Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

“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, lying 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.


grandoldmovies said...

What a lovely point you make about how Walsh sets up his shots as 'pairs,' in 2-shots; I'll have to go back and see the movie to take note - thanks for opening my eyes to this aspect. Also love your point about "strong needs and strong emotions"--Walsh could always get right to the heart of his scenes.

I don't know if you've seen the first film version of this story, called 'One Sunday Afternoon' (the original title of the play from which it was adapted), released 1933, with Gary Cooper in the Biff role. Although that version was even closer, chronologically, to the 1890s period, it's much less nostalgic and sentimental, and Cooper plays his part without the sweetness that Cagney brought to his. Here he's very much an overgrown adolescent, immature to the point where you want to give him a good smack to bring him to his senses. Fay Wray is in the Rita Hayworth part, and her character becomes a vulgar tart by film's end (this was the pre-code era, so the film could get away with it). Walsh also remade Strawberry Blonde as a late-40s musical w/the original title of One Sunday Afternoon; I recall he even may have copied scenes from his 1941 version, but unfortunately I don't remember enough of it to compare.

Tonio Kruger said...

I caught up with this film once while I was channel-surfing late at night and I was surprised how watchable it was for a movie that is generally unknown to all but the most hardcore of movie buffs. It helped that I missed the very beginning so I had no way of knowing how things would work out between Cagney and DeHavilland's characters--though I had my suspicions after I viewed their first meeting.

I must confess that I'm a potential candidate for the "James Cagney Can Do No Wrong" Club myself--though I suspect I'd be blackballed if it were ever discovered that I prefer Cagney's role in Footlight Parade over his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

Vanwall said...

I grew up with an antique player piano in the front room, (hell, it's still in my front room!) one of two helicoptered out of a decaying mansion in Bisbee, AZ, (the only way to get those things out of that hilltop house, Lord only knows how they got the damned things UP there!) and it's accompanying "pea anna rolls" were a goldmine of Gay 90s tinkly-ness. They went right along with my polymath father's pitch-perfect playing on the old girl when not pedaling the air pump, (hehe, sorry about those 'P's) even putting taps on the soft hammers to get a "Spider" Dugan sound - "Please Don't Put Your Empties On The Piano" was a regular LP offering back then in our house - so I had a somewhat unique Strawberry Blonde background for this film and a few others, mostly musicals. I was also primed for "The Sting"; ragtime went deep in my family, my younger brother giving a couple of slaps to his spinning bass fiddle when our school ragtime players were racing through "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" at concerts. Yeah, even my school looked back to the past for a little connection.

I agree about a perfect cast, Cagney was never more Cagney than in this one, and casually demonstrated his mastery over the lens by ruling every scene he was in, hands down, while Carson had to pull out the stops just to be Jack Carson and reclaim some of the light. I had a profound sense of injustice when I saw this a kid, tho, I really wanted Cagney to clock Carson and send him to the slammer, but as you get a bit older, you learn to appreciate a tough guy that can take it and still walk with his chin up, a Cagney specialty.

This was one of the films in which de Havilland took my breath away occasionally - she really was a subtle knock-out, like sloe gin - she'd quietly sneak up on you and make you see stars. Hayworth had nothing on her.

Rita was always a fave of mine, tho, and she played a maturing woman with real believability, and she always had that two-sided relationship with Cagney's Biff, (a better name for any Cagney character there never was) and you'd get the impression when she'd look at him that she'd still like to have him instead of Hugo, while at the same time laughing a little at Biff inside. I guess Sheridan would've been different, but maybe not better; but then again Ann was made for this role, so it is a loss to the might've-been side.

I watched every Walsh film on TV I could as a kid, I knew back then what he could do, and I liked it a helluva lot, even if I knew nothing about the process. I'd throw "Colorado Territory" into the Wash greatness mix, too.

This one of those films that I watch with tunes in my head, I think it has to be that way for me. I'm a big sap.

john_burke100 said...

Hayworth’s magnificent poitrine.

I seem to see the shade of S. J. Perelman nodding approval at this elegantly turned phrase. Many thanks.

Noel Vera said...

