Friday, May 06, 2016

OVP: The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Film: The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Stars: James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Alan Hale, Jack Carson, George Tobias
Director: Raoul Walsh
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Scoring)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

James Cagney has never been one of those performers I've really loved when he wasn't in his true heyday.  Cagney in the early 1930's, when he was just being discovered as a star was truly wonderful, and later on his career when he was in White Heat he rediscovered that magic, but as a leading man, especially one in light comedy, I was never a big fan.  My memories of Yankee Doodle Dandy are relatively hazy, but even that film I sort of am "ehh" about in the years since, and so watching The Strawberry Blonde, I wasn't wild about the prospect of Cagney doing his schtick for 100 minutes or so.  However, I did love the prospect of the two leading ladies, both of whom I deeply adore (de Havilland for years, Hayworth a more recent adoration that has burned into a major passion).  So the film presented a conundrum-would my love of two actors cancel out my ambivalence for a third?

(Spoilers Ahead) It ended up being, quite frankly, kind of wash.  The film follows Biff (Cagney), an ex-con who is somehow also a dentist, who has a quick temper (when does Jimmy Cagney not have a quick temper?), and starts to reminisce about a girl long ago, despite the fact that his wife Amy (de Havilland) is very much in the picture.  The movie moves back in time, when Biff is seen with his rival Hugo (Carson) both chasing after the same gorgeous girl Virginia (Hayworth), and trading off who has to be stuck with the suffragette and less glamorous Amy (only in the movies could Olivia de Havilland, beautiful as any creature on earth, somehow be "less glamorous," especially compared to Cagney and Carson, neither of whom was Gary Cooper, let's be honest).  Eventually Hugo wins Virginia, and Biff is stuck with Amy, who is head-over-heels for Biff despite him being rather indifferent toward her affections, and Hugo continues to take advantage of Biff, setting him up as the fall-guy in a construction scheme, and eventually getting him wrongfully imprisoned.  The end of the film shows Biff, who has the chance to kill Hugo in revenge, instead simply pulling out one of his teeth and finding out that he and Amy, who are truly happy with each other and expecting a baby, are the real victors in this battle of wills.  It's a cute ending, even if the whole "could he murder him?" line seems a bit dark for such a fluffy picture.

The film feels like a pretty cliched romantic comedy, and were it not for the stars I think it would have been lost years ago, but Cagney's enduring popularity and the two women's game performances seal the deal for the film.  I left still not sold on Cagney-I love him in dramatic work, but here he oversells and overacts, and it's impossible to figure out what exactly his appeal to both Virginia and Amy are.  His Biff is too quick to punch someone out, and perhaps the film is too dated in gender roles in this regard, but there's nothing attractive or sweet about his ill temper.  The leading ladies, on the other hand, are both delicious.  De Havilland's Amy is a forward-thinking woman, frequently making passes at men through winks or provocative conversation that floors Biff (who assumes she isn't a "nice girl"). While this is shown to be a bluff later in the film sort of dampening Amy (wouldn't it have been grand if she actually believed the things she said-can you imagine someone like de Havilland playing such a character and not passing it off to, say, Joan Crawford or Tallulah Bankhead?), it's still such a rich character choice and easily brings about the film's best moments.  Rita Hayworth, in a smaller part (she became a major star after this picture, though), is wonderful as a tart who constantly flirts with different men just to sort of throw them off and keeps her options open.  Hayworth was a fine dramatic actress (seriously-I've developed such a love affair with her lately), but here she nails the comedic role that was originally intended for Ann Sheridan (who also benefited from turning down this role, as she went on to star in Kings Row and get top billing, a film that would win a Best Picture nomination and be arguably the most important of her career).  These two women save the picture from it being a totally toss-away rom-com from the 1940's.

The film received a sole Oscar nomination, for Best Scoring.  The film is not a musical in the traditional sense, and most of the most memorable music in the film was not originally intended for the picture.  The movie has a delightful moment before the credits where it encouraged the theatrical audience in a singalong over the classic "The Band Played On" by John F. Palmer, perhaps my favorite moment in the picture after de Havilland's scandalous winking (you know I joined in), but all of the other songs sort of find themselves as background noise, and really don't factor into the scoring of the picture at all. Overall, it's a strange nomination for the movie, and you'd think it would have gotten something like Sound or Screenplay instead if it was going to make it with Oscar.

Those are my thoughts on this charming, though relatively frivolous way to spend an evening-how about yours?  Are you a fan of James Cagney, or are you like me where you don't get his comedic appeal?  Who would you choose-Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth?  And do you wish more movies would have random singalongs over the credits?  Share in the comments!

No comments: