This article is part of the Second Annual Olivia de Havilland Blogathon: https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/announcing-the-second-annual-olivia-de-havilland-blogathon-errol-flynn/
When I first saw the announcement for the Olivia de Havilland + Errol Flynn blogathon, I realized that I had seen neither of them in a film. Later that day, I accidentally encountered a review of Strawberry Blonde from 1941; I had heard of that film, but I was unaware of the actresses in it. When I realized that it was a Code film with Olivia de Havilland as well as one of my favorite actors, James Cagney, I knew that it would be the perfect film for this blogathon. I am so glad that I heard about this blogathon, since it caused me to be introduced to a wonderful actress and an excellent film which I may not have encountered in the near future otherwise. I will describe Strawberry Blonde by outlining the synopsis, characters, setting, and my favorite parts.
The story begins on a Sunday afternoon in the backyard of Biff Grimes, an unsuccessful dentist and jailbird. He is reluctantly preparing to take a walk with his wife when a man calls and asks him to pull his friend’s tooth; Biff refuses to work on Sunday until he hears the patient’s name, Hugo Barnstead. After this, his attitude completely changes, and he happily consents. As he prepares for the patient, a flashback to ten years earlier begins. Biff is a young man who does odd jobs while taking a correspondence course on dentistry. A rather unscrupulous businessman named Hugo Barnstead is always taking advantage of Biff; Biff knows this, but it still always seems to happen. Hugo is currently enlisting Biff to help him sell tickets to a big boat ride. As they and a dozen other fellows are standing outside the barber shop, a beautiful strawberry blonde named Virginia Brush promenades by, keenly aware of the fact that every man is admiring her. Hugo promptly sells her a ticket and arranges a double-date in the park for that evening. Despite the fact that he promises Virginia to Biff, Hugo quickly takes her himself and leaves Biff with her friend, a free-thinking nurse named Amy Lind. When she makes it clear that she is so emancipated that she believes in love without marriage, Biff is horrified and calls for Hugo and Virginia. Hugo crookedly sold 3000 tickets for a ship which only holds 500, so Biff and Virginia are stranded on land together. They spend a romantic day together, and Biff thinks they are falling in love. They make another date for a few weeks later when she will be free again. On the evening of their date, Amy meets him in the park, since Virginia and Bruce eloped that afternoon. Biff is crushed, but he soon becomes frustrated with the whole idea of marriage and says that Amy’s free-thinking is a better approach to life. However, when he suggests the same radical ideas she proposed, she is terrified and insulted. To the pleasure of both, she admits that she is not really as emancipated as she claimed to be; the old-fashioned couple walks off together. A year later, when Biff and Amy are happily married, and he is about to receive his dental diploma, Virginia and Hugo reenter their lives. The Grimeses join the Barnsteads for an expensive dinner at their elaborate house, and Hugo offers Biff a vice-presidency in his business. In a few months, when Hugo’s unscrupulous business dealings are found to have been ignorantly signed into effect by Biff, the poor, innocent vice-president is sentenced to five years in prison for graft. When in jail, he practices his dental skills and earns his diploma. After he is released, he returns to Amy, who has patiently and lonelily waited for him all these years. This brings us back to the present. Biff implies that he is going to get even with Hugo by giving him an overdose of laughing gas before pulling his tooth. When they Barnsteads enter, though, they are aged and miserable; Hugo is tired and apathetic, and Virginia is hardened and cynical. Biff’s opinion seems to change, and he impulsively grabs the bad tooth with his pliers and yanks it out without giving his rival any pain-killer. He doesn’t want any money, since that settled their score. After their departure, he greets Amy with joy and affection, since he realizes that Hugo is wealthy, but he and Virginia are miserable together. As the happy Grimeses stroll down the street, Amy hints that they are going to have a baby. They walk along, arm and arm, as “The Band Played On,” the theme song, plays in the background.
Strawberry Blonde is filled with interesting characters who give the film substance. Biff Grimes is a pugnacious dentist; the career suits him perfectly, since he can fix someone’s teeth after he damages them in a fight. Like all of the other customers of the barber shop, he is taken with the strawberry blonde, Virginia Brush. James Cagney plays Biff with a charming, natural ease. Amy Lind is Virginia’s interesting friend. She is a nurse who likes to wear her uniform out of the hospital to show men that she can work, too. She tells Biff that she comes from a family of emancipated women; her mother was a Bloomer Girl, her aunt was an actress, and she is a cigarette-smoking suffragette who doesn’t believe in marriage. Later, however, she confesses that her mother only admired the Bloomer Girls, her aunt performed in church pageants, and she only holds cigarettes in her mouth. She pretends to be emancipated, but she really is an old-fashioned girl; after she and Biff get married, she is a sweet, loving wife to him. Amy is brought to life by Olivia de Havilland, the magnificent actress whose birthday we are celebrating in this blogathon; I have only seen her in this picture, but I love her already. Virginia Brush is very pretty, but she is an insincere flirt; she leads Biff to believe she loves him before eloping with Hugo. A year after her marriage, her actions betray the fact that she is discontent with her husband; she wishes she had married Biff instead of Hugo. She asks Hugo to give Biff the job in his business. When the electricity goes off while the Grimeses and the Barnsteads are dining together, Virginia kisses Biff in the dark; he comments to his wife that he thought it was very romantic when she kissed him, but she says that she did not. He is an honorable man, so nothing comes of this situation. The scenario reminds me of another James Cagney picture from eleven years earlier, The Doorway to Hell. Virginia, like Doris, is married to an important, wealthy man, Hugo, like Louie, but she is discontent with him. She is interested in his assistant, Biff, like Mileaway. Of course, Biff is a happily married man, while Mileaway is in love with Doris, too. Eventually, Biff and Mileaway go to prison for five years, each for a crime which his boss committed, although Biff is framed by Hugo, and Mileaway is blackmailed by the police. That aside, Virginia is played very effectively by Rita Hayworth, who provides striking contrast between the sweet side of the character and her real nature which later becomes apparent. Hugo Barnstead is a character who is comical while he is heartless and conniving, since he never acts evil. He acts jovial as he ruins people. I don’t think he ever actually tries to hurt anybody, but he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.