I saw this, I loved it, I read your article, I loved our article, I want to see this again and fall in love with it again. That's the kind of a hairpin I am.

I'll second Colorado Territory--arguably an improvement over High Sierra, which is already great, and throw in (why not?) They Died With Their Boots On.

Dave said...

What more do you need from a movie than Cagney and Carson? Watching "Dangerous When Wet" tonight, I again marveled at how easy Jack makes it look. (not to mention the chance to hear William Demarest sing.)

In his honor, a lovely number with him and Alan Hale, from "Thank Your Lucky Stars." I never cease to be amazed at his ease and ability to do pretty much anything:

Maxim said...

A wonderful piece, your mention of Cagney's combo of toughness and dreaminess here made me think of the stories I've heard about how he was really a terribly sweet, gentle character who acted out the part of his (real-life) gangster brother. Some of this film's greatness is in the way it finds room for both Cagneys.

Karen said...

Oh, Siren, your piece made me literally well up, just in how it made me think of this film's wonderful qualities.

You and I have long known of each other's love for The Strawberry Blonde, but it's lovely to see you finally take it on.

I first saw the movie when I was, maybe, 13 or 14 years old, and it sealed two things: my eternal passion for James Cagney and my adoption of "That's the kind of a hairpin I am," which any of my friends will testify they've heard me say countless times. (Another early film-gesture adoption: Coop's two-fingered salute that I first saw in Love in the Afternoon in high school.)

The performances in Strawberry Blonde are all sublime bt two moments that make my soul swell are: 1) de Havilland's cocky feminism turning to terror when Cagney calls her bluff in their first meeting, and 2) the look on Cagney's face after he is illuminated re Virginia's faithlessness during the blackout.

Thanks for giving me so many new things to look for when I watch it next (this weekend??)--all those pairs!

And let's not forget that the smug Yalie on the other side of that fence in the opening scene is George Reeves...!

The Siren said...

Hey, I've got a lot of night owls here. I post this before I go to bed, thinking, well nobody will notice and I'll point it out tomorrow morning and yet I wake up to--comments! On Fridays I can only respond in the morning so I'll do it now and come back tonight.

Grandoldmovies, Walsh's films definitely have heart. I'd also note the farewell between Custer and his wife in They Died With Their Boots On--"Walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing." Gulp! I haven't seen either One Sunday Afternoon or the remake of this, but I can see that the approach could be a great deal more bitter if the director chose, given how awful what happens to Biff is. Part of what I love about TSB is that ultimately Biff decides to move past all that, and make a life with Amy.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Lovely piece, Siren.

This was the film that made me fall madly in love with Olivia DeHaviland.

I think Rita Hayworth's a better chocie for this film over Ann Sheridan. As much as I love her (and that's a ton) Sheridan isn't ethereal or "other-wordly" like Rita. And I think that's very important fro the part. She isn't just "the prettiest girl in town." She's a very special prize and Rita makes her that.

Jack Carson, needless to say, is a GOD.

The Siren said...

Tonio, I guess I hang out with a lot of hardcore movie buffs; certainly that's the case around here (and the Siren loves you guys for it). I'm not sure but what that I myself would watch Cagney fold socks, but I also prefer him in Footlight Parade, though Yankee Doodle Dandy has the most genuinely glorious patriotic fadeout I believe I've ever seen.

Vanwall, I think yanking a tooth without anesthetic may be more revenge than clocking someone, especially since Cagney gets clocked constantly in this movie and it barely seems to register with him. The scene where he's pulling his father's teeth is also quite macho--for some reason I was sitting there thinking about Marathon Man and how Alan Hale and Jack Carson were a lot tougher than Dustin Hoffman. Though in fairness Hoffman would probably admit that if you asked him nicely enough. Hayworth gives a real performance in this one, with a beautiful arc.

John_Burke, one thing I didn't mention was how Rita is padded out in the last scene to suggest that she's going to age badly, on top of getting surly; Walsh has a shot of her from the back that shows this quite plainly. I guess I don't have an elegant phrase for "spreading backside."

The Siren said...

