The Strawberry Blonde

The Strawberry Blonde (1941 USA 97 minutes)

Prod Co: Warner Bros. Dir: Raoul Walsh Scr: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, based on the play One Sunday Afternoon by James Hagan Phot: James Wong Howe Ed: William Holmes Art Dir: Robert Haas Cost: Orry-Kelly Mus: Heinz Roemheld

Cast: James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Jack Carson, Alan Hale, George Tobias, Una O’Connor, George Reeves

Action, action, action […] let the screen be filled ceaselessly with events. Logical things in a logical sequence. That’s always been my rule – a rule I’ve never had to change.

– Raoul Walsh (1)

He was great at action, heroes, and combat – if that’s all that he was called for. But there were so many other things he noticed…. He loved comedy and he had a rare fondness for ordinary people and quiet lives. More or less, those are the virtues of films that distinguish Walsh in his vision of heroes made humble by circumstances…

– David Thomson (2)

In 1941 Raoul Walsh directed four of the key films of his career, each a significant and, in some cases, quite innovative example of a particular genre. In comparison to the other films of Walsh’s banner year, High Sierra, Manpower, and They Died with Their Boots On, The Strawberry Blonde may initially seem to be a somewhat minor work, a patently nostalgic and highly affectionate visitation of 1890s New York – a memorialisation of the “world” into which both Walsh and his endlessly propulsive star, James Cagney, were born. But The Strawberry Blonde is, like most of Walsh’s best films (and I consider it amongst his greatest), marked by an extraordinary energy and boisterousness, featuring characters bouncing across the often populated and packed frame, and crammed with incident rather than a particularly elaborate narrative structure. In fact, the machinations of the plot – ostensibly involving Biff (James Cagney) and Hugo’s (Jack Carson) rivalry in business and romance and their place in society’s pecking order (it is also a film that touches on issues of class) – are hardly the film’s most edifying aspects, in some respects merely paying lip-service to the episodic rise-and-fall chronicles that mark Cagney’s career (dating back to William Wellman’s The Public Enemy in 1931). As Peter Hogue suggests, The Strawberry Blonde was “unusually domestic for a Walsh film”, relating its specific period representation to the director’s own formative experiences (3). As Walsh himself said, “It brought me back to my childhood” (4).

Walsh once stated that there was only one way to shoot a particular scene or shot, suggesting, in the process, that the classical style had been refined and ingrained to such an extent that choices about elements like camera placement and shot coverage were preordained, obvious, a gestalt outcome of a long process of experimentation, streamlining and ultimate systemisation. It is tempting to take Walsh’s comments at face value, particularly given the director’s long-term success as a studio director and the accounts of many of his collaborators (for instance, Julius J. Epstein, the co-screenwriter of The Strawberry Blonde, thought him “great” to work with and “very businesslike” [5]). But such an approach undervalues the very real contribution and difference Walsh’s direction made to many of his films, particularly in the early 1940s. Walsh’s comment leads us to expect that his films will be pared-back vehicles of narrative streamlining and economy, but often the most impressive aspects of his cinema are observational and digressive, showing characters responding to their environment and the inexorable pull and “heat” of the here-and-now (this is one of the reasons why Walsh’s war films, such as 1945’s Objective, Burma!, work so well, their feeling for the present moment corresponding to the immediacy of combat). This “presentness” or immediacy is combined with an aptitude for inexorable and overlapping movement, leading Manny Farber to call Walsh “[t]he great traffic cop of movies.” (6) Although this again undervalues the thoughtfulness of Walsh’s direction (though this is not true of Farber’s analysis generally), and his films’ focus on observational detail, it does give a very evocative sense of his work’s energy and its primary concern with “hustling actors around an intersection-like screen that’s generally empty in the center” (7). Farber’s always-evocative discussion gives a wonderful sense of the busyness of Walsh’s cinema, a quality that is very palpable when watching The Strawberry Blonde. Farber also highlights the intimacy and surprising soulfulness of Walsh’s best work, calling him a “good director of homeliness, innocence, vulnerability” (8).

