Biff Grimes would waltz with a strawberry blonde
And the band played on.
He'd glide 'cross the floor with the girl he adored
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.
Let's take a trip to New York City during the Gay Nineties with Raoul Walsh's film for Warner Bros. The Strawberry Blonde (1941). Adapted by screenwriting brothers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein from a James Hagan play, the movie follows the story of two couples whose romances are complicated by one beautiful strawberry blonde.
Biff Grimes (James Cagney) is a struggling dentist, and not necessarily a very good one, trying to make ends meet for him and his wife Amy (Olivia de Havilland). He gets word that his old friend turned arch nemesis Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) is coming to him for some dental work. We flashback to when Biff and Hugo started fighting over the neighborhood cutie Virginia (Rita Hayworth). Thrown into the mix is Amy, a nurse with a progressive mindset. She clashes with Biff whose views are more traditional. We follow the duo as they naturally pair off and when things go sour for all involved. The story wraps up with one final encounter that leaves audiences satisfied.
|Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney and Jack Carson|
The Strawberry Blonde has a fantastic cast. Among the four heavyweights that star in the film are some beloved character actors and familiar faces. Alan Hale plays Old Man Grimes, Biff's dad. He's a lovable rogue who can't hold down a job, loves a good bar fight and is a total flirt with the ladies. One object of his affection is Una O'Connor who plays a snooty neighborhood woman. Then there is George Tobias who plays Nicholas, a local barbershop owner and Biff's sidekick. He's also got an eye for the strawberry blonde but winds up with a giggle monster instead. George Reeves plays the punchy college man who picks a fight with Biff. Supposedly my favorite actress Susan Peters is in the film. After close examination I couldn't spot her. I suspect she's part of George Reeves' garden party harem but I can't confirm that.
"Freethinkers have a lot of time on their hands." - Amy
Of all the characters Olivia de Havilland's Amy was my favorite. She's a forward thinking suffragist who scoffs at societal gender norms. She eventually settles into a traditional life with Biff. This was another thankless role Warner Bros. threw at de Havilland in her post-Gone with the Wind days. She eventually broke free from the studio's contract after quite a battle. While this role isn't really worthy of her talent I think it's a fun role and in my opinion she outshines Hayworth's prim and proper strawberry blonde. I wasn't crazy about Hayworth at all in this film. Her character is beautiful but in the end rather pathetic. Her role is an example of how Hollywood sometimes tried to downplay her ethnicity.
This film has all the romance of the era. It's a nostalgia piece that pays tribute to the finer things of the Belle Epoque. There are barber shops, complete with barber shop quartets, ferry rides, beer gardens, saloons, gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages. The women wear Edwardian fashions and the men don boater hats, shirt garters, starched collars and big twirly mustaches. Orry-Kelly designed the costumes and they are of of course of top notch quality. Studios during the golden age of Hollywood would often take liberties with hair styles and clothing in period pieces but that's not the case here. Attention to detail lends to the historical accuracy of the style. It's a shame that the film is in black-and-white. Technicolor would have served it better.
This isn't a musical but music plays an important role here. Turn-of-the-century standards become the film's theme songs. Most notably The Band Played On plays a crucial part in the film. It gives the story its purpose, kicks off the initial drama and is both a boon and a curse for the main character Biff. The ending credits serve as a sing-a-long with lyrics and music encouraging the audience to sing The Band Played On. I've never seen this before and I thought it was quite fun.
The Strawberry Blonde (1941) benefits from a great cast, fun music, beautiful costumes, funny scenes, playful dialogue and an overall sweet story with a good dose of drama. There are some dull spots but overall it's a fun film. It tries to kick off with a bang but doesn't really get into a rhythm until the two female leads make their appearances. Regardless you should give this one a try. It's a fun movie for nostalgia buffs.
The Strawberry Blonde (1941) is available from the Warner Archive Collection on DVD-MOD.
Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you Warner Archive for sending me The Strawberry Blonde (1941) to review!