Adding to Vanwall -- I don't think Sheridan would have been better, necessarily, but she always had such great chemistry with Cagney that it would have been very good, I'll bet.

Also, to VW & Noel -- I apologize if I gave the impression that the handful of movies I plucked out of Walsh's huge filmography was a personal best list. Oh my no, it isn't; it's just my take on what may be his most famous ones. Colorado Territory is indeed great, and Walsh never tired of chuckling over how he'd remade High Sierra in a different setting.

Dave, Alan Hale doesn't get much mention around here. Mea culpa me-self.

Maxim, Cagney always was very much a family man, shown in this movie as well --brother William has a producing credit.

Karen, George Reeves was SO GORGEOUS in this movie, wasn't he? Even with that ridiculous moustache.

David E., I was seriously when I said de Havilland was even more beautiful than Hayworth here; I think her face was just more suited to 19th-century hairstyles, maybe. I don't know, I think Sheridan might have been just as good as Hayworth, in a different way, but I sincerely do not wish for any movie other than the one I've got. Further to Carson's god-like-ness, one of the things I love about him is his reactions, and his face upon seeing that the dentist his wife has engaged is the man he sent to prison is priceless. And his voice goes up, not too much, maybe 1/4 of an octave, just enough...

Trish said...

Jack Carson alone makes the movie a must-see for me, but I've somehow managed to miss it...

Ned said...

Strawberry Blonde is a wonderful example of the multiplicity of filmmaking elements and how difficult it can be to get everything just so.

The right director, stars, excellent script retooled for those stars (Cagney in this case), fabulous DP, and, from all accounts, a great feeling of bonhomie on the set. As the Siren mentions, everyone gave their all. Everyone was up for it, no one’s mailing it in.

A 1933 version, One Sunday Afternoon, with Gary Cooper in the Cagney role was a complete flop and Hal Wallis, apparently at Jack Warner’s suggestion, screened it to see what they might need to do to keep the wheels from falling off their remake.

But changing the locale from the Midwest to Olde New York, a locale that had great sentimental value for both Walsh and the Cagney brothers, must have had a salutary affect on the director and his star.

I agree with the Siren that nostalgia, as an end in itself, and too liberally applied, can end up feeling tawdry and maudlin, but there’s something in this film, a warmth of feeling--sentiment, not sentimentality--that makes it all feel so special. Cagney’s enthusiasm for playing a character who isn’t shooting at someone for 90 minutes (although he takes a quite a bit of pleasure in yanking a tooth out of Jack Carson’s head) is evident. He was escaping the gangster and criminal roles that were thrown at him through the thirties (even though he does spend time in prison, it’s not the same as Each Dawn I Die).

As for Rita Hayworth, I don’t know why (well, I do know), but when I first saw this film years ago, I only knew Cagney was in it, but fully expected the strawberry blonde to be Ann Sheridan. She would have been perfect. But as good as Hayworth is, for me, de Haviland is the emotional center of the picture. And Walsh was clear enough about the ‘meaning’ of the film to keep her there.
Thanks for this reminder of such a great film.

It’s funny, but when I saw the title under the banner, I did exactly what the Siren remarks that most people do when Strawberry Blonde is mentioned. “ahh.. that’s a great one…”

Aubyn said...

Wonderful post about a truly great film. I agree with David about the virtues of both de Havilland and Hayworth and if anyone could watch this movie without falling at least a little in love with de Havilland, I would be very suspicious of them. I think she, as well as her sister, just had a gift for looking at a man with their whole heart in their eyes.

But I also love Rita's performance and the way she constantly seems to be angling for a way to show off her lovely profile, as in the scene where she asks Biff and Amy to dinner. Quite a contrast to the way Walsh uses Olivia, with her face perfectly still and her eyes betraying her every flicker of emotion. And in the reunion scene, he just lingers on her radiant face--it's such a loving shot, for lack of a better word.

When I first watched this I did feel a pang at the idea that Amy was faking all these radical notions, but I got reconciled to it as the movie went on, and the last scene of de Havilland winking and saying "Exactly" reassured me that Amy wasn't going to be a model of convention, either.

Ned said...

Just a side note, but I've always been mildly curious about the importance of color in black and white films.

