Okay, movie fan, you are stuck on that well-known desert island and can only have one James Cagney movie - only one, mind you. I don't know what your choice would be, but unquestionably mine is 1941s The Strawberry Blonde. As much as I love Cagney, I may love Biff Grimes even more.
James Hogan's play One Sunday Afternoon played on Broadway in 1933 for 322 performances and starred Lloyd Nolan as Biff Grimes, an ex-con dentist who comes to grips with his past and his present on one fateful Sunday afternoon. Stephen Roberts (The Story of Temple Drake, Star of Midnight) directed a film version that same year of 1933 for Paramount starring Gary Cooper as Biff. I find Cooper's portrayal strangely unlikeable and it colours my attitude toward the picture. Warner Brothers 1941 version retitled The Strawberry Blonde in honour of James Cagney's red-haired mother, Carrie (Cagney by Cagney, 1976), is just my cup of tea. The Epstein Brothers adapted the screenplay and Raoul Walsh directed his second of four Cagney films (The Roaring Twenties, White Heat, A Lion is in the Streets).
Biff Grimes (Cagney) can't seem to make a go of his dentistry business after serving time. Biff is the sort of fellow who has always let his temper get the best of him and this lazy Sunday afternoon is one of those times. He doesn't like the college kids next door and their singing, and he doesn't like being called to handle an emergency when every other dentist in the book refused. However, when he learns that the patient with the aching tooth is the old pal who set him up for the prison term, Biff plots revenge. He keeps his temper at the boiling point by recalling to his pal Nick (George Tobias) what led to this Sunday afternoon.
James Cagney, Alan Hale
At 40 years of age, you may have to stretch a wee bit to accept Cagney as Biff's younger self, but not too much. He expertly conveys the younger man's odd mix of naive idealism and energetic self-confidence. His scenes with the "old man" he has had to bring up (Alan Hale) are sincere and affectionate. Biff, to his everlasting chagrin, is pals with a smart operator named Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson) who finagles his way through life to the top of the heap, letting others like Biff take the fall. Carson portrays the blowhard Hugo to perfection. The lovely Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) is the gal of Biff's dreams, so Hugo gets the date and Biff gets Virginia's best pal Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland). Rita Hayworth is gorgeous and runs with the opportunity to display some awesome comedic timing chops. Olivia de Havilland has never been more delightful than in the role of Amy Lind. Plot-wise, the solicitous Hugo needs someone to sign contracts and be responsible for shady business deals, so Biff becomes a partner. We can't help but root for Biff. He's a right guy who never gets the breaks - or does he? He'll find out one Sunday afternoon.
Rita Hayworth, Olivia de Havilland, James Cagney, Jack Carson
The 1940s and 1950s saw a boom in turn of the 20th century nostalgia such as Meet Me in St. Louis, Cheers for Miss Bishop, I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now, Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, Two Weeks With Love, Shine on Harvest Moon, Life With Father, On Moonlight Bay, etc. Time had faded the ills of the era and given it a nostalgic glow untainted by the Great War, the Depression and World War 2. Biff Grimes' world was a world of invention and innovation, but still a world where a highlight was a walk with your wife on a Sunday. It was a world where the hit parade featured When You Were Sweet Sixteen, The Bowery, In My Merry Oldsmobile, In the Evening by the Moonlight and The Band Played On.
The world of The Strawberry Blonde must have had a strong appeal to Raoul Walsh because in 1948, reverting to the original title of One Sunday Afternoon, he directed a musical version of the story. The tale of Biff, Hugo, Virginia and Amy lends itself well to a musical, but sadly, the new tunes by Ralph Blane were distinctly unmemorable. The appealing cast had Dennis Morgan as Biff, Don De Fore as Hugo, Janis Paige as Virginia and Dorothy Malone, who was every bit Olivia's equal as Amy. Pleasant enough entertainment if one hasn't seen The Strawberry Blonde, but a disappointment to those who have. There have been various TV versions of James Hogan's play as well; in 1949 with Burgess Meredith, 1951 with Richard Carlson, 1954 with Frank Albertson, 1957 with Gordon MacRae and 1959 with David Wayne.
TCM is screening The Strawberry Blonde on Monday, September 14th at 2:45 pm. It's all the fudge!
A joyful bonus for movie fans is that we can still celebrate the birthdays of three lovely ladies, Olivia de Havilland (Amy Lind, 1941) on July 1, 1916, Janis Paige (Virginia Brush, 1948) on September 16, 1922 and Dorothy Malone (Amy Lind, 1948) on January 30, 1925.