Raoul Walsh exists as a platonic ideal of inarguably masculine classic Hollywood, his own roughneck joie de vivre bustling through nearly every film he touched. What gets lost in our cultural tunnel-vision, ushered along by equally superficial and limiting buzz terms, is the romantic lure of nostalgia, and how it engenders this specific adventurousness, even if the two terms taken together are thought to be relatively paradoxical. Walsh is a director of men in action, but a high-seas caper (1952’s The World In His Arms) differs from a prohibition-era gangster film (1939’s The Roaring Twenties) which itself isn’t exactly comparable to an Errol Flynn-led WWII drama (1945’s Objective, Burma!), and so on and so forth. After all, would you be pining for the daunting and unknown beyond the horizon if you were otherwise inundated with melancholy about the vicissitudes of time? Well, why wouldn’t you be?
A typical Walsh film surveys some sort of upheaval, which can provide both negative and positive aftereffects: Gentleman Jim (1942) traces an endearingly arrogant amateur boxer’s rise to notoriety; They Drive By Night (1940) details a nightmarish evolution from working class exhaustion to middle class deceit and backstabbing; The Man I Love (1947) narrates a long-delayed return to a family home that is now awash in noirish bleakness. Whatever the outcome, there are still those attendant discombobulations, the kind that engender––and even goad on––a certain wistfulness, lazy thoughts of time passed. The Strawberry Blonde, from 1941, inverts this formula, resulting in an oxymoronic (though no less fascinating) descriptor: disorienting stasis.
Sometimes the nostalgia is Walsh’s own, sometimes it’s his characters; in the case of The Strawberry Blonde, these remembrances are shared between creator and film. James Cagney plays small time dentist Biff Grimes, who, in the beginning of the film, is wiling away yet another discontented Sunday in the gay New York City of the late 1890s/early 1900s, provoking the stuck-up college students nextdoor for a bit of repression-relieving, knuckleheaded excitement before his routine promenade with wife Amy Lind (Olivia de Havilland). Walsh made period pieces before and after The Strawberry Blonde (some, like 1933’s much looser, and no less essential The Bowery, even surveying the same exact setting ), but its framing device is an anomaly, jumping from Biff’s as-yet-to-be-elucidated bitterness to the collective knockabout good-spiritedness of some years prior. Cagney retains his character’s intensity, but has more external, and even positive (some only ostensibly so) recipients for such potency: he’s studying by mail to become a dentist; his father (the always welcome Arthur Hale), affable and loving, is also always courting other men’s wives, and getting fired from jobs he only barely holds onto to begin with; he’ll fight with anyone asking for it (according to him, a lot do); and, like many, Cagney is in love with the eponymous strawberry blonde, Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth).
Biff grabs at any potential to get closer with Virginia, which includes aligning himself with local, glad-handing schemer, Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), who clinches a double date with the neighborhood crush, and her friend, Amy. With the foreknowledge of Amy and Biff’s eventual union––and in its brief depiction, their possible, wedlocked monotony––it’s only a matter of time before Virginia herself no longer figures into the equation. Still, a date between the aspiring dentist and the strawberry blonde occurs, although its pleasures are mostly skin-deep, a visit to the Statue of Liberty only really producing a pile of banana peels (Virginia refuses to participate in the accompanying picnic), and dinner racks up a bill and promise of a later date that is––for the audience––unsurprisingly canceled. Amy’s estimable self-possession and fitful neuroticism once terrified Biff, but such singular confidence makes possible her patient tenderness, which suits her husband-to-be, as she’s unperturbed by their general parsimoniousness, the dentist-in-waiting forced to pay the bills moonlighting as a milkman. He later joins the affluent Hugo––now married to Virginia––in “business”, although he’s really the fall-guy for all the corners cut by his executive, one which even results in a collapsed worksite that kills his father.
Biff’s simmering resentment now has its reasonable undergirding, and in one swift, present-day moment of singular violence, all is resolved (it’s too satisfyingly spontaneous to spoil here), the spell of nostalgia dispelled.
Walsh’s producer at Warner Brothers, Hal Wallis frequently bellyached over the director’s use of close-ups and the way he vigorously edited within unbroken sequences, which at least partially ensured a preserved vision when the reels were handed over to the editors. When it came to The Strawberry Blonde, Wallis complained that the frequent tight shots of actors’ visages broke the evocative allure of the past, especially when attention towards the period appropriate sets is practically discouraged. Sure, there are gas-lamps and horse and buggy carriages, but Walsh’s nostalgia is more gestural: the wafting notes of a street band’s rendition of “The Band Played On” is what inspires Biff’s memory whirlpool, but much of what he conjures is tethered to people rather than places. The production design isn’t anonymous by any means––it fulfills its functional role perfectly, housing all the interactions and habits now untenable for Biff, freighted with a mature kind of yearning. Never is it implied that regression is possible or desired; the real challenge is to then transcend acknowledgement of such.
The Strawberry Blonde proffers an old saw, but doesn’t belabor it. Looking backwards to move forwards, etc. Walsh always found his films’ beating hearts in his attraction to precariousness, the stimulating risk that everything could come crashing down on his characters. Here, the ratio of emotional to physical ramifications skews more towards the former than in other Walsh films, Biff’s vaporous past nevertheless sirening him backwards. Then, the spirit of Walsh’s much-loved and long-since-passed mother, embodied purely by de Havilland, yanks him back. Belonging to a group of films that inspired a resurgence for a career that was trending downwards, The Strawberry Blonde identifies and sympathizes with the nostalgists, before shaking them loose of their sentimentality, not exactly gently, but with love nonetheless.