The Strawberry Blonde (1941): Olivia On Ice

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Olivia de Havilland thought Gone with the Wind (1939) would change things.

After the success of Captain Blood (1935), Jack Warner paired Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland again and again.  The films made money hand over fist and catapulted Flynn and de Havilland to stardom, but they weren’t considered important or prestigious by the Hollywood establishment.

De Havilland’s roles in these films weren’t fleshed out, three dimensional characters.  Flynn’s characters were the focus and he had triple the screen time.

Flynn’s films made more money when paired with Olivia de Havilland than any other starlet on the Warner’s lot.

But Olivia de Havilland was still just the girl, passively waiting to be loved or rescued.

De Havilland was bored and regretted the standard seven-year contract she’d signed with Warners so that she could play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).  She began to lament all she was missing to play these vapid heroines—a chance at complex roles, going back to the theater.

That languishing scholarship to Mills College where she could’ve used her brain.

She couldn’t convince the brass—especially Jack Warner—that she was more than just the latest pretty face, to be used and discarded when the first line showed on her face.

She got her chance when David O. Selznick wanted her to play Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in his upcoming epic Gone with the Wind

But Jack Warner wouldn’t loan her out to Selznick.  He thought Gone With the Wind was going to be the most expensive flop of all time (he wasn’t alone), and felt Olivia de Havilland would become even more difficult after working with Selznick on his big, important film.

Of all the early studios, Warner Brothers was the least concerned with prestige and awards.  Jack Warner cared about making money and cranked out one film after another as cheaply as possible.

Olivia de Havilland had already surprised him by bringing in an agent to renegotiate her contract for more money after just her third film.  She’d figured out how underpaid she was and demanded more.

Warner gave it to her because he needed her in the Flynn films.

De Havilland did a secret screen test with Selznick and original Gone with the Wind director George Cukor.  If Jack Warner had found out about it, he could’ve sued both Selznick International Pictures and de Havilland for breach of contract.

Desperate now, de Havilland went to Jack Warner’s wife—a move that decades later de Havilland admitted was highly improper—and asked Ann Warner to intercede on her behalf.

As Warner writes in his autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:

“Olivia, who had a brain like a computer concealed behind those fawnlike brown eyes…simply went to my wife, Ann, and they joined forces in a plot to change my mind.” 

“’I hear that Selznick wants Livvie in Gone with the Wind,’ Ann said.  ‘Can you possibly imagine anyone else in that role?  And think of the prestige for Warners.  After all, you discovered her, and made her into a star.’” 

De Havilland got the role, of course, and an Academy Award nomination.  She was following the path of Bette Davis, who also fought with Jack Warner over roles and didn’t get recognition as a great actress until she strong-armed him into letting her make Of Human Bondage with RKO in 1934.

De Havilland had proved herself and thought she would continue following in Davis’ footsteps with first-rate roles at Warner Brothers.

She thought Gone with the Wind would change things.

It didn’t.

Because Jack Warner—who was a first-rate bastard in a town full of them—held a grudge.  He didn’t like that de Havilland had negotiated for that raise so young, or complained about the quality of his studio’s pictures, or did an end run around him with his wife to get her role in Wind

He made her, he could unmake her.

She had five years left on her contract, and Jack Warner vowed to make them hell.

So after the heaven that was playing Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind, Olivia de Havilland returned to Warner Brothers and grinded out one film after another.  With and without Flynn, but she was always just the girl.

Even if Warner Brothers didn’t appreciate her, her work in Wind attracted the attention of other studios, who requested her services as a loan out.  She made 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn for Paramount.

Again, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her work outside Warners, this time Best Actress, which she of course lost to sister Joan Fontaine.

And it was back to the Warner Brothers grind.

It didn’t help that her sister—her younger sister—had already made it to the altar with Brian Aherne, an actor and one of de Havilland’s former boyfriends.  Or that Fontaine had won the Oscar over her, and was now working for Selznick at the leisurely pace of roughly a film a year while de Havilland ground out three pictures a year and had been working non-stop since 1935.

De Havilland was exhausted and frustrated.  She began throwing tantrums on the set, fighting with Flynn, and refusing roles she felt were beneath her.

She had several of what were then called nervous breakdowns, but what would today be called burnout.

But she had five more years, so she looked for good scripts at home.  She found the script for The Strawberry Blonde in head of makeup department’s Perc Westmore’s office.  She liked the part of Amy, James Cagney’s wife, and fought for it despite producers initially thinking she wasn’t right for the role.

The film was based on 1933’s broadway play One Sunday Afternoon, and a remake of the original film starring Gary Cooper.  It would be remade again in 1948, also titled One Sunday Afternoon.

Warner Brothers retitled it The Strawberry Blonde, which refers not to the part played by de Havilland, but by newcomer Rita Hayworth, on loan from Columbia.

James Cagney stars as Biff Grimes, a dentist struggling to make ends meet.  He spends a Sunday afternoon reminiscing about how he met his wife, Amy (de Havilland) eight years prior.

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Biff and his friend Hugo Barnstead (a delightfully oily Jack Carson) and every other man in town have a crush on Virginia Brush, the beautiful young woman they call the Strawberry Blonde.  Shallow Virginia loves the attention and makes sure to walk past the barbershop to soak up the cat calls.

Hugo arranges a double date with Biff, Virginia, and Virginia’s friend Amy, and promises that Biff can “have Virginia.”  When they arrive, Hugo double-crosses Biff and runs off with Virginia, leaving him with Amy.

Amy isn’t like anyone Biff has ever met—she’s beautiful, but she works as a nurse and has modern ideas.  It’s the 1890s, and she shocks him by insinuating that she doesn’t believe in marriage and that her mother wore “bloomers.”

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

But Biff soon finds out that most of this is a tough outer shell, and he falls in love with and marries Amy.  Hugo marries Virginia, though the union is an unhappy one, beset by their mutual selfishness, greed, and ambitions.

Virginia stands by Biff through thick and thin, and though Biff once pined for Virginia, by the end of the film he knows he got the better end of the deal by a mile.

The Strawberry Blonde is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  Cagney mugs around as Biff, and the film is full of laughs and classic songs such as, “The Band Played On,” and “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie.”

De Havilland was mostly happy during the film, as she enjoyed working with Cagney and director Raoul Walsh.  It was a pleasant experience, and her role had more meat on the bone than those she played with Flynn.

But only a bit more meat.  This is Cagney’s film, and beneath de Havilland’s talents.  (Her role is played by Frances Fuller in the 1933 version, and Dorothy Malone in the 1948 version.  Never heard of them?  As Amy often quips in the film, “Exactly.”)

She was young, beautiful, rich, and independent.  But as she told Errol Flynn on the set of Captain Blood, she wanted respect.

And that was something she would never get from Jack Warner.

The Strawberry Blonde (1941) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Matzen, Robert. Errrol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  • