“If you don’t like this one,” the Siren told her husband, “I’ll eat the DVD case.”
The Siren admits she said this knowing she was in no danger of having to digest plastic, since she could tell her husband, “Hey, I just bought a four-hour dialogue-free movie about a man matching socks and suffering torments over whether to fold them into squares or invert the top over the foot portion, and by the way the man doing the folding is James Cagney,” and presto, her husband would clear a four-hour hole in his schedule and afterward say things like “Nobody handled fiber content like Cagney, nobody.”
Still, Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde is a beloved movie, one with a reputation that quietly extends well beyond hardcore classic-film fans, to horror-film lovers, savorers of superheros and serial killers, to people who really would watch a movie about folding socks. When the Siren mentions The Strawberry Blonde, they get this look James Cagney would call “sappy” and they coo, “That’s a great one.”
Even the credits promise a great movie--Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Jack Carson, Alan Hale, Julius and Philip Epstein, Orry-Kelly, Robert Haas, Perc Westmore, and the sublime James Wong Howe, who is probably perched in the afterlife shooting heaven in glorious black and white.
And then there’s Walsh himself, one hell of a great director, his reputation built in large part on tough-minded movies like What Price Glory?, The Roaring Twenties, They Drive By Night, High Sierra and White Heat. His machismo was entirely authentic, and you could easily believe he’d earned his famous eyepatch in a duel or a revolution somewhere south of the border (although you’d be wrong; it was a freak auto accident).
Here’s something about Walsh, though, as well as other he-man directors of the Golden Age like Michael Curtiz, William Wellman, Howard Hawks and John Ford: Their fearlessness extended effortlessly to matters of the heart. Their strong men have strong needs and strong emotions. (And, as in Walsh’s The Man I Love, so does a strong woman.) That’s the secret to Walsh’s incredible control of tone; it’s seamless because it’s tied to one vision of what makes his protagonists worthwhile. There’s very little cool about a Walsh hero, in the sense of emotion withheld. You find that in the villain from time to time, but not the main guy.
So in 1941 the adventurous Walsh takes on this nostalgic tale of the life, loves and bad breaks of a dentist with a mail-order degree, and he’s a perfect fit. That’s obvious from the opening scene, where Biff (James Cagney) is pitching horseshoes with his old friend Nicolas Pappalas (George Tobias). There’s Cagney, throwing the horseshoes with a dancer’s grace, and there’s Walsh, lingering over a shot of Cagney from behind so you get the full effect of that high-pocketed bantam walk. And then the camera moves over the wall, to a group of well-off college boys and their sweethearts, laying in hammocks and singing to one another. And the movement is ravishing--not flashy at all, Walsh never telegraphs his effects. The shot is so fluid and natural it’s like water flowing out of a spring. From Cagney’s packed-dirt backyard, to the grass and trees and ease of the well-to-do just a few feet away. That one movement of Walsh’s camera gives the Siren a pleasure so intense that she can tell you it’s the precise moment she fell in love with The Strawberry Blonde.
The movie follows Biff as he deals with his ne’er-do-well father (Alan Hale), falls for the strawberry-blonde Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth, and incidentally how did her character’s name get past the Breen Office?), sees Virginia stolen away by the double-dealing Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson, in what Dennis Grunes calls the “role that made Carson Carson”), and eventually realizes true love with the kindhearted Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland, looking more beautiful even than Hayworth).
Everyone involved in this movie gave it the best they had. The screenplay was by the Epstein brothers, and their particular wit is all over the dialogue, in Amy asking Virginia, as they wait for Biff and Hugo, “What did we come here for if not to be trifled with?”; in Biff’s father saying cheerfully, “I wasn’t cut out to be a street-cleaner, and it’s no use reaching for the stars”; in Biff’s repeated line, “That’s the kind of a hairpin I am.” James Wong Howe--well, if Howe had an autopilot switch he never used it, but here you can worship the gas lamps being lit in the park, the nightime light on a set of lace curtains moving in the breeze, and the long shadows across the floor of the useless office where Biff goes to work for Hugo. Orry-Kelly’s finest moment is a dress that Virginia wears for a dinner party after she’s married Hugo--the neckline is dramatically low, in keeping with the character’s loss of youthful sweetness, but in deference to Breen it’s cut so there’s no visible cleavage from Hayworth’s magnificent poitrine. This was the Siren’s fourth viewing (at least) and she still can’t figure out exactly how Orry-Kelly managed that.
