STRAWBERRY BLONDE, THE (director: Raoul Walsh; screenwriters: Julius J. Epstein/Philip G. Epstein based on the play One Sunday Afternoon by James Hagan; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: William Holmes; music: Heinz Roemheld; cast: James Cagney (Biff Grimes), Olivia de Havilland (Amy Lind), Rita Hayworth (Virginia Brush), Alan Hale (Old Man Grimes), George Tobias (Nick Pappalas), Jack Carson (Hugo Barnstead), Una O’Connor (Mrs. Mulcahey), George Reeves (Harold), Edward McNamara (Big Joe, Bar Owner); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Cagney; Warner Bros. Pictures; 1941)
“Rita Hayworth is the eye candy who sweetens the plot as the alluring strawberry blonde.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s the second and by far the best of the three film versions of James Hogan’s play One Sunday Afternoon. The Epstein twin brothers hand in the blithe screenplay. Raoul Walsh (“White Heat”/”Manhunt”/”One Sunday Afternoon”) directs this lively Gay-Nineties period romantic comedy. Rita Hayworth is the eye candy who sweetens the plot as the alluring strawberry blonde. It’s set in New York around the turn-of-the-century when the parks are lit by gaslight and is told in flashback through the eyes of the hot-tempered pugnacious ex-con Brooklyn dentist Biff Grimes (James Cagney), who gets to reminiscing with his amiable Greek barber friend Nick (George Tobias) about his double-crossing shady friend from the old neighborhood in Manhattan, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson). He’s the man responsible for Biff’s unfair five year prison sentence and who stole the strawberry blonde from him.
Eight years ago, back in his Manhattan neighborhood, Biff dreamed of becoming a dentist and is taking correspondence courses. He wants to move up the social ladder and not be like his philandering drunken father (Alan Hale), who hangs out at Big Joe’s bar getting into brawls, chases after the married ladies in the neighborhood and can’t even keep a Tammany Hall street cleaner’s job. Biff and the neighborhood fellows hang around Nick’s barbershop and whistle at the attractive Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth), the “strawberry blonde,” when she passes by. The forward Hugo makes an informal date with Virginia at the park and she brings along her kind-hearted nurse girlfriend Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland) for Biff. This displeases Biff because he’s smitten with Virginia. The boys take the gals on a horse-and-buggy ride through the park, and as usual the wise guy Hugo steps over Biff and gets the girl he wants and tricks him into paying for the carriage. Within three weeks Hugo marries Virginia and a disappointed Biff, on the rebound, marries the even-keeled personable Amy. Three years pass and Hugo becomes a big-time contractor, while the economically hardpressed Biff is still taking dentist courses. Under the urgings of Virginia, Hugo hires Biff to be his firm’s vice president. When there’s a graft probe and one of the wall’s in Hugo’s building collapses because it used inferior materials, Biff gets blamed because he signed the papers and the fall guy is imprisoned. The flashback ends and it’s Sunday and haughty alderman Hugo needs a tooth pulled and the only dentist available is Biff. Upon seeing his dream girl Virginia and his nemesis Hugo again, after all these years, Biff is relieved to discover for certain he married the right girl and decides not to take revenge on Hugo as planned; especially after seeing that Virginia is a nagging unsatisfied gold digging wife and Hugo is an unhappy venal man who has many physical ailments.
It’s a delightful piece of Americana nostalgia from a time long past, in the tradition of the 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis. There are barbershop quartets, one character says “Twenty-three, skidoo!”, men have handlebar mustaches, the gals where bonnets, bands play waltzes in the park and the old favorite tune “And the Band Played On’ is dusted off and becomes the film’s leitmotif.
REVIEWED ON 4/1/2007 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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