Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Take Two Blogathon - Strawberry Blonde is Better the Second Time Around

This is my entry in the Take Two Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood. Click HERE for more remarkable remakes.

Some films just don't get it quite right the first time around. Remake "Gone With the Wind"? Unthinkable. Remake "A Star is Born"? Maybe the perfect version is yet to be made. 

Biffs and Amys

"Strawberry Blonde" (1941) first saw cinematic life as "One Sunday Afternoon" in 1933. Based on a stage play of the same name, "One Sunday Afternoon" boasted an intriguing cast headed by Gary Cooper and Fay Wray. The story of dentist Biff Grimes (Cooper) who carries a torch for Virginia Brush, the local beauty (Wray) who marries his rival (Neil Hamilton) has some small town charm. However, there is a certain darkness about this film despite some comedy and the bucolic setting that is a little off-putting. Cooper's performance as Biff Grimes lacks the actor's usual charm. To be honest, he comes off just downright nasty and disagreeable. The beauty and her conniving husband (who causes Cooper's character to go to jail) are also a nasty pair without too many redeeming characteristics. Only Biff's wife Amy, as played by Frances Fuller, is likeable, but she is so sweet and nice in the face of Biff's indifference that I found myself wondering what she saw in the lout and wanting her to leave him a goodbye Charlie note. 

For some reason, Warner Brothers thought they could remake this story, but it needed a few tweaks. First, writers Julius and Philip Epstein took the story out of the country and put in in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. The title change to "Strawberry Blonde" not only referred to the beauty of the story, but to the song that has such meaning to Biff Grimes. Once the story was moved to New York, who better to play the combative and cocky dentist but James Cagney? While he had some misgivings about being cast in the film, once Raoul Walsh signed on as director, Cagney was in. Add Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth and Jack Carson to the cast and things were really starting to shape up.

Virginia, Amy, Biff and Hugo meet for their first date

The difference between the 2 films is literally night and day. While the earlier version is dark, "Strawberry Blonde" is light and endearing. Gay nineties music is always in evidence and the very cardboard characters of the first film come to life in a most endearing way. 

Biff sports his ever present shiner

The icing on the cake is the perfect casting. Where Cooper's Biff was moody and resentful, Cagney's Biff has a little boy charm that makes all his antics forgivable. He sports a perpetual back eye from all of his scrapes and when trying to explain himself simply offers "that's the kind of hairpin I am." Aww.

It took Biff the entire film to comment on Amy's beauty.
Maybe those shiners affected his eyesight?

Olivia de Havilland's Amy darn near steals the film. Unlike Frances Fuller's too sweet Amy, de Havilland is a spitfire who winks, loves her man and looks impossibly beautiful while doing it. In fact, I think she wins the beauty contest over her pal, the strawberry blonde of the title, hands down. And since that strawberry blonde is Rita Hayworth, that is saying something.

Speaking of Rita Hayworth, the part of Virginia Brush was originally envisioned for Ann Sheridan, an actress who had demonstrated some chemistry with Cagney in earlier films. Sheridan, however, like a good Warner Brothers rebel, went on strike and the part went to Hayworth. While Wray is very pretty, her Virginia is a rather bland character who goes from small town beauty to tramp. Probably due to the enforcement of the production code, Hayworth's Virginia devolves into a shrew instead of a tramp, but nonetheless she sparkles with allure and good humor. Who could blame all the boys having a crush on her?

The Barnsteads

The villain of the piece is Hugo Barnstead, the thorn in Biff's side. As played by Neil Hamilton in the first film, Hugo is an insufferable blowhard. He's still an insufferable blowhard in the second film, but, really, can you ever dislike Jack Carson? We know he's a creep, but he's such a funny and pompous creep. Cagney was a little unhappy at being paired with an actor who surpassed 6 feet in height, but the physical difference between the two men only emphasizes their differences in social standing and ultimate cuteness.

Biff looks up to Hugo, but it's only because he's taller

But it is the love story between Biff and Amy in "Strawberry Blonde" that elevates the film far above the original. Cagney and de Havilland blend so well both physically and in temperament. For once he gets a leading lady who can hold the screen with him and not disappear in the face of his personality. 

It's all about the love story

There are three lovely scenes between Biff and Amy, all taking place in a park, that show their developing love story.

Biff would much rather be with Virginia

First, when they are set up on a blind date, Biff clearly wants to be paired with Virginia, but Hugo, of course, outmaneuvers him. This leaves Biff "stuck" with nurse Amy. He is disagreeable and annoyed. Her talk about bloomer girls, smoking and perhaps unmarried sex shocks Biff. She is way too fast for him, with the soft and feminine Virginia representing his ideal woman. Cagney and de Havilland play perfectly off one another. You can see she is a gal who can give as good as she gets and that she is the better girl for him. But, being a guy, he's blind to the obvious.

Amy saves Biff some humiliation when he
finds out Virginia and Hugo have eloped

The next park scene has Amy coming to tell Biff that Virginia would not be keeping her date with him because she eloped with Hugo. After some huffing and puffing, and Biff's advances exposing Amy as being all talk about the pre-marital sex stuff, Biff finally sees that Amy is a more quality person than Virginia. Here they agree to go steady and eventually marry.

At last Amy is appreciated

The last park scene is one of the most beautifully acted scenes of any film I've ever seen. It's not big, it's not over the top, but it is quiet, tender, real and moving. Upon returning home from prison (where Hugo's double crossing landed him), Biff meets Amy in the park where much of their love story unfolded. Biff is humble and grateful that Amy has stood by him and Amy is overcome with love as she reaches for her man. Their ultimate embrace has you cheering for them. Who cares about Hugo and Virginia?

Biff's final act of revenge when Hugo presents himself with a tooth ache highlights the essential difference between the two films. In the earlier version, Biff gives  Hugo almost enough gas to kill him before Biff comes to his senses. In the remake, Biff contemplates gas, but elects to pull the tooth without the pain killer, causing Hugo a great deal of pain and giving Virginia a good laugh. It's a great scene and I can't forget how Hayworth stubs out her cigarette in Biff's spit sink. Some lady.

Hugo and Virginia. Turns out, they deserve one another

Of course, there is a happy ending for "Strawberry Blonde." Amy, adorable as always, whispers in Biff's ear, presumably that she is expecting, and the two take their Sunday walk together in smiles as wide as the screen.


The happy couple

Alan Hale as Biff's dad with the troubled teeth

"Strawberry Blonde" has even more added attractions: Alan Hale as Biff's ne'er do well father is a hoot, as is the one and only Una O'Connor as a lady he flirtatiously chats up. And then there is the ever reliable George Tobias as Biff's pal, a marked improvement from Roscoe Karns in the earlier film.

Mrs. Mulcahey has Mr. Grimes' number

"Strawberry Blonde" ends with a gay nineties sing-along for the audience to seal that old time nostalgic flavor. 

When asked once what if he had a favorite film, Walsh said it would have to be "Strawberry Blonde." It also counts as one of Cagney's favorites. The love and affection and just plain old good humor pours off the screen.  Walsh liked the story so much he directed a third, musical version of the story in 1948 starring Dennis Morgan and Janis Paige. However, the less said about that version the better. No, the second time, in this instance was the charm.