Jack Carson plays Hugo in one of his earliest prominent roles. In addition, depth is added to the film by Alan Hale, who plays Biff’s amorous, rascally father with bad teeth, and George Tobias, who plays Nicholas Pappalas, Biff’s Greek barber friend and frequent companion.
This picture is set in the late Victorian era in the 1890s. It has that charming, sentimental, old feeling that period pictures from this era have. The Victorian era was still easy to reproduce during the pre-War Code era, since many of the artists were born near that time. Also, the Victorian moral tone was not hard to reproduce in a time when Victorian morals were being carefully instilled by Joseph Breen. The costumes are very authentic, too. “The Band Played On” is the theme song, and it is played throughout the film by various bands. It adds continuity, and it also shows how Biff’s feelings about Virginia and Hugo change. When the film begins, he yells at a nearby band to stop playing that tune, since it makes him think about the whole situation with Virginia and Hugo. When he is planning revenge toward Hugo, he tells the band to keep playing, since that song keeps him in the right vengeful mood. After the Barnsteads leave, though, he gets into a fight with some college students because they don’t want to hear the song anymore. That shows that he is no longer resentful; he says that he is luckier than Hugo, since he could have ended up with the shrewish Virginia.
The leading characters have characteristic lines which are repeated throughout the movie. Biff’s favorite thing to say is, “I don’t take nothing from nobody. That’s the kind of hairpin I am.” He says this several times throughout the film. One of my favorite parts of the film is the first time Biff and Amy are sitting together in the park. Biff is completely distracted because he is thinking about the fact that Hugo and Virginia are spooning behind some nearby rock while he is stuck with the suffragette nurse. Amy looks terribly bored because Biff is ignoring her. However, she gets his attention when she asks him for a cigarette. He is shocked and says that he would never give a cigarette to a woman. She tells him that she thinks marriage is a ridiculous, archaic tradition. He asks her if she doesn’t want to have a family and children. She says she does, but that is no reason to get married. In shock, he says, “You mean…” and she promptly responds, “‘Zactly.” Every time he asks her a question about her free-thinking beliefs, she gets a comical expression, says, “‘Zactly,” and winks.
Realizing that Amy is throwing herself at him, he looks disgusted and a little frightened. He begins to yell for Hugo. I think that that is so charming and a very pleasant change from the immoral fellows he played in his pre-Code years. Ten years before, Tom Powers of The Public Enemy from 1931 would have jumped at the offer she was making. Now, in 1941, Biff Grimes flees from the suggestion. After Virginia has eloped with Hugo, Biff says that Amy has the right idea. When he tries to kiss her, she hastily avoids him and is very insulted that he would suggest her free-thinking idea of romance without marriage. Both are relieved when she admits that she does not really believe those emancipated ideas. She doesn’t even smoke cigarettes; she just holds them in her mouth for show. Biff admits that he himself never inhales the smoke. I think that is quite humorous, since I believe the same is true of James Cagney. In some of his early films, he puts a cigarette in his mouth, takes one puff, then puts it down. In others, he never even lights the cigarette. In the last scene, Biff and Amy are walking down the street together. She says she has something to tell him and whispers in his ear. His eyes widen in surprise, and he says, “You mean…?” She hits him on his vest, winks at him, and says, “‘Zactly.” He joyfully kisses her, but she tells him not to kiss her in public. He stubbornly responds, “If I want to kiss my wife, I’ll kiss her any place, any time, anywhere. That’s the kind of hairpin I am.” They walk away as the band plays on. The film ends with one more rendition of “The Band Played On,” which is accompanied by the words on the screen and an invitation for everyone to sing along. After a whole movie hearing that song, I think you may not be able to resist the urge to join in!
Having reviewed Strawberry Blonde by discussing the synopsis, characters, setting, and my favorite parts, I conclude that it is a swell film which any fan of old movies will enjoy. The story is both simple and complex, and it will lead you from laughter to sentiment to sympathy. The late Victorian setting adds sentimental charm to this picture. I love the continuity which the screenwriters gave to Biff and Amy by giving them repeated lines. This is the first Olivia de Havilland picture I have seen, but I know it will not be the last. Happy 101st birthday to a grand old lady of Hollywood’s Golden Era!
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