Walsh is often singled out as explicitly masculine action film director, but Jean-Pierre Coursodon has suggested that even at Warner Bros., a studio renowned for its “emphasis on pace and speed” and the venue for much of the director’s best work from The Roaring Twenties (1939) onwards, Walsh “never relinquished his taste for sprawling, actionless narratives, of which The Strawberry Blonde is a prime example” (9). Although Coursodon overstates the “slackness” or absence of “action” in Walsh’s narratives, he does help highlight his films’ preoccupation with the “moment”, the spatio-temporal context in which all actions, no matter how minute, take place. It is this attention to incident, gesture, moment and detail that gives his films their “sprawling” quality. I think that the disjunction between Coursodon’s approach to Walsh, and that of many other critics like Andrew Sarris, Peter Hogue, Edgardo Cozarinsky, and Tag Gallagher (who nevertheless pinpoints a vulnerability and melancholy in the director’s work) comes down to what one defines or counts as “action” in the cinema. If action is narrative pace, Walsh’s films are only intermittently “active” – evidenced by his films’ common need for montage sequences to help further and fill in their stories (though revealingly not in the patently leisurely The Strawberry Blonde). But I think an argument can also be made that virtually everything in Walsh’s cinema, or at least his best films, is action (though Walsh made some maddeningly mediocre films throughout his career, particularly in the 1930s).

Thus the designation of Walsh as almost the definition of a classical American action director seems to mask much of what is significant in his work. And although The Strawberry Blonde is dominated by the point-of-view and limited perspective of Cagney’s pint-size character – and is mostly communicated through his extended flashback – its “masculinity” is tempered by the luminous presence of its two dominant female characters – Amy (Olivia de Havilland) and Virginia (Rita Hayworth, the “strawberry blonde” of the title) – whose femininity and sexual power is presented and played upon throughout. For instance, Virginia is first introduced self-consciously parading past a group of men at a barbershop – also granting the film a chance to introduce the vocal strains of an impromptu “quartet”, one of the many markers of the film’s heightened periodisation of the 1890s – and leaves the film wearily but somewhat triumphantly commenting that she is not the Virginia Brush “they once new”; while the less brash Amy makes numerous references to the suffragette movement, the place of women in society, and slyly “winks” at various men throughout the movie (though she’s a “good girl” really). Although The Strawberry Blonde is hardly a proto-feminist work, and much of the film’s content and Biff’s final comments on Virginia’s ultimate shrewishness put paid to this, it does give time and space to its female characters to present themselves and share in the film’s sweet but never-slackening energy.

Various commentators have discussed the difference between the work of Walsh and such contemporaries as fellow Irish-American John Ford, pinpointing Walsh’s feeling for the present, even within such films as The Strawberry Blonde that are so fixated on the past. As Martin Scorsese has argued: “Ford comes across as a stoic gentleman who’s mourning the past, while Walsh comes across as a bon vivant who lives for the moment. That sense of bounteous beauty, of overflowing life, that is found in the Joyce story [The Dead] is in Walsh’s work, but unadorned and in the moment. There’s something I would call ‘lived in’ about Walsh’s movies.” (10) This sense of “overflowing life” is evidenced by the dynamism of many of Walsh’s frames – in comparison to the pictoriality of many of Ford’s – that seem somewhat composed but open to change and possibility. Ford’s frames often suggest a photographic pastness – of something captured which is now gone – while Walsh’s seem like real-time documents of both the narrative that is unfolding and the pro-filmic event that renders this narrative and its world possible. The Strawberry Blonde is obviously, and in moments like the constant return to the lamp lit park bench where Biff and Amy first met, almost fetishistically studio or set bound. But although this does contribute a contradictory sense of pastness to the film, alongside the somewhat self-conscious but celebratory use of various period-specific colloquialisms, this set is also deployed as a very “real” physical environment. And although nothing in the film is quite on the level of the extraordinary staging of the dockside fight sequence in Gentleman Jim (1942) – which appears as both a set and something much more, and is a clear influence on a corresponding scene in Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York (2002) – The Strawberry Blonde is populated by a litany of objects, physical barriers and cluttered interiors, all of which the characters need to navigate.

This sense of “presentness” is furthered by Walsh’s common use of particular actors during this period. From 1939, and until White Heat ten years later, Walsh regularly utilised the services of both Cagney and Errol Flynn. Although they are both very different actors and personas, particularly physically, they do share a feeling for the here-and-now, the immediate space and time of both the film and the individual frame. These correspondences are most clear in the direct connections that can be drawn between The Strawberry Blonde and Walsh’s great Flynn film of the next year, Gentleman Jim. The two films share their roughly “Gay Nineties” setting, and feature ever-optimistic protagonists who, although they undergo various trials, tribulations and experiential lessons, change little in either their bold outlook on life or their physical exuberance. Nevertheless, it is Cagney who is ultimately truer to the spirit of Walsh’s best work.

I think it can be argued that Cagney is amongst the most engaged actors in the history of the cinema, his diminutiveness both emphasised and transcended by the graceful, though “nuggetty”, way in which he barrels through virtually any cinematic space. The Strawberry Blonde presents an interesting and somewhat revisionist approach to Cagney’s star persona. It is common for Cagney’s films with Walsh to emphasise the rise-and-fall of his character, culminating most spectacularly in the church steps’ death scene of the often-soulful The Roaring Twenties, or the truly explosive finale of White Heat. But in The Strawberry Blonde, Cagney’s never-quite-successful (or perhaps even competent) dentist is never anything more than a small-timer, a figure who eventually comes to terms, though of course never resigns to, his place in the world. Although regularly involved in brawls, often alongside his larger-than-life father, exuberantly played by Alan Hale, we mainly only see the outcome of these stoushes, the running “gag” of Cagney’s “black-eyes” providing a constant motif in the film (“eyes”, in fact, supply a more general motif that helps structure the film). For Tag Gallagher, it is this focus on the face – as a kind of close-up geography which both thwarts and plots the films’ action – that is Walsh’s great contribution to American cinema: “everything in his movies happens on faces” (11). In addition, The Strawberry Blonde is one of the rare American films to celebrate the maturation of the relationship between its central male and female characters – it is here that the film’s emphasis on domesticity comes to the fore.

This sense of “immediacy” is the key to Cagney’s vital presence in Walsh’s films. Walsh gives the actor’s body (all of it) the space to act and perform actions. Although Cagney is also allowed to express himself emotionally, these emotions are no less physical than any other parts of his performance (the numerous medium close-ups in The Strawberry Blonde are equally corporeal). This may make Cagney’s performance as Biff sound mannered, but despite an extraordinary up-frontness, and often-explicit frontality, he convinces as both star persona and character. As Orson Welles once suggested, when confessing to Michael Parkinson that he considered Cagney the greatest of all film actors, there is not an ounce of phoniness in his performance of this role. Unlike Flynn, Cagney fully embodies the characters he plays, finding a means to be “completely present” within this most presentational and fragmented of art forms. Character and star are thus fully integrated in a manner which goes beyond the common cliché of Hollywood actors who merely “play themselves”. Cagney bursts through and dances around the frame, and at one point, after Virginia agrees to a date, performs a cartwheel into a garbage bin. But the film also provides something of a commentary on Cagney’s film persona till this point. The swift decline of his business career results in him serving time in jail, the striped outfit we see him in seemingly out of place in this film but explicable in relation to the history of Cagney’s star persona and the roles, character types and situations he was most commonly associated with.

In the end, it is the film’s rich observational detail, as well as its truly committed and energised performances, that stand out from one’s experience of the film. The Strawberry Blonde makes playful reference to many popular fads and innovations of the 1890s period in which it is set. A particular lovely scene is devoted to the visit of Biff and Amy to the house of the nouveau riche Virginia and Hugo, in which they both encounter spaghetti and domestic electricity for the first time. Also, to further evoke a kind of spirit of the times, the film finishes with a sing-a-long to the tune which gives the film its name. Gallagher has rightly highlighted the self-consciousness of Walsh’s cinema in these moments, underlining its tendency to directly address and engage with its audience, producing an interactivity which also contributes to the dynamic sense of action or movement in the films. Nevertheless, a notable absence in this rendering of period is any reference to the emergence of cinema itself. It is only in these final post-credit moments, where a series of slides seem to appear on the screen, that the film makes even obtuse reference to the movies or any of the proto-cinematic devices that precede it. Although Walsh’s sensibility and career is enmeshed with the history of Hollywood, his film imagines and celebrates a time before the medium existed. The Strawberry Blonde is a celebration of the ordinary, a kind of valentine to a time when images and sounds moved and replicated at a different pace.

Endnotes

  1. Raoul Walsh quoted in Philip Kemp, “Raoul Walsh”, World Film Directors Vol. 1, 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman, The H. W. Wilson Co, New York, 1987, p. 1158.
  2. David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 4th edition, Little, Brown, London, 2002, p. 913.
  3. Peter Hogue, “‘That’s the kind of hairpin I am’”, Movietone News 45, November 1975, p. 27.
  4. Walsh quoted in Kemp, p. 1155.
  5. Julius J. Epstein interviewed in Pat McGilligan, Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood’s Golden Age, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1986, p. 180.
  6. Manny Farber, Negative Space, Da Capo Press, New York, 1998, p. 287.
  7. Farber, p. 287.
  8. Farber, p. 285.
  9. Jean-Pierre Coursodon, American Directors Vol. 1, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1983, p. 351.
  10. Martin Scorsese, “Irishamerican”, Projections 7, ed. John Boorman and Walter Donoghue, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1997, p. 74.
  11. Tag Gallagher, “Raoul Walsh”, Senses of Cinema: Great Directors, a Critical Database 21, July-August 2002.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Director of Higher Degree Research in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).