Strawberry Blonde was renamed to reflect the hair color of the Hayworth character and Percy Westmore spent a lot of time searching for just the right shade of red. Understandably there was still a need to get a good color that would appear 'correct' in black and white. In the orthochromatic film tests shot of the early Marx Brothers, Harpo's red wig appeared black so he had to wear a blonde wig. But he had worn a red one for so long that Groucho continues to refer to him as 'that redhead' in later films.

Films like the Blue Dahlia don't matter as much, but in a movie like Green for Danger, where color is a big plot point, it's lost.

As I say, just a side thought.

rcocean said...

Very enjoyable film and a good analysis. Carson really is quite good.

Aubyn said...

Ned, don't forget Bette Davis' red dress in Jezebel. I keep going back and forth on whether seeing it in Technicolor would add anything. The sharpness of the scene, the starkness of that dress, whirling away next to the white gowns looks so focused in black and white that I start to wonder if the scene actually works better without color. And then I start thinking about seeing the red dress in eye-catching color and I'm back to being on the fence.

Ned said...

Rachel, in fact, I had deleted a mention of Jezebel in my previous post because I didn't want to start going on and on about a completely different topic, but you're quite right. That is a very specific plot point that revolves around color in a black and white film. But I think in that case, as you point out, the stark contrast of the white gowns and what appears to be an almost black one as she walks through that door, makes for a very effective scene.

In Dark Passage, a point is made that Agnes Moorehead's character is fond of orange "everything I own is orange, even my car; it's bright orange" she says, which would have been quite arresting in color, but then the rest of the picture might have suffered. So what can you do?

Andreas said...

The Strawberry Blonde doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves, so thanks for this second glance!

It's just a very cute, oddly sweet movie despite all the violence and corruption in it -- for example, I love de Havilland's coy "Zactly!" at the end. Or Jack Carson's not-quite-villainous antics, definitely put to better use here than in so many fluffy Warners musicals.

As a soon-to-be-graduate of the college that Carson attended, I'm always happy when he gets some belated recognition. His relationship with Cagney here is just a perfect mix of friendly and antagonistic. Terrific movie.

Karen said...

"Rita Hayworth was generally only as good as her directors"

How sly of you to switch to your new banner photo above this post.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I fell in love with this movie when I was a teenager, watching it with my mother who ALSO loved it. I haven't seen it as an adult, which is a (mumble mumble)-year void that I should probably fill.

I would take issue, however, with the notion that we are closer to the 40s than the 40s were to the 1990s. I think someone in the 1890 could easily conceive of a word dominated by the automobile, for one example (this would be Joseph Cotten in my head, by the way). I can't imagine ANYONE in the 1940s imagining the world wide web. We live in a science fiction world, and even the science fiction of the 1940s was timid in extrapolating the future in comparison to the utterly strange world in which we currently live.

But that's just me, I guess.

rcocean said...

Per Walsh

"You can really double anybody. If the action is good enough, it can be a monkey with top-hat and spats.'

pvitari said...

So why isn't this sublime film on blu-ray instead of a Warner Archive DVD-R? Just wond'rin. There's a reason why most of the Archive titles are Archive titles but some Archive releases deserve better -- and The Strawberry Blonde is a classic that deserves the most deluxe treatment.

X. Trapnel said...

The Strawberry Blonde (long sigh of pure pleasure). This was a peak moment in my first adolescent infatuation with film (though at the time it just seemed an infatuation with Olivia de H. [which has never quite dissipated despite my radical Fontainianism]). Walsh had a positive genius for conveying the feeling (not just the idea or theme) of domesticity and not necessarily in a positive way. I'm thinking of the Lupino/Hale marriage in They Drive By Night (is there anything comparably nightmarish in any other film of the time) or Joan Leslie's dismal little party that Bogart crashes into in High Sierra. Similarly, Cagney's hopeless love for Priscilla Lane in Roaring Twenties gets the domestic ideal of the period perfectly. More positively, there is the romantic courtliness in Flynn's love for Miss Olivia in They Died With Their Boots On (Flynn's best performance all around, I think.) As greatly as I value Hawks, I prefer Walsh because his men and women are permitted weaknesses, fears, failures, all-around uncoolness, but he would save them all.

