Biff Grimes started out a bully. I mean Biff Grimes as originated in James Hagan’s 1933 hit Broadway play One Sunday Afternoon. Obviously I wasn’t able to make the play, but the same goes for Biff in Paramount’s film adaptation released later that same year. Gary Cooper made him unpredictable in the movie, dangerous like that mug on a dark corner who you go out of your way to avoid. Cooper’s Biff was unfriendly. More tense than intense. And pretty dull. I knew The Strawberry Blonde before I knew One Sunday Afternoon, yet I was never quite sure if Cooper was really going to let Hugo Barnstead (Neil Hamilton) escape his dentist’s chair alive. When Mordaunt Hall reviewed the 1933 movie in the New York Times he wrote that Cooper’s version of the character comes off as a “milder personality” than playwright Hagan’s Biff, “who went around with a chip on his shoulder.” Lloyd Nolan’s Biff must have been one disagreeable cuss.
Warner Bros bought screen rights to One Sunday Afternoon in January 1940. A little over one year later they released The Strawberry Blonde, a superior 1941 film version of Hagan’s story directed by Raoul Walsh from a screenplay by the Epstein brothers. James Cagney enhances Biff Grimes with his charm, and while he may be a lout, Cagney’s Biff is no bully. Cagney is every bit as pugnacious as Cooper and, presumably, Nolan in the part, but despite all of his temper and lack of class, Cagney’s Biff Grimes emerges as a charming underdog from New York’s lower class. As Cagney so often does.
In the earlier movie I had a hard time caring about any of the characters except for Frances Fuller’s portrayal of put-upon Amy, the girl who longs for Biff despite his preoccupation with her more glamorous friend, Virginia Brush (Fay Wray in ‘33). Studio head Jack Warner thought One Sunday Afternoon “very bad,” as communicated to his producer Hal Wallis after running the film at his house. “But anyone who has seen the show or read the script claims there is a great picture in it,” Warner told Wallis. Wallis hired the Epsteins, and they found the great picture. They also improved each of the key characters, even Amy, in The Strawberry Blonde.
It’s a simple story turned into a classic by its talented cast, Walsh’s loving direction, and the Epstein brothers’ improvements on the script.
The Strawberry Blonde overwhelms with its aura of 1890s nostalgia, a lot of that old-time feel coming courtesy of snippy bits dialogue delivered by pros like Cagney and Alan Hale, and even more especially its soundtrack filled with turn of the century classics, most notably Charles B. Ward and John F. Palmer’s “The Band Played On” from 1895 (though at the moment I can’t get “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” out of my head).
There are plenty of visual touches as well, beginning with the costumes of the era and other quaint remembrances of days gone by such as carriage rides through the park; a barbershop where barber and patrons quite naturally break into song; dancing at the beer gardens; and an introduction to the rigors of eating spaghetti, interrupted when those newfangled electric lights fail and leave the dining room in darkness. In the park the lamps are still lighted by hand, and the trolley is mentioned, though not shown. Dentistry is depicted as the learned trade it was before becoming any kind of skilled or respected profession.
It’s a sliver of the 1890s in caricature enlivened by lovable characters who call these days gone by their own.
“Sunday’s are a pain in the back teeth to me,” Biff Grimes, dentist, tells his buddy Nick (George Tobias) during a lazy round of horseshoes. Biff has a chip on his shoulder this Sunday afternoon. He is irritated by a band playing old time tunes in the distance and argues about it with his neighbors, a group of well-heeled college kids led by a mustachioed George Reeves. Meanwhile, Biff’s wife Amy (Olivia de Havilland) reminds him to get ready for a Sunday walk he’d rather not be bothered with. The old tune “The Band Played On” causes Nick to mention the old days and Virginia Brush, the girl who Biff was stuck on and lost to his nemesis, Hugo Barnstead.
“I liked her, in a nice way,” Biff says, obviously playing down his old crush.
“I liked her too, but I forget which way,” Nick Pappalas replies, Tobias flavoring his barber with a heavy Greek accent.
The memories upset Biff who yells for the band to stop against the wishes of his young neighbors. A fight threatens to erupt when Amy interrupts to scold Biff and tell him he’s wanted on the phone.
It’s business, but Biff doesn’t pull teeth on Sundays unless it’s a child. This request reveals itself as a special case though: Hugo Barnstead has a hot tooth.
“Send him over,” Biff tells the caller.
“It’s poetic justice,” Biff tells Nick, who becomes nervous about the reunion once Biff mentions how he thought about going after Hugo with a gun after he got out of jail. Biff is very excited about the possibility of Hugo wanting gas to numb the pain: “An accident can happen.”
But this is Cagney, not Cooper, and The Strawberry Blonde is already a lot lighter than the dreary world of One Sunday Afternoon. Chances are Hugo Barnstead is going to survive his visit, but our main interest is how these hard feelings Biff has for Hugo ever arose. Who is Virginia? Why was Biff Grimes in jail? Why does he seem so miserable, and how come his marriage seems no more than tolerable? Just past its twelve-minute mark The Strawberry Blonde flashes back to “a time about 10 years ago.”
