The Strawberry Blonde is a period piece within a period piece. It opens in the past, then there’s a flashback to the further past. It recalls a time when WASPs couldn’t figure out how to eat spaghetti and the political corruption machine was easier to crack. Director Walsh is very enthusiastic about the time period and setting (turn of the century New York); almost distractingly so.
The film opens with working men James Cagney and George Tobias hanging out on a Sunday, getting into a tiff with some lounging college folks across the fence, while Cagney tries to put off having to take wife Olivia de Havilland for their weekly walk. There’s a lengthy exposition dump about how Cagney’s ended up in his current situation and how it’s the fault of someone they used to know.
And just who should call for an emergency Sunday dental appointment (Cagney’s a dentist, Blonde is set in the mail correspondence course era of dental schools) but that someone (Jack Carson, but we haven’t met him yet).
While the script—Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein—is very snappy with the dialogue, including bringing up the coincidental nature of it all, it doesn’t bother trying to get around Cagney telling the story to someone who already knows it; we’ll find out Tobias was there for all of it. So then, the film drops into a further flashback, ten years before.
And it opens on Cagney’s dad, Alan Hale, having adventures without Cagney witnessing them. Hale sees himself as the neighborhood Casanova, romancing the housewives while the husbands are out. Strawberry Blonde makes sure everyone gets at least one really good, really solid scene—they rarely overlap between actors—but pretty much everything Hale gets is gold. When Hale disappears in the second act so Cagney can get into his perceived love triangle, the film feels the loss—and it’s on the film; Walsh’s showcasing of Hale’s comedic abilities doesn’t affect the narrative at all, it’s just because Hale’s great at the physical comedy.
All the guys in the neighborhood have a crush on Rita Hayworth, but none of them have the courage to talk to her… not until Carson has the excuse of selling charity tickets. Of course, the tickets are a scam but it doesn’t matter (there’s a dropped subplot about Cagney selling tickets for Carson, which gives them an excuse to hang out together but doesn’t factor in otherwise). Hayworth takes to Carson, dropping a hint about where he can meet her without a formal introduction, only they’re going to have to bring friends to keep it proper. He brings Cagney, she brings de Havilland.
There’s an obvious age difference between Cagney and de Havilland, which ends up really helping the relationship, even though a lot of his problem is he’s just a cocky jerk. He’s got a good heart in there somewhere, which de Havilland recognizes right away, when she’s busy trying to convince him she’s wise beyond her years and a suffragette activist to boot. Cagney doesn’t go in for that kind of progress and would prefer a girl like Hayworth. Specifically Hayworth.
The second act is Cagney’s pursuing Hayworth while de Havilland and Carson hang around on the sidelines. While most of the film is Cagney against type—he’s always getting beat up—the plot eventually does at least appear like a more predicted Cagney one; the third act introduces and resolves that drama, then there’s the return to the (still period) present for the wrap-up. There are additional flashback tiers; there’s a skip ahead a couple years from the earliest flashback, then another five years (so the final flashback scene is three-ish years before the present).
Walsh and the Brothers Epstein do a fantastic job keeping the plot moving, which isn’t always easy since Cagney’s frequently making a fool of himself.
Performance-wise, de Havilland is the obvious winner. She only gets a couple big scenes and she’s magnificent; from the start, the film’s got a sort of peculiar relationship with the comedy because Cagney can’t do it as well as Hale or Tobias. When Cagney’s watching Hale, waiting for his line, you can see the excitement on his face, getting to work opposite the more comically inclined Hale. But when de Havilland shows up, she immediately gets how to do the comedy. In a few minutes she’s able to elevate the entire project.
Cagney’s good. There’s not really the opportunity for anything great and he doesn’t create one, but he’s good. After all the work he does for comedy’s sake, when he finally does get his spotlight scenes, they’re just riffs on gangster melodrama.
Hayworth gets a phenomenal scene and the biggest character arc, but she seems underutilized. Though it wouldn’t be Cagney’s movie if it were actually about The Strawberry Blonde. It also wouldn’t be a comedy.
Carson’s good; kind of broad, but he makes it work.
Excellent use of songs, great sets and costumes, good or great direction from Walsh—there do seem to be some strange film stock issues going on, where cinematographer James Wong Howe just isn’t able to match lighting between shots, but it seems like it’s got to be something other than him.
The Strawberry Blonde’s a fun vehicle for Cagney and an exquisite showcase for de Havilland’s comedic chops (when she gets to show them). It’s forties studio comedy done right.