Starring: James Cagney, Olivia De Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Jack Carson, George Tobias and Alan Hale
By Greg Klymkiw
Casey would waltz with a strawberry blond,He was one of the original two-fisted, piss and vinegar Old Hollywood filmmakers - a man's man and then some - and yet, in spite of this reputation and a canon that included sprawling, dusty westerns, brutal gangster dramas and some of the most effective and affecting war propaganda, Raoul Walsh directed one of the most grandly entertaining, politically astute and decidedly progressive romantic comedies of the 1940s, one that placed women's roles and rights in a society controlled by men at the forefront of its narrative and thematic concerns while, at the same time focusing on a very different male figure, a regular guy from the wrong side of the tracks who is drawn to the surface attributes of both beauty and success, but discovers in himself something deeper.
And the Band played on,
He'd glide cross the floor with the girl he ador'd,
and the Band played on,
But his brain was so loaded it nearly exploded,
The poor girl would shake with alarm.
He'd ne'er leave the girl with the strawberry curls,
And the Band played on.
- Chorus, "The Band Played On" by Palmer & Ward, 1895
The Strawberry Blonde is set against the backdrop of a simpler, gentler time in American history - the Gay 1890s - where every Manhattan street corner seemed equipped with a cheerful barbershop quartet crooning away to whomever would listen and when a man's biggest worry was what young lass he'd stroll through the park with on a Sunday afternoon. Life was sweet and an innocence and complacency gripped the towns and cities of America with the promise of new beginnings and sky's-the-limit opportunity.
Biff Grimes (James Cagney) is a working stiff with a dream. He wants to be a dentist. His pal from the old neighbourhood, the amiably smarmy Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) wants wealth and power. What they both have their sights on is the flirty, charming, strawberry blonde of the picture's title, Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth). In all things that SEEM to matter to Biff, Hugo wins and Biff loses, but in the process, Biff learns a few lessons in life when he ends up genuinely falling in love with Virginia's free-thinking, generous suffragette girlfriend Amy Lind (Olivia De Havilland) who has devoted much of her life to the profession of nursing.
On the surface, the movie is a grass-is-NOT-always-greener-on-the-other-side tale of love, friendship and what the true meaning of happiness is, but within the context of a shiny bauble, we get a story that, for its time was AHEAD of its time and in contemporary terms, is a drama for OUR time and frankly, universal enough to be for ALL time.
Walsh was a director imbued with such a strong sense of place and time. Film after film, characters moved through interior and exterior sets, backlots and locations endowed with meticulous attention to detail. Walsh played his characters thoughtfully and carefully, like chess pieces crafted from the ivory of Wooly Mammoth tusks and he moved them on sets as painstakingly rendered as the famed Staunton-crafted wooden boards. There are seldom false moments in a Walsh film and the reason for this is how he blocked his action with only the best actors - making sure that interior and exterior landscapes surrounding them were rooted in WHO they were as characters. To do this required scrupulous attention to every detail and he had the eye of a true Master. (In fact, one of Walsh's eyes was savagely extricated during a car accident when a jackrabbit jumped through an open window as he drove to the In Old Arizona set in the late 1920s. For most of his directing career he only had one eye, but WHAT an EYE!!!)
The Strawberry Blonde is a movie that pulsates with the life of a world that is both magical and real - so much so, that the visuals come close to conjuring actual smells. The spittoon-laden beer halls where Biff and his ne'er-do-well boozing Dad (Alan Hale) wind up in brawl after brawl practically reek with the stench of cheap tobacco smoke and draught-soaked floors. The barber shop where Biff hangs out with his master hair-stylist buddy Nick Pappalas (George Tobias) is so perfectly accoutered with the fixtures and implements of the trade that one's olfactories are gently pummelled with the aroma of pomades, lotions and talcum powder.
The gaslight illuminating the streets at night, the fresh leafy parks, the grocery-market-lined streets, the stuffy, oak-paneled boardrooms and offices of Hugo's construction empire, the gaudy, ornate nouveau-riche mansion Hugo lives in, the warmth of Biff's eventual hearth and home - all are teeming with sounds and sights that embrace all the characters in a world that's as bygone as it is familiar.
And the sounds!
Even in the 40s, this is a movie that delivers a richly layered soundtrack that rivals (if not downright trumps) the over-mixed, over-crowded digital aural blankets so prevalent in contemporary movies - but in glorious, delicious optical mono. And the music! Bands playing, tenors trilling; the movie is blessed with all this in addition to the almost continuous use of vocal and instrumental renderings of Palmer & Ward's insanely popular ditty of the period "The Band Played On" (which was re-popularized after the release of The Strawberry Blonde).
Walsh lays an incredibly rich tapestry before us. It's all that money could buy and then some - not surprising as The Strawberry Blonde was born out of the glory that was Warner Brothers studios. Walsh, began his career as an actor during the silent era and eventually moved into production. He worked as an assistant director to the legendary, groundbreaking D.W. Griffith - the height of Walsh's mentorship under cinema's first true master of cinematic narrative was assisting in the direction and co-editing the immortal Birth of a Nation. In addition to learning the ins and outs of narrative, editing and the use of the frame, Walsh even credited Griffith with his learning everything about techniques of production and production management - all contributors to Walsh's command of the film medium. In spite of this, Walsh was a contract director at the staid Paramount Pictures during the early sound period and his work here was perfunctory at best. However, when he moved to Warner Brothers, he positively exploded.