The flashback opens with some flavor of the day enacted by Biff and his rapscallion father (Alan Hale), but the story begins to turn when all of the fellows line up outside the barbershop to tip their caps to beautiful strawberry blonde Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth). Smooth-talking Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) leaves the other men behind to tail Virginia on the pretense of selling her a ticket for the big boat ride (No, not the General Slocum, it's a little too early for that. This is just a bit of '90s leisure). Hugo’s ploy works: he and Virginia exit the scene arm in arm.
But these nineties weren’t as naughty as our own nineties—at least on the surface—so Hugo needs Biff to accompany him to meet Virginia and a friend in the park. Hugo’s earlier encounter with Virginia leads to the meeting, but this date isn’t acknowledged as any more than a chance meeting in the park—except by Virginia’s playful friend, Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland), who grows exasperated by all of the niceties and finally says, “This is a prearranged date and we all know it.”
“She’s fast,” Biff whispers aside to Hugo.
Biff and Hugo jostle for time alongside Virginia, while Amy winds up intimidating Biff with her pose as a freethinking woman of the times. Biff continues to pursue Virginia, but he never really has a chance next to his conniving pal, especially after Hugo opens his own business using ill-gained profits he’s pocketed from purposefully overselling tickets to that boat ride. One of Biff’s few breaks in Hugo’s world comes when he and Virginia are cut off after the boat has reached maximum occupancy. Hugo is stranded on board with Amy, and Biff has his date with Virginia.
A few weeks later Virginia is supposed to meet Biff in the park for a second date, so Biff is annoyed when Amy appears in Virginia’s place. Amy tries to explain why Virginia isn’t coming, but it’s not until Biff’s pal Nick (George Tobias) happens along that Biff discovers Virginia has married Hugo Barnstead. Biff recovers from the shock of this news to claim that his date had always been with Amy, and Amy backs him up wishing it were the truth. After Nick and his company depart, Amy confesses that she’s far more traditional than she had originally claimed, and Biff winds up asking her if she’d like to be his steady. As they walk off, she asks if he’d like to kiss her. He does.
Some times passes. Biff and Amy are married for a year-and-a-half when Biff, fresh off his latest black eye, bumps into Virginia, all dolled up and acting superior from the comfort of her fancy private carriage. She invites Biff and Amy to dinner with her and Hugo the following night. At home Virginia and Hugo are at each other’s throats. Virginia convinces Hugo to offer Biff a job, and Hugo decides to make Biff vice-president of his company. Biff is just a patsy who takes the fall once the law catches up with Hugo’s shoddy business practices. Amy waits out Biff’s jail sentence, and Biff returns to her five years later, time served with his correspondence course in dentistry completed at last.
Then it’s back to present day where Biff Grimes decides how he will take revenge on Hugo Barnstead.
Just two boys, two girls. Biff Grimes wants the wrong girl, but gets the other one instead. It takes him some time before he realizes that the other girl was the right girl all along.
Ann Sheridan was originally slated to play the wrong girl, strawberry blonde Virginia Brush, but as much as I love Ann Sheridan, I think this bit of casting worked out best for this classic. Rita Hayworth brings a combination of haughtiness and innocence that just seems a hundred-and-eighty degrees away from the parts I associate Sheridan with. Sheridan would be great as Biff’s fallen idol late in the film, but I’m not sure I buy her grasping at propriety alongside Amy earlier in the movie. I believe Hayworth’s fine manners and accompanying decorum, served heavy on the sugar, whereas I picture Sheridan as a bit saucy to pull this off. I’m probably being unfair to Sheridan when I say that, but then I don’t remember and revere her for sweetness and manners. Hayworth also manages the tired indifference of fed-up Virginia in a way that Fay Wray couldn’t in One Sunday Afternoon. A loan-out from Columbia, Rita Hayworth is a perfect fit in One Sunday Afternoon.
Yet, her performance may be the movie’s third best. You can argue that Cagney is just Cagney here (which I'd argue is quite a lot!), but Cagney in this setting, set loose in director Walsh’s idealized Old New York, playing off of talents such as Alan Hale as his father, George Tobias as his pal, and Jack Carson as his rival, is top notch Cagney. He’s no bully like Gary Cooper’s Biff, but he’s every bit the caustic and pugnacious charmer that audiences loved throughout the preceding decade, and who we’ve loved ever since. His Biff doesn’t sulk so much as he steams, and while he’s quick with his fists we can always be pretty sure he’s no killer. He’s goodhearted enough to be a dope and a pawn to Carson’s Hugo, and tenderhearted enough to act a bedside scene that at least visually calls to mind Yankee Doodle Dandy (wonder if that was an Epstein creation). It’s all show, and we know it, but if anyone asks, his Biff Grimes doesn’t take nothing from nobody because that’s the kind of hairpin he is.
But despite my general love of Cagney and the fine impression Hayworth made, I get the biggest kick of out Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde. Her three best scenes all come in the park, and they run the gamut when it comes to tone and emotion. The fun one comes early, when de Havilland’s Amy first meets Biff and shocks him into thinking she’s a real freethinker.