Ned said...

"So why isn't this sublime film on blu-ray instead of a Warner Archive DVD-R"

There are probably a lot of reasons having to do with economics, but really the biggest one is taste. It's quite likely that you'll be able to find an extended director's cut HD DVD of Gigli (with three hours of extras) before you'll see a blu-ray copy of Strawberry Blonde.

A friend and I once decided that the world is divided into two categories. Those who, when clicking through cable stations, automatically stop when they see a black and white film, and those who can't get to the next station fast enough.

That's not to say that everything in black and white is generically better, it's just that a huge portion of the viewing public has no interest in something that's not new and in color, no matter how good it is.

To put it in musical terms, once in a music store, I was approached by a woman who noticed that I was carrying a stack of opera records (yeah, it was that long ago). She said that she was looking for a recording of the Verdi Requiem for her father and asked if I could suggest a good one. Why, of course I could. The 1939 Tullio Serafin Requiem with Pinza, Stignani, Gigli, and Caniglia is quite simply unsurpassed, and she couldn't possibly find a better one (in my opinion). She said "1939? Is that in stereo?" I almost lied and said yes, but she opted for the most recent stereo recording instead.

Big sigh. This is not to sound snobby, but there's okay, sort of okay, terrible and then there's great.

There's Gigli (not the Beniamino kind), and there's Strawberry Blonde. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

X. Trapnel said...

An interesting point, Ned, but a well-preserved black and white film from 1941 leaves nothing to be desired technically, but a pre-stereo recording does (Oh, for a Furtwangler Brahms 1st in stereo! And hey, you got a problem with Giulini's 1964 Verdi Requiem? you want yer face messed up?). The problem goes deeper than technology and has to do, I think, with a cultural recoil from older styles of acting and a dopey idea of what constitutes verisimilitude (mistakenly conflated with "realism") in film. The dividing line in so many ways are the changes that occurred in American film in the fifties (which is why I'm always griping here about Marilyn, Liz, and the Icon Boys).

Buttermilk Sky said...

Synchronicity! Or is it serendipity? I just came across this on my system's on-demand menu, saw Cagney (sign me up for the Cagney-can-do-no-wrong club) and decided to watch it. A complete delight, not least because I now know why my mother used to say "That's the kind of hairpin I am" so many years ago. I'm still smiling about the scene where Biff has to scrape up two dollars for getting the bandleader to play "The Band Played On." This movie also yields a great trivia question: In what film does Cagney dance with Rita Hayworth? Try it at your next dinner party.

gmoke said...

You can always tell a Warner Brothers black and white movie by the color of the lipstick. That was something I learned long ago in a misspent youth spending too many days in front of the Early Show, Million Dollar Movie, and Pictures for a Sunday afternoon.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Hate to say it, but this movie cured my Cagney-mania. For a while I was watching (and buying) anything with Cagney in it. After seeing this toothache of a film, we all decided we could take a little break.

Too sweet for my tastes.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well in that case, maybe you'd like my Donald Cammell Day (at Dennis Cooper's)

The Siren said...

Rachel, I don't know that Amy was completely faking; she's certainly earning her own way while Biff is in jail (and it's possible she was working even after they were married). I agree about that last "Zactly."

I hardly ever wish b&w movies into technicolor, certainly not this one. I do kind of wish Marie Antoinette had been in color, as planned, because the costumes in that one were something else. And I think the mourning look of the dress at the Olympus Ball in Jezebel is perfect; scalding red wouldn't emphasize that we're watching not a ball, but a death scene.

Andreas, I agree -- this movie earns its sweet spirit, as the goings-on are very dark, such as Biff working for the man whose actions kill his father. And then Biff goes to prison for it! That's what I mean by Walsh's control of tone.

Karen, sometimes I leave things unsaid because my readers know it already--for instance, not adding "and Hayworth's directors were occasionally the best in the world." But I couldn't resist the banner. That's the kind of a hairpin I am.