Nor can the Siren completely unravel the mystery of Walsh’s elegantly balanced two-shots. The movie is full of them, and they never get old or static. Biff is up high when he’s talking to his father at one point, side by side with Hugo when Hugo is cheating him once again. When Biff meets Amy in the park, he’s up near the top of a hill, she’s down closer to the bottom, as she’s already attracted to him and Biff doesn’t have the sense to see it. Virginia is up in a carriage, Biff is down on the ground mooning after her. The whole beautiful rhythm of The Strawberry Blonde comes in pairs. And it’s punctuated with music, each familiar old song signaling a transition, as good as an intertitle.
The secondary leads are superb. Where Jack Carson excelled, and where he was perfect for Hugo Barnstead, was in playing the louse who doesn’t believe he’s a louse. Hugo’s efforts to pin his misdeeds on Biff are just the way Hugo thinks the world works. Hugo orders the substandard materials that cause old man Grimes’ death late in the movie, but Carson’s head shakes and his eyes widen in hurt at the suggestion that anyone would think he bore responsibility.
Carson would go on to be the best thing in many a mediocre movie, but Rita Hayworth was generally only as good as her directors. In his autobiography, Walsh recalled that Ann Sheridan, who would have been excellent, turned down the part in a fit of self-sabotaging pique at Jack Warner. The director said that he’d seen Hayworth dance and play some small roles at Columbia. Evidently Walsh missed Only Angels Have Wings, but some self-back-patting was in order, because Hayworth does marvelous work, showing good nature occasionally peeking out from Virginia’s cold-eyed ambition. Hayworth gets better and better as the movie goes on--watch the way she picks up spaghetti with two forks, mocking Hugo’s airs. And, in the penultimate scene, watch her put out a cigarette in Cagney’s dental sink, nine years before Margo Channing doused one in a jar of cold cream.
But it’s the slowly developing romance between Cagney and de Havilland that clutches at you. Biff is a brawler--he has a black eye in what must be more than half his scenes--but Cagney also shows the character’s dreamy, yearning side. Amy starts out trying to shock people with suffragette rhetoric, but it’s her kindness that makes you know she’s meant for Biff. There isn’t any question about whether they will get together--they’re shown married in the opening scene. The suspense becomes whether Biff has really learned to appreciate Amy, or still yearns for Virginia. His dawning regard is shown first in the scene when Amy comes to tell him Virginia has married Hugo, when Biff keeps dropping his eyes to avoid Amy’s sympathy. Later, after they’re married and before Biff goes to prison for Hugo’s crime, there’s a shot of Biff and Amy’s hands together that makes the Siren’s heart turn over. When Biff is in prison, Walsh balances the couple even then, as the nurse Amy pushes patients in wheelchairs and Biff pushes a shovel full of dirt in the prison yard.
Biff is finally released, and he goes to meet Amy in the park where they’ve met so many important times before. “Their reunion was one of the most emotional scenes I ever filmed,” said Walsh. At first Walsh hangs back a bit, and their shots are separate--until Biff and Amy’s love wells up and the director finally moves in, but still not too close, as if to show a bit of respect. Earlier, asked why he’s infatuated with Virginia, Biff replies, “Every fellow has an ideal”--and here he’s found it.
The Strawberry Blonde is another one of mid-century Hollywood’s forays into Gay Nineties nostalgia. The period was closer to them than the 1940s are to us now, but the difference between 1891 and 1941 is a lot bigger than between 1941 and 2011, and so there’s even more period detail to wallow in. But the film slyly, and without nastiness or rancor, insinuates that nostalgia is a mug’s game that can keep a man brooding on what might have been, rather than what is. Like a pretty lover with a bad disposition, nostalgia is something to be trifled with, not obsessed over.
Patrick McGilligan: What was your favorite picture of the sound period?
Raoul Walsh: Offhand, I might say The Strawberry Blonde. I kind of liked the swing of it, the old-time music, the characters and the dress. It brought me back to my childhood. I grew up in that area [of New York City], you know.
McGilligan: Did you deliberately sweeten the memory of your past?
Walsh: Yes. A jolly time, good times, all nice people, singing and dancing.
McGilligan: That’s the way it really was, or the way you wanted to remember it?
Walsh: That was the way I wanted to remember it.