“Well, your mother a bloomer girl, you a nicotine fiend, are there any more at home like you?” Biff finally asks Amy. She tells him she has an aunt who’s an actress.
When the talk moves to kissing, Amy shocks Biff a bit more, but the final straw comes when she says she doesn’t believe in marriage, but is okay with family and kids.
“Zactly,” Amy says before winking at Biff.
You’ve got to love that wink, but Biff is horrified.
Then later Amy once again meets Biff in the park, and Biff is even more annoyed because he’s supposed to have a date with Virginia. Amy has come to tell Biff that Virginia and Hugo have married, but she tries to ease into the news. Biff seems to hear her for the first time when she says, “I get lonesome when the winter comes.”
“I know how you feel,” Biff says. “I get lonesome too.”
Finally, some common ground. As if seeing her for the first time and realizing how attractive she is, Biff asks why she doesn’t have a date tonight.
“Freethinkers have a lot of time of their hands,” Amy says.
It’s a sad scene as Biff admits to Amy that he loves Virginia and believes that Virginia is his ideal. De Havilland looks crestfallen, more because of the news Amy has to give Biff than the personal injury his comments do her. Before she can tell him about Virginia and Hugo, Biff’s pal Nick happens along and breaks the news. After Nick leaves Amy exposes herself as more traditional than her original pose and Biff quells her tears by asking if she wants to be his steady. As they exit the park Amy stops Biff and asks if he’d like to kiss her. She does.
Finally, what better place for Amy to meet Biff after his exile in prison than the now familiar park? “Wherever you go, I’ll go, Biff,” she promises him before they each profess their love to one another again, kiss, and then embrace as a band in the background plays, you guessed it, “The Band Played On.”
Cagney is the star of The Strawberry Blonde, but de Havilland is its heart. We go along with Biff, but we’re rooting for Amy, and in the end, Biff’s entire appeal depends upon his treatment of Amy. Biff’s a bit stiff, and hairpin—as in, “that’s the kind of hairpin I am”—describes him well. Prickly. It takes some time, but he finally learns to both appreciate and love Amy through the lens of Hugo and Virginia’s flawed marriage.
Somebody at Warner Bros must have noticed the audience humming along to the old Ward and Palmer tune, because “The Band Played On” was added one more time at the very end of the movie in what Film Daily called “a combination exit march and community sing.”
The Strawberry Blonde built momentum in mid-February during six pre-release engagements with crowds besting previous Cagney hit City for Conquest. The Strawberry Blonde had its New York premiere at the Strand and gave the theater its greatest single day of business in its history during its first week. On its first weekend at the Strand, The Strawberry Blonde opened at 9:15 Saturday morning and ran throughout the day until 4:00 AM Sunday. Film Daily reported that that same pace continued the following day.
The Strawberry Blonde was a popular and critical success. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times ate up its nostalgia while also offering a concise appraisal of the timing of this February 1941 release when he wrote, “In these times it is pleasant to sniff dried rose leaves from the pages of an old album every now and then. That’s what you get in ‘Strawberry Blonde,’” adding that it was “mixed with the more pungent odor of beer, free lunch and skinned knuckles.”
But the best mix was the mix of talent brought together under the studio system to revive Paramount’s earlier flop and bolster a Depression-era Broadway hit into a beloved movie classic.
Raoul Walsh left “The Band Played On” behind to remake Hagan’s play once more before the decade was out as Technicolor musical One Sunday Afternoon (1948). I haven’t seen that film, but the trailer was enough to give me the flavor. Too bitter to return to any time soon. The story was also made for television a few times through 1959, when I assume everyone decided we already had what we needed in the 1941 film. It’s available as a manufactured-on-demand DVR-R from the Warner Archive (and on Amazon.com here).
Danny at Pre-Code.com was appropriately ‘Indifferent’ when it came to The Strawberry Blonde's pre-Code predecessor One Sunday Afternoon ... Elgin Bleecker of The Dark Time suggests three Raoul Walsh classics set in the 1890s for your next St. Patrick's Day movie marathon ... Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films eats this one up too and has a wonderful appreciation of all that's right with The Strawberry Blonde ... The Self-Styled Siren boasts her usual lively comments section at the bottom of a post that takes time to appreciate some of the more enjoyable individual people and moments of The Strawberry Blonde (I didn't even get to mention Rita and the cigarette! Or Jack Carson, hey, I love Jack Carson too!).
- “‘Blonde’ Topping ‘Conquest.’” Film Daily, February 18, 1941, 6.
- Crowther, Bosley, “The Screen.” New York Times, February 22, 1941. Accessed July 27, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9F04E3DF133DE33BBC4A51DFB466838A659EDE?.
- “Holiday Week-End Biz On Broadway Sets Marks.” Film Daily, February 25, 1941, 2.
- Moss, Marilyn Ann. Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011.
- “WB Adds Novel Ending To ‘Strawberry Blonde.’” Film Daily, February 6, 1941, 5.