James Cagney didn’t always play the tough gangster. In fact, in 1941’s The Strawberry Blonde, he plays something very different: a dental student.
Though he’s still a bit of a tough guy, Cagney’s character of Biff is no hardened criminal. He’s a lovestruck man, having falling for the new girl in town. She’s a strawberry blonde named Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth), and Biff isn’t the only guy whose attention she’s caught. Biff’s somewhat-friend Hugo (Jack Carson) has also fallen for her, and she seems to be taking more of a liking to Hugo than Biff. On top of that, Biff gets caught up with Virginia’s best friend Amy, who takes a liking to him (Olivia de Havilland).
This is an interesting role for Cagney, who is most remembered for his crime dramas. Funnily enough, The Strawberry Blonde is directed by Raoul Walsh, another man known for his tougher films such as High Sierra, Gun Fury and White Heat (which also stars Cagney).
The difference of this role from his usual fare doesn’t hamper Cagney’s talents at all. He gives a very solid performance as the brash, jealous and brutally honest Biff. Though he softens up somewhat by the end of the film, Cagney’s convincing performance makes it a bit difficult to see why Amy would be attracted to Biff at all, with all of the head-butting and arguing that the two endure early on in their relationship.
The real star here, though, is Olivia in the role of Amy. Amy is a bit of an odd character. She’s forward not only in her suffragette beliefs but also in the way that she approaches people, Biff included. He seems a bit baffled by her behavior, and the interactions between the two in their first scenes together are hilarious as a result. Her character regresses a bit throughout the film, becoming more focused on her relationship, but her spark comes back by the end. She remains the character that the viewer is rooting for throughout the film.
The interaction between Amy and Virginia is also fun to watch. Their characters seem very different. Virginia is generally focused on men, while Amy is preoccupied by bigger issues until she falls under the spell of Biff. Hayworth and de Havilland play well off of each other in these roles, though Hayworth doesn’t shine as much in this film as she usually does. She often steals the show in her films, but that doesn’t happen here.
The film as a whole holds many laughs and a number of surprising plot elements. The pace picks up as the film progresses and the mood becomes much more emotional, so the action only gets better as it moves along. The script is very witty, making The Strawberry Blonde a very good romantic comedy with a bit of a dramatic bite near the end.
The score: 4/5