Buttermilk Sky, what's also great about the dance scene is that Hayworth was a wonderful dancer, Cagney no slouch himself, but they play it in character, as two people with no rhythm at all!

The Siren said...

Gmoke, it's true; and the mouths are drawn differently at the different studios, too. My unscientific observations: Perc Westmore at WB usually tried for the natural line, even if the color was very dark (although not with Crawford, doubtless she had her own ideas); Columbia went very full, almost into a rectangle; MGM liked to exaggerate the bow at the top; and Paramount was the all-out glamour mouth, drawn for perfection no matter what the actress actually had.

Ned said...

Yes, Crawford certainly did have ideas of her own, assisted in the lip department by Max Factor who applied what he called a smear across her lips, thus creating the central element of the Crawford Face.

There's a pretty funny jibe at the Crawford Look in A Star is Born, the scene in which Esther, at the hands of the studio's makeup department, is trying on looks to find just the right one. One of the looks is the Crawford Smear, which is made to look quite hideous.

But it worked for Joan. We all still remember it some 80 years after Max first tried it out.

Aubyn said...

Siren: I pretty much agree with you about Amy. And the bloomer girl diatribes in the beginning give her something that good girls often don't get in romantic movies: a character arc. So many times, the good girl is merely passive, waiting around for the hero to recognize her. The bad girl gets to walk away with the movie because she actually does things. But here, Amy learns to discard pretense just as Biff learns to see past it. We get a little insight into what it means to be the wallflower best friend of the town beauty and Amy's desire to stand out in some way.

But the red dress would emphasize that we're watching a massacre:). Ah, I can never decide what I want. The scene in the film is so devastating that it doesn't really lack anything for me. But when they keep saying "red dress" I just get this hunger to actually see it.

Max Factor certainly created some memorable looks although the Crawford smear, like Clara Bow's bee-stung lips, should only be used with great caution. They rarely seem to work on anyone but the original stars.

gmoke said...

Drawing styles: let's not get started on fashions in eyebrows. That way lies madness.

Ms.Zebra said...

A lovely post for a lovely film. I "cooed" at the mere discovery of it in my RSS feed.

Harry K. said...

No one's yet mentioned my favorite part of the whole movie. How many movies end with a sing along? Even better, how many pictures actually make you want to sing along a the end?

The sing along ending here always made me think of how Strawberry Blonde has such marvelous control over its tone, which is rapturous. Even when the film is dealing with important things, thanks to the scripting by the twins, the film glosses them right over so that we still feel giddy by the end of the film, which, to be fair, would make absolutely no sense if the rest was not nearly so heedlessly fun.

I mean, Carson kills Cagney's father, then sends him off to prison for it, and still makes a mint off of all that. I'm sorry, a tooth pull doesn't quite cover it. He killed his father, I mean, really.

Karen said...

A heads-up for the Cagney-philes in the audience: TCM is screening the 1930 Doorway to Hell this Wednesday at 11:00 PM (Eastern). Lew Ayres doesn't make the best mob boss, lord knows, but the film's worth watching just to see Cagney crackle with electricity in his supporting role.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, you realize I could discuss Classic Era eyebrow shapes if I wanted. At length. And eyeliner. But I won't. Because I am a merciful Siren.

Harry, I have to agree with you. The plot is pretty grim, and off-screen the idea of dental work without anesthetic somehow being revenge enough for your father, well, as you say, it doesn't quite cover it.

But in the world of The Strawberry Blonde, it makes perfect sense! And then, as David E. would say, we get to sing them out.

The Siren said...

Karen, I've set my DVR. I'm almost more curious to see Ayres than Cagney, it's such an odd bit of casting. But I always thought Ayres was a fine talent so maybe he'll surprise me.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Off-Topic (but of interest to many in here I'm sure) Leonard Kastle R.I.P.

Courtney Elizabeth said...

i've never seen it, but your glowing review and the fact that it has some of my all-time favorites in it have me itching to watch it ASAP.

Mark said...

Grandoldmovies, Walsh's films definitely have heart. I'd also note the farewell between Custer and his wife in They Died With Their Boots On--"Walking through life with you, ma'am, has been a very gracious thing."

