James Hagan’s 1930 play One Sunday Afternoon, which had been filmed with Gary Cooper in the lead in 1933, became a rollicking entertainment in its second screen incarnation, adapted by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, directed by Raoul Walsh and retitled The Strawberry Blonde, with James Cagney now playing “Biff” Grimes. (Following Hagan’s death, Walsh directed a third film version using the original title, but it is the 1941 version that matters.) Dully misinterpreted by some as an endorsement of marital complacency and status quo, or simply as an exercise in nostalgic charm, it is in fact a cunning postmodern satire targeting the false, insidious nature of nostalgia. It and Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), from Booth Tarkington, would make a terrific, compatible double bill.
New York City in the 1890s; Biff, educated in dentistry through a correspondence course, plots “accidentally” killing with too much gas Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson, brilliantly funny in the role that made Carson Carson), who “stole” Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth, acting here—and acting beautifully), the girl whom Biff wanted to marry, and who, as the contractor for whom Biff worked, set up Biff to take the fall for his (Hugo’s) illegal activities, including fatal corner-cutting/money-pocketing, sending Biff to prison for five years, during which time Biff’s wife, “second choice” Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland, de Havillanding up her role only when Amy herself is de Havillanding it up), remains steadfastly loyal and loving. The film is structured as a flashback as Biff recalls the past eight years, his romances, various betrayals at Hugo’s hands, imprisonment, before returning to the present, where Hugo, at last in Biff’s dental chair, is ripe for murder. However, Hugo’s blatantly unhappy marriage to Virginia saves the day by nearly completing Biff’s education in the School of Hard Knocks. (A running gag throughout consists of Biff’s almost perpetual black eyes.) Biff’s diploma: his realization that he loves wife Amy.
In Walsh’s film, two currents of nostalgia flow in and out of one another, sometimes combining, at other times contrasting, opposing. Correlative to one are the marvelous old songs that either are sung or are woven into the musical score; here is the harmless nostalgia for earlier popular culture, bits and pieces of the American past that we don’t wish to let go of. (I know my father didn’t!) The other isn’t so harmless; here, it threatens a marriage: “If only Hugo hadn’t beaten me to marrying Virginia Brush!” (I am not going to embarrass myself by explicating her unmarried name in full.) It is the nostalgia of the nonsense, “Things were so much better once upon a time,” that is, in Biff’s case, when Virginia was still available to him (in his imagination only, perhaps) as a potential life-partner. The current since the cancellation of this hope has punctuated Biff’s life with disappointment and regret, intensifying his nostalgia for the “superior” past and combining with other instances of Hugo’s using and duping him, deepening Biff’s disappointment and regret—despite a happy marriage, leaving Biff vaguely miserable because unable wholly to shake off the “what ifs.” If you will, this predicts the “nostalgia” that fueled the post-G.E. personality and, eventually, in the 1980s, pathological presidency of Ronald Wilson Reagan, which convinced many that Reagan could restore “morning” to dark times, that he could make America America again by resurrecting social and political currents that were in fact dangerously, for us in the United States largely fatally, reactionary. Biff must learn that his heart should not be allowed to hanker so for the past.
It is nonsense that any of this has much, if anything, to do with Virginia’s qualities as a woman, although that may be the springboard for Biff’s sense of education. The script insists that Biff is lucky not to have married Virginia, who indeed may have chosen Hugo because she saw that he was the go-getter between the two young men, the one more likely to provide for her a materially glowing life, but whose own burden of misery has most to do with Hugo’s coldness and inhumanity, the product of his being wedded first and foremost to ambitious capitalism. Hugo moves on from business to politics, exploiting and brutalizing the common man, which Biff represents, in the process. Deep down, don’t we know that that’s what the movie is really about?
Above all, the whole thing plays so well because of its star, Cagney, who charts persuasively and wonderfully, with great pluck, Biff’s education, which takes him finally out of Hugo’s shadow. Walsh’s tale of two women is also a tale of two men.
At year’s end, the National Board of Review recognized both Cagney and Carson for their acting in this film.
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