Classic Film of the Week #8: The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Directed by Raoul Walsh and starring James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, and Rita Hayworth, The Strawberry Blonde begins with Biff (Cagney), a grumpy, financially destitute dentist whose attitude grows even worse when his friend brings up some names from their past, Virginia (Hayworth) and Hugo (Jack Carson). Coincidentally, Biff receives a phone call from Hugo, who has a toothache and needs a dentist. Biff agrees to see him, and then begins to devise a plot to murder him. We then flashback to 10 years earlier, when Biff and Hugo were somewhat-friendly acquaintances and went on a double date together with Virginia and Amy (de Havilland). Both men were in love with Virginia, but Virginia ultimately chose Hugo, leaving Biff to marry Amy. This isn't the last time the two men's paths cross over the following decade, and by the end of the story it's not hard to understand Biff's homicidal feelings toward Hugo--but will he follow through on them, or will he finally find peace with the life he has, rather than keep pining for the one he feels was taken from him?
The Strawberry Blonde is a film that takes awhile to get going--the frame story actually feels pretty unnecessary in setting up the plot, and I think the film would be stronger if it was told in chronological order instead. But once the flashback begins, everything falls into place. The period setting of 1890s New York especially is so beautifully realized, with horse-drawn carriages littering the cobblestone streets and tall, elegant gas lamps lining the walkways of the park. While the film is ultimately a comedy, this setting gives it an underlying tone of bittersweet nostalgia: the film doesn't just use the setting for a nice visual aesthetic, but really dives into the changes in technology and social etiquette: Biff seeks out leeches whenever he gets a black eye, Hugo trades in his gas lamps for an electric chandelier when he strikes it rich, Virginia chastises Amy for winking at a strange man and makes a comment about women being unable to vote. Many of these artifacts from the past are presented humorously--this isn't head-in-the-sand pining for "better times"--however there is a certain sense of glory that Walsh ascribes to his period setting, much like how young people today look back at the fashion and style of the 1950s and 60s with rose-tinted glasses. It's fascinating to see the 1890s--practically ancient history for a modern viewer--be treated with the same reverence.
Moving onto the story, my favorite actor in this film was actually not Cagney, but de Havilland. I was skeptical of her comedic chops going in, but she actually puts in a really funny performance as Amy, a tough-talking suffragette nurse who goes so far as to say she's very interested in settling down and starting a family--she just wants to skip that whole archaic process known as the "institution of marriage". Of course, this is a 1940s comedy, so she eventually backs down and admits that all of her big talk was just a bluff--but she doesn't go so far as to decry these "extremist" views as a whole, only affirms that such a lifestyle would be too extreme for her personally. This role allows de Havilland to play her part mostly straight, with the humor coming from the unexpectedness of her dialogue and the reactions she gets from other characters--making this a role suited perfectly for her, as an actress more known for her gentle grace and charm than her ability to shoot off witticisms. She also does make for a cute couple with Cagney, even if they don't have the chemistry of the truly great screen couples of this era. Speaking of Cagney, he's pretty typical comedic Cagney here: the fast-talking, rather childish troublemaker who picks a lot of fights, but ultimately has his heart in the right place--but I'm not complaining. If it's not broken, why fix it, right? He plays a dentist here, but most of the screen-time for his profession takes place while he's still in training--I was reminded often of Little Shop of Horrors, both the original and the remake. As for Hayworth, I admit she didn't really wow me in this film; this role is a far cry from Gilda, with her playing a rather stereotypical cocky, self-absorbed society girl. Although perhaps this is a testament to her acting skills and the respect she had for her co-stars, as despite being a much louder and more extroverted screen presence, her approach to the role does make way for the quieter de Havilland to shine and win the hearts of both Cagney, and the audience.
Ultimately, this is a film that's very silly and fun on the surface, but it does have a deeper message to convey. I touched on part of it already: there's a very poignant sense of tenderness for the past in every frame, a love and respect for a bygone era that will never exist again. It's even more bittersweet viewing it today, where the 1890s are truly dead and buried; even the oldest people living today were born after this era ended. This appreciation for the past seems to extend into the importance of finding good in the present: Biff believes Hugo has walked all over him all his life and taken all that was rightfully his, but in the end he realizes that he has happiness, something Hugo doesn't have and never will. Time goes by fast, and as cliche a message as it might be, it truly is important to find the good things and treasure them while we can, because like the 1890s, nothing good lasts forever.
The Strawberry Blonde is most notable for its lead cast, all big stars that continue to have huge fanbases today; however, it also manage to tell a funny, yet oddly compelling story set against a really beautiful, romantic depiction of 1890s New York. This is a film well worth watching either for fans of the cast, or for those who just love a good golden age romantic comedy; to these people, it comes highly recommended, and is available on DVD and as a showing on TCM.