Walsh was one of those directors who thrived on collaborative relationships with people as brilliant as he was. Never surrounding himself with uninspiring yes-men, he worked in tandem with only the best artists and craftsmen. This aroused a spirit of artistry that was even greater than what he was naturally imbued with. At Warner Brothers, many of his best films were in collaboration with the visionary producer Hal B. Wallis (who would go on to produce Casablanca). Wallis was a showman par excellence and Walsh was a cinematic storyteller of the same order. They were formidable creative collaborators. Add to this that Walsh was always fixated on stories about "the little guy" or regular "Joes" against the backdrop of worlds bigger than they were, he and Wallis made ideal bedfellows - Wallis loved heroes, Walsh loved making all his characters bigger than life (yet in so doing, infusing them with a life force more real and sophisticated than most studio productions).
The Strawberry Blonde excels in this notion of making its little guy a hero. Biff is someone who wants more out of life than what's normally dealt to Joe-Blows, but he doesn't think, even for a second, that it will be handed to him. He works his butt off in matters of both his career and the heart. When he falls big-time for the coquette-ish Virginia, he's briefly afforded a taste of what he thinks would be Heaven-on-Earth, but as the film progresses, she has her sights set on bigger things and she not only breaks his heart, but eventually, her true colours are revealed. She's as exploitative and manipulative as Biff's "friend" Hugo. Virginia and Hugo become a match made in Heaven - or rather, Hell. Biff, on the other hand, is saddled with a fifth wheel in the romantic roundelay - though eventually, Amy offers the sort of love and support he needs - this is no mere infatuation as it was with Virginia, but deep and soulful. Even when Biff is offered a high-paying, high-ranking position with Hugo, he desperately wants to work hard and learn the business and experiences considerable frustration that his only job appears to be reading the morning papers and signing contracts he doesn't understand.
The character of Amy is beautifully rendered and way ahead of both the times of when the movie was made and certainly during the times in which the movie is set. She works as a nurse, and on the first double date twixt herself, Virginia, Biff and Hugo, she shows up adorned in her nurse uniform. Virginia - dolled up in all her finery - scolds Amy, but the fifth-wheel will have none of it. She's proud to be a working woman, a caregiver and intends to go straight to a nightshift at the hospital after a night on the town. She's also surprisingly and delightfully straightforward (modern, if you will) with respect to sexuality and in one of the best scenes in the movie, she shocks a horrified Biff with her modern frankness in matters of amore.
In contrast, Virginia is a gold-digging tease - all talk, no action - and unlike Amy, Virginia's talk is bubbly and empty-headed. Amy displays her own brand of froth, but her sex appeal comes from open-mindedness, intelligence, a keen wit, political savvy and overall, a deep, genuine sense of caring. Virginia chides Amy for being a suffragette, but she's unapologetic - Amy is a firm believer and fighter for the rights of women, but at the same time, she wants to make a place for herself in the world with a man - not as her ruler and/or protector, but in an equal partnership founded in love, mutual respect and making a better life for both of them and those around them.
One of the aspects of this tale that resonates in contemporary terms is the notion of how the rich exploit and deceive the poor. A turn in the tale has overtones of tragedy. Once Biff is duped into joining Hugo's company, he becomes the fall guy in an illegal development scam. Even here, though, Walsh focuses on the indomitability of the working guy and we see strife metamorphosize into strength and Biff's character is deepened in his resolve to get free of the shackles imposed upon him by the dishonesty and thievery of the "ruling" class.
All of this is played by an astounding all-star cast. As Cagney proved time and time again, he was more than just a movie tough guy. Certainly in Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy, he was a spectacular song and dance man and here, he's a terrific, (though pugnacious) romantic leading man with a great sense of humour. Olivia De Havilland offers up a snappy, sexy leading lady, far removed from the whiny, helpless, long-suffering Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Rita Hayworth is her super-sexy self, while Jack Carson, George Tobias and Alan Hale lend the sort of magnificent support as character actors that the Warners stable always offered up.
Not only was Walsh endowed with an eye to championing the rights of the impoverished (or, in the cases of some, at least understanding when impoverishment led to socially deviant behaviour), but he was, thanks to producer Wallis, given magnificent material to work with. Based on a popular play, this was the second of three screen versions of this tale. Its screenplay was provided by the brilliant Epstein twins, Julius and Phillip (Daughters Courageous, Four Wives, The Man Who Came To Dinner, Casablanca) and with the outstanding Raoul Walsh at the helm, Strawberry Blonde is a truly delightful and intelligent romantic comedy - one for the ages and beyond.
"Strawberry Blonde" is available through the on-demand Warner Archives. Better video retailers (like Toronto's Sunrise Records at Yonge and Dundas and My Movie Store at Dundas and Tomken) will also carry it.
Other great Raoul Walsh pictures that MUST NOT BE MISSED ARE:
White Heat, The Roaring Twenties, Objective, Burma!, High Sierra, Pursued, They Died with Their Boots On, They Drive by Night, Manpower and Gentleman Jim.