Way late to the party here and I've skipped a lot of the comments as I haven't seen "The Strawberry Blonde" yet (on my DVD shelf awaiting viewing with about 200 others), but good God Siren, YES. I remembered firing up the DVD of TDWTBO for my first viewing and being blown away by this scene and the movie in general. Flynn's delivery of the line is absolutely devastating, making it one of my favorite romantic scenes in any movie ever. Sure it's a cockamamie re-write of history, but with Walsh directing the hell out of it, Flynn/De Havilland bringing everything they've got and that killer supporting cast...honestly, who cares?

johncarvill said...

Wonderful review, and so many great comments. I'd take this film over Yankee Doodle Dandy any day.

Although I adore Ann Sheridan, I agree Hayworth was more suited to this role.

Only disagreement: Olivia more beautiful than Rita? Captain, that is not logical! Surely nobody could be more beautiful than Rita? I love the way Hayworth rapidly yet subtly modulates her expression whilst toying with Cagney about her cousin being in town and therefore leaving her unavailable to make a date. Now *that* is being an actress and a movie star at the same time. Sublime.

And Cagney's cry of '23 Skidoo' alone is worth more than most modern movies. That's the kinda hairpin he was.

Unknown said...

"Wonderful review, and so many great comments. I'd take this film over Yankee Doodle Dandy any day.

Although I adore Ann Sheridan, I agree Hayworth was more suited to this role.

Only disagreement: Olivia more beautiful than Rita? Captain, that is not logical! Surely nobody could be more beautiful than Rita? I love the way Hayworth rapidly yet subtly modulates her expression whilst toying with Cagney about her cousin being in town and therefore leaving her unavailable to make a date. Now *that* is being an actress and a movie star at the same time. Sublime.

And Cagney's cry of '23 Skidoo' alone is worth more than most modern movies. That's the kinda hairpin he was."

Olivia was known for being one of the greatest NATURAL beauties around, and Jack Carson was just one of many who stated how beautiful she was.
She didn't need lots of make-up to give the impression of beauty.

Unknown said...

Not only was Olivia de Havilland more naturally beautiful than Rita Hayworth, John, she was far more talented and very easily stole the movie from her.

Cagney considered Olivia his favorite leading lady, and again, Jack Carson make complimentary comments about her beauty.

I don't know why you can't see it, but check out candids of both Olivia and Rita, and old Rita doesn't hold a candle to Olivia.

Vidor said...

I watched "One Sunday Afternoon" a while back and it wasn't half as good. The main reason was that the character of Amy is a boring little simp. None of the character development of de Havilland's Amy--none of the women's lib business followed by the sheepish confessions, for example. Nope, the wife in the Gary Cooper movie is loving and affectionate and super dull.

As for who was more beautiful, de Havilland or Hayworth, tough call, since they played such different kinds of roles. Hayworth played the sexpots and temptresses while de Havilland played the good girls. de Havilland never got to wear dresses like Hayworth did in "Gilda". A while back I watched "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" off of TCM. De Havilland of course plays the ice cold evil murderer in that movie, and all I could think was how damn sexy she was. And she was 48 years old in that film.

Tiffany Brannan said...

I read this article a couple of months ago, and I really like it. In fact, it was kismet that I read this article when I did, since I had just heard about the Olivia de Havilland blogathon but had thought myself unable to participate because I had seen no films with her. Your article brought this film to my attention. Not only did I adore the picture, I wrote a very successful article about it, so I would like to thank you for that.

Secondly, I was impressed by the fact that you called the self-regulation board the Breen office, not the Hays office. Mr. Breen is my hero, and so few people even know that he was in charge of the Production Code Administration! Also, I hate to admit this, but something you wrote in your article has been driving me crazy. You said that you were surprised that the Breen office let Miss Hayworth's character be named Virginia Brush. I have thought, pondered, done research, and asked my family, but I still have no idea what you mean. Surely you don't mean just the first name Virginia. There must be something you know about Brush that I don't. Could you please explain this to me?

By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, "The Great Breening Blogathon:" It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn't have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent!

Yours Hopefully,

Tiffany Brannan