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A charming tale of turn-of-the-century small town life in the tradition of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Strawberry Blonde (1941) is actually set in New York City and the blonde in question is the glamorous neighborhood girl Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) who has all the local boys abuzz every time she passes the barber shop.
The Strawberry Blonde is told in flashback, as the unhappily married ex-con Biff Grimes (James Cagney) anticipates meeting an acquaintance from the old days, the conniving, underhanded crook Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) who landed him in jail and also -- he imagines -- stole Virginia away from him.
In his youth Biff dreamed of becoming a correspondence course dentist, and of marrying the local beauty and coveted "strawberry blonde" Virginia. One night, Hugo invites him along on a double date with the blonde and her humorless, suffragist-sympathizing girlfriend Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland). A noticeable friction arises between old-fashioned Biff and the progressive Amy, whose free-thinking ways rankle Biff. In the meantime, Biff is still determined to somehow woo Virginia, telling Amy that her friend is his "ideal." He holds out false hope that they will become a couple after a day-long date in which he spends every last penny on the spoiled Virginia's every whim. While Biff waits for Virginia at their scheduled second date, he is informed that she has married Hugo that very same day. Biff and Amy also marry, and the couple struggle financially as Biff studies for his dentistry diploma.
Biff is burned yet again by Hugo when the latter hires him as a vice president in his contracting firm at Virginia's urging. But when there is a deadly disaster at one of Hugo's buildings, Biff becomes the fall guy, and is sent to jail for five years for allowing inferior materials to be used in the construction of a wall. In the film's final act Hugo and Biff meet again, this time over the dentist's chair, with Biff determined to extract his revenge.
Equal parts musical, comedy and drama, this remake of a Broadway play by James Hagan, One Sunday Afternoon, combines a number of elements successfully including a stellar cast, high production values, expert direction and a memorable musical score (which was nominated for an Academy Award for Heinz Roemheld). The period costumes by Orry-Kelly also greatly add to the overall charm of the production. Raoul Walsh remade the film yet again, as a musical in 1948 under its original title - One Sunday Afternoon - though the outcome was unimpressive and his 1941 version remains the definitive, more popular one.
Warner's Ann Sheridan, the "Oomph Girl", was initially meant to play the Virginia role, but balked at the script. As a replacement, Hayworth was loaned to Warners by Columbia and brought her typical enigmatic, frosty perfection to the role. Her fortuitous securing of the role in The Strawberry Blonde helped establish her sex queen status as the "Love Goddess." Though a confident mantrap on camera, Hayworth was just a shy, reserved girl off, causing Cagney to marvel at how, after her scenes, she would just "go back to her chair and sit there and not communicate."
Though Hayworth was a much commented upon "eyeful" in the title role, according to a Variety review of the time, a bevy of reviewers also singled out the dark-haired de Havilland for special acclaim, commenting upon her deft gift for comedy, so suitably matched to Cagney's in the film. Time noted the wonderful performances of both Cagney and Hayworth, but added that "dark-eyed Olivia de Havilland -- takes it away from both of them."
Director: Raoul Walsh
Producer: William Cagney
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein based on the play One Sunday Afternoon by James Hagan
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Production Design: Robert Haas
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).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster