth who plays Virginia Brush, aka, The Strawberry Blonde.  Hayworth is perfect as the perpetually flirtatious, snooty Virginia.  Who’s also an eye-full of course.  Ann Sheridan was originally cast to play Virginia Brush but due to a salary dispute with Warners she was replaced by Hayworth whose career had yet to peak.  Jack Carson plays loud-mouthed, cad Hugo Barnstead, the successful but somewhat insufferable “friend” who’s always playing Biff for a sucker – with friends like him one needs no enemies.  Carson is in this film as he is in all his films, believable.  An underrated actor by my estimation.

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Carson and Hayworth

Great character actor, Alan Hale is memorable as Old Man Grimes, Biff’s father who’s afraid of work but never walks away from a fight.  Not everyone can do a scene in which he’s under the influence of laughing gas as convincingly.  Then there’s George Tobias in a wonderfully funny supporting role and cameos by Una O’Connor and George Reeves, later to be television’s Superman.  I could hardly stand my excitement as I saw these players in the movie.

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Cagney and Hale
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Cagney and Tobias

The not-so-Incidentals

Add to the impressive cast some fantastic music, one of the most “catchy” movie scores I’ve ever heard and I can’t wait to search for downloadable versions of the songs in the film, one of which is “Meet Me in St. Louis.”  I mean, who knew!?  The original music in The Strawberry Blonde written by Heinz Roemheld received the film’s only Academy Award nomination.  Rounding out the period piece are a smattering of barbershop quartets, bustles, bars and lots of stylish nostalgia, enhanced by James Wong Howe‘s cinematography, which by the way looks great on the Warner Archive DVD release, and Orry-Kelly‘s costumes.  There’s just nothing not to like in this movie. 

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The 1941 Raoul Walsh version of The Strawberry Blonde is the second, and by far the most well-regarded, of the three film versions of James Hagan’s play “One Sunday Afternoon.”  It was the only smash hit in the trio.  The other two versions of “One Sunday Afternoon” were released with that original title.  The 1933 version directed by Stephen Roberts, which stars Gary Cooper and Fay Wray and a 1948 version also directed by Walsh.  The latter starring Dennis Morgan and Janis Paige.  Our movie, the 1941 film, is directed with such tenderness that I must make note of it.  Tenderness is not something that comes to mind when I think of Raoul Walsh whose films are usually tough and gritty.  In any case, he does The Strawberry Blonde script great justice and an affecting romantic comedy results.

Just one more thing – As if the story’s upbeat ending isn’t enough, there’s also a sing-a-long included right after “The End” of the film that is simply irresistible.  I sang along.  Then rewound and sang along again.  And I’ll be darned if I’m not going to make “The Band Played On” the ringtone on my phone for a while.

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Because I like to spread joy, I must demand that you go see The Strawberry Blonde immediately if you’ve yet to do so!  That’s the kind of hairpin I am!

Publicity stills:

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Behind the Scenes:

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makeup-man-james-cagney

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11 thoughts

  1. Isn’t it just a lovely film.Nice change of pace for Cagney. The whole cast so good.
    With such a light hearted feel to it, I was taken aback by how serious it became as the marriage of Hayworth and Carson fell apart. That jarred a little.
    But a terrific, feel- good movie.
    I’ll now have to re- view it!

    Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

    1. Loved it! And I thought the marriage of Virginia and Hugo falling apart was treated as light hearted as possible. I mean, the way they fought, etc. Nice contrast to how wonderful Biff and Amy are together.

      Aurora

  2. I adore this film. Cagney is so charming and for once he has a leading lady who matches him inch for inch. The addition of Rita Hayworth doesn’t hurt, either!

  3. I have seen this film at least five times, it is one of my favorite films of all time. The scene in the park when Biff returns home to Amy always gets to me. You know the college guy who Cagney picks a fight with at the end of the movie always resembled James Stewart to me but it wasn’t him.

    All the things that happen at the end are real fun. From Hugo getting his tooth pulled to Biff and Amy walking away knowing they are about to become parents is just great to watch. BTW, I just love the winking by Amy to Biff as they walk away. I have my own personal nick names for alotta actresses and actors. So after seeing this film for the first time many years ago, I now always remember Olivia DeHavilland affectionately as the winker, 🙂 . God bless her, she is still alive !

  4. I think I’m a little bit in love with “Biff”. “The Strawberry Blonde” features one of Cagney’s finest characterizations. He is so totally “Biff” with all his bravado and deep affection. Cagney himself (the sentimental slob) was particularly fond of this movie and his mom is one of the extras in the beer garden scene.

    Lloyd Nolan was the original “Biff” on Broadway in “One Sunday Afternoon”. I would have liked to have seen his take. Gary Cooper in the 1933 film is particularly unlikeable as “Biff”. I cut Dennis Morgan some slack in the musical remake because it just isn’t fair to compare anyone to Cagney.

    I can’t imagine anyone failing to fall under the spell of “The Strawberry Blonde”. Keep on spreading that joy.

  5. I don’t think I’ve read a negative review of this film, and I can’t believe I haven’t seen it yet.

    I completely agree with you re: Jack Carson being underrated. He is SUCH a great actor.

  6. Good review Aurora…I agree, Jack Carson is underrated. I saw him in a few of the Doris Day films on her SUTS day and I think he deserves his own day…or at least a What A Character post 😉

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