Thursday, June 6, 2019

Biff Grimes: Character Crush 'Cause Character Counts

This is my entry in the Reel Infatuation Who's your Character Crush Blogathon hosted by the dynamic duo of Silver Screenings and Front and Frock. Click HERE for more cinematic affairs of the heart.
Oh for a man of character! They are few and far between in this world, aren't they? Thankfully we can escape into the world of movies where a man's word is as good as his heart because that's the kind of hairpin he is.

Father & son: Biff aspires to be a dentist and practices all
he learns from a correspondence course on his willing pop.

Biff Grimes of "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941) isn't your typical hero. Played in an incredibly sympathetic manner by James Cagney, he repeatedly plays second banana to his blowhard friend Hugo (Jack Carson) and is always a step behind his ne'er-do-well father (Alan Hale, Sr.). He has 2 critical weaknesses in his tough turn-of-the-century New York neighborhood: his basic decency and his romantic and chivalrous infatuation with the beautiful Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth), the strawberry blonde of the title. 

All the boys at the barber shop long for Virginia

Biff is all bluff and bluster (in that charming Cagney way), but underneath he is honest, trusting, and maybe a bit naive (in the beginning). Outmaneuvered on that first double date, Hugo gets the luscious Virginia and Biff is stuck with suffragette wannabe  Amy (Olivia de Havilland). She, too, is all bluff and bluster, leading the shocked Biff to believe that she, a working woman (a nurse), smokes and, with the wink of an eye, might be open to premarital sex. Good girls in the 1890s didn't do or say things like that! As Amy later noted, she was without a date because "free thinkers usually have a lot of time on their hands."

Biff does manage a date with his strawberry blonde, but it is unsuccessful. While Virginia appreciates Biff's respectful ways, the material girl in her is drawn to sharpster Hugo, so much so that she runs off and marries him, leaving the ever hopeful Biff stunned and proposing to Amy as a consolation prize.

Virginia and Hugo: a deserving duo
As fate would have it, the gentle Amy and the trusting Biff were a good team, while the slimy Hugo and gilt-edged Virginia were also a match made in, if not hell, then at least purgatory. At Virginia's urging, Hugo hires Biff as an executive in his company. Virginia seems to enjoy torturing Hugo by keeping Biff around, as Hugo knows he sneaked in when a better man wasn't looking. 

Sitting behind a desk really wasn't Biff's style.
Biff is incredibly cute when he urges Amy to buy a new dress they clearly can't afford because he doesn't want Hugo and Virginia to show him up. But, Hugo, being Hugo, sets Biff up to take the fall for some shady practices  at his company and Biff goes to jail. Not only is Hugo dishonest, but he's also a coward (those 2 qualities usually go together, don't they?).

Biff kisses Amy goodbye before he is hauled off to jail.
It's upon Biff's release (with his dentistry diploma in hand) and his meeting with the patiently waiting Amy that reveals the truth about both characters: Biff has come to realize the depth of his love for Amy and Amy's patience is finally rewarded with the same love and appreciation she has shown all along.

Okay, so maybe I have a little girl-crush on Amy, too.

No pain killers for you, Hugo! We're doing this the manly way!
Fast forward to the present time. Biff is the neighborhood dentist (a dream fulfilled!) who finally gets an opportunity for revenge when, on a Sunday afternoon, he is the only dentist available to treat old nemesis Hugo's aching teeth. He's tempted to pay the lout back with a bit more gas than needed, but ultimately opts for pulling the tooth without any gas at all. Seeing the wedded misery of Hugo and Virginia only confirms what he has already learned: true love counts more than a pretty face. It took Biff a while, but this man of good character valued and loved the life he made with a woman of equally good character. Not only do they, presumably, live happily ever after, but a little Biff or Amy is on the way.

A note on the film: Rita Hayworth and Jack Carson make a dastardly duo, and some of the usual Warner Brothers suspects (George Tobias, Alan Hale Sr., Una O'Connor) are on hand (as well as a pre-Superman George Reeves ready to give Biff another black eye) to lend support, but it is the amazing chemistry between Cagney and de Havilland that gives this film its zest. There weren't many actresses that could hold their own in a great way against Cagney, but de Havilland matches him wink for wink and heartfelt look for look.


Caftan Woman said...

Biff Grimes is hands-down, my all-time favourite performance from my favourite actor. Every moment rings true and I never realized until now that with all that admiration in my heart I never developed a crush on Biff! Well, at least we won't be fighting over him.

I will admit that when Alan Hale as the senior Mr. Grimes flirts with the neighbourhood ladies, I blush and giggle. Well, the heart wants what the heart wants.

I love how you describe Cagney's performance as being sympathetic. The first version of the play One Sunday Afternoon starred Gary Cooper, and he is a most unlikeable Biff Grimes. Dennis Morgan in the musical remake which goes back to the original title is fine, and I like Dennis, but you can't help but compare him to Cagney and that's not fair for anyone.

Silver Screenings said...

Your loving tribute made me yearn to see this film. Cagney is fab in Everything, but it seems he's especially so here.

Also: I liked that you said, "that's the kind of hairpin he is". I'm stealing this phrase to use in everyday life, just so you know.

It's interesting how good character makes a person more attractive, and poor character makes them less so. James Cagney as an ordinary person may not win any beauty contests, but James Cagney pouring his soul into a sympathetic character steals hearts.

Thanks so much for joining the blogathon, and for treating us to a witty, insightful look at The Strawberry Blonde. I had been keen to read your post ever since you signed up, and it was worth the wait.

FlickChick said...

CW - I don't mind sharing at all. Cagney has that fatal charm - when he's a bad guy it's dangerous, but when he's a good guy - totally captivating. I agree the Cooper version is dreary and as for Dennis Morgan, well, he's no Cagney.

FlickChick said...

Hi Ruth. It's one of my favorite Cagney performances, and that says a lot. And Olivia is wonderful, as well. Many thanks for co-hosting the blogathon. I'm on my way over now to read about everyone's crushes!


Very nice post! Nice guy Cagney or bad guy Cagney: both are worth watching, but the nice guys are to swoon for. Biff is one of the nicest characters James Cagney played, and I agree that he and Olivia's Amy are a perfet pair.
Thanks for the kind comment! Kisses!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Le. Yes - Amy is the perfect partner for Biff.