The Strawberry Blonde - Warner Archive CollectionOverview -
A delightful period comedy with a sparkling cast and script, The Strawberry Blonde showcases the talents of James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, and Rita Hayworth in a briskly-paced story about infatuation, jealousy, and true love. Director Raoul Walsh strikes just the right light tone and a stellar supporting cast supplies additional luster. Warner Archive's spectacular transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative, restored audio, and several vintage extras make this disc a huge winner. Highly Recommended.
At the turn of the century, dentist Biff Grimes (James Cagney) recalls his association with politician Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson). The men meet over their romantic rivalry for striking strawberry blonde Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth). Despite Biff's efforts, Virginia pushes her friend, nurse and women's rights advocate Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland), on him and elopes with Hugo. After Biff and Amy fall in love, Biff join Hugo's firm, only to learn that his rival is still a double dealer.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
James Cagney took a break from gangster flicks in 1941 and made two romantic comedies, the forgettable The Bride Came C.O.D. with Bette Davis and the oh-so-memorable The Strawberry Blonde with Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth. Though the latter film's title doesn't possess the same tough-guy cachet as such Cagney classics as The Public Enemy, Each Dawn I Die, The Roaring Twenties, and White Heat, The Strawberry Blonde not only gives Cagney a plum, pugnacious role that he attacks with customary vigor, it also just might be the most endearing and captivating comedy he ever made.
Based on One Sunday Afternoon, a quasi-successful Broadway play that starred Lloyd Nolan and was first filmed in 1933 with Gary Cooper and Fay Wray, The Strawberry Blonde transfers the play's small-town setting to turn-of-the-century New York City and amps up the nostalgia by adding plenty of period music. Director Raoul Walsh, who rarely trafficked in comedy (though he would helm the material's third go-round, a 1948 musical remake with Dennis Morgan, Janis Paige, and Dorothy Malone that reclaimed the original title), brings his masculine sensibilities to the tale, but an infectious playfulness and affinity for the two female leads also pervade the briskly paced proceedings.
Told mostly in flashback, the story chronicles the enduring infatuation of dentist Biff Grimes (Cagney) with the titular strawberry blonde Virginia Brush (Hayworth), a shameless flirt who catches every man's eye when she sashays down the street. Biff worships Virginia from afar at first, but his blustery, brawny buddy Hugh Barnstead (Jack Carson) can't resist her allure and brazenly pursues her. Hugh convinces Biff to go on a double date with him, Virginia, and Virginia's best friend Amy Lind (de Havilland), who vociferously espouses progressive ideas about women's suffrage and male-female relationships. Amy, who can't match Virginia's sex appeal, senses Biff's preoccupation with her friend but takes a shine to the rugged roughneck nonetheless.
Biff finally gets a date with Virginia and the two hit it off, but before she can squeeze him into her packed schedule for a second outing, she elopes with moneybags Hugh. The devastated Biff marries Amy on the rebound, and though they're happy enough, he can't stop wondering what life might have been like with Virginia and can't forgive Hugh for stealing her away.
The Strawberry Blonde scores big points in every department, and that's largely because it boasts a who's-who of top-notch Warner Bros talent in front of and behind the camera. Walsh leads the list with expert direction, but the sparkling screenplay by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein that contains several laugh-out-loud lines and seamlessly weaves together broad comedy, tender romance, some unexpected drama, and a bit of Sweeney Todd-like ghoulishness ranks a close second. (A year later, the Epstein brothers would write their iconic, Oscar-winning script for Casablanca.) James Wong Howe's gorgeous cinematography, Orry-Kelly's fetching period gowns, Perc Westmore's makeup, and Heinz Roemheld's score all enhance the top-drawer production.
The nimble Cagney brings swagger, sensitivity, and a bit of sadistic glee to Biff and his dimensional portrayal fuels the film. Though at 41 he's a good 15 years older than both de Havilland and Hayworth (and looks it), his boundless energy and bouncy presence shaves years off his age. He and the luminous de Havilland work especially well together (they share a marvelous tender scene toward the end of the picture), but as hard as Westmore must have tried to make de Havilland seem plain when compared to Hayworth, he can't quite pull it off. Her innate radiance shines through, making it difficult to believe that Biff is "settling" for Amy. With apologies to Joseph L. Mankiewicz's priceless All About Eve script, most guys would give their eye teeth for that particular compromise!
Cagney and de Havilland anchor the film, but Hayworth, just like Virginia does in the story, grabs all the attention. 1941 would prove to be a huge year for the up-and-coming actress, who would rocket to stardom after portraying the wanton temptress who leads bullfighter Tyrone Power astray in Blood and Sand and sharing the dance floor with the one and only Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich, but it all started with The Strawberry Blonde. Warner "Oomph Girl" Ann Sheridan was slated to play Virginia, but backed out during a bitter contract battle with the studio. Walsh suggested Hayworth as a replacement and what a fortuitous choice it was. While Sheridan's sassier edge would have served Virginia well in the movie's later scenes, Hayworth's fresh-faced beauty, dazzling smile, and softer persona better suit the character during the critical early sequences. It's easy to see why men would fall all over themselves to get a glimpse of her (Sheridan may be sexy, but she's no Hayworth) and her sunny, coy demeanor nicely masks Virginia's femme fatale tendencies. After 1941, Columbia would never again loan out its prized asset who would soon be nicknamed The Love Goddess.
The cream of the Warner stock company comprises the supporting cast and adds color and verve to this lyrical comedy.. In addition to Carson, who always plays the oily, arrogant stiff to perfection, there's Alan Hale as Biff's rowdy father, George Tobias as Biff's BFF, the spunky Una O'Connor, and future TV Superman George Reeves, all of whom make strong impressions.
In his autobiography Cagney by Cagney, the actor writes that the film's title was changed to The Strawberry Blonde during production in honor of his mother, who herself was a strawberry blonde and who danced with a beau named Casey when she was 16 years old on the very night the song "Casey Would Waltz with the Strawberry Blonde" debuted. It's a lovely story, but I've never read it anywhere else, so its veracity may be suspect. The song, however, is infectious and this print reinserts a two-minute, bouncing-ball, sing-a-long coda that follows The End credit. Corny? Yes, but The Strawberry Blonde is so buoyant and brims with so much joyful nostalgia, only certified curmudgeons will be able to resist raising their voices and chiming in.
Warm, witty, and often wise, The Strawberry Blonde breezes along and delivers a substantial dose of good, old-fashioned entertainment. It may not cure what ails you, but it's an effervescent tonic for fans of classic film and a perfect release to celebrate Warner Bros' 100th anniversary.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Strawberry Blonde arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand-new 4K scan struck from the original; nitrate camera negative yields one of the most gorgeous 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 black-and-white transfers I've ever seen. Exceptional clarity, pitch-perfect contrast, and superbly graded grays produce a breathtaking film-like image that celebrates the cinematography of two-time Oscar winner and 10-time nominee James Wong Howe. Rich blacks, bright, stable whites, and superior shadow delineation enhance the picture, costume textures are distinct, background details are easy to discern, and sharp close-ups highlight wrinkles, pores, and tears. Not a single nick, mark, or scratch dots the print and no digital anomalies arise. Though a few scenes exhibit the slightest bit of softness, they can't detract from what is arguably one of Warner Archive's best black-and-white transfers.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies beautifully modulated sound. Background music plays fairly consistently throughout the film, but it never overwhelms the all-important dialogue, which is always easy to comprehend. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Heinz Roemheld's Oscar-nominated score that incorporates several period tunes. (Roemheld would win the Oscar the following year for another Cagney picture, Yankee Doodle Dandy.) Sonic accents are crisp and subtleties like background saloon noise and the faint tinkling of a piano come through cleanly. No distortion creeps into the mix and any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been erased. The film's audio plays a major role in crafting the period atmosphere and this track does it justice at every turn.
Warner Archive ups the extras ante with this Blu-ray release. The 2011 DVD contained no supplements at all, so we're lucky indeed to get a wealth of vintage material on this disc.
Vintage Radio Adaptations (88 minutes) - Two radio adaptations are included. The first, broadcast on October 5, 1941 as part of the Screen Guild Theater series, severely truncates the story to a scant 30 minutes (and that includes the introduction, a commercial, and a brief conclusion), but allows Cagney, de Havilland, and Carson to recreate their roles. The audio quality is pretty rough, but kudos to Warner Archive for including this rare treat. The second adaptation, broadcast on March 23, 1942 as part of the Lux Radio Theater series, allows Hayworth the chance to play the heroine Amy instead of the siren Virginia. Gail Patrick takes over Hayworth's old part and Don Ameche tackles Cagney's role (and employs some Cagney vocal inflections, too). The longer one-hour running time permits much more of the plot to be included and Hayworth does a fine job in the role de Havilland originated. A bit of scripted banter between the stars and host Cecil B. DeMille caps off the broadcast.
Vintage Short: Polo with the Stars (SD, 9 minutes) - An in-depth look at the favorite sport of the rich and famous, this 1941 short covers the origins and rules of the game and includes cameos by such stars of the day as Edward G. Robinson, Jack Oakie, Joe E. Brown, and Charles "Buddy" Rogers.
Vintage Cartoon: Tortoise Beats Hare (HD, 7 minutes) - This classic 1941 Looney Tunes cartoon stars an early version of Bugs Bunny in just his seventh appearance and adapts the well-known Aesop's fable The Tortoise and the Hare. It also marks the debut of the slow-talking Cecil Turtle.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes The Strawberry Blonde as "the jolliest show this side of the Naught Nineties...with all the warmth and color that made those Gay Nineties so gay!"
Light, romantic, funny, and bursting with charm, The Strawberry Blonde remains a captivating classic more than 80 years after its premiere. Cagney and de Havilland create potent chemistry, Hayworth makes a huge splash in one of her first substantial parts, and director Raoul Walsh proves he's just as adept at comedy as he is with gangster yarns. A tiptop transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative, excellent remastered audio, and several vintage supplements distinguish Warner Archive's top-notch Blu-ray presentation of this beloved cinematic gem. Highly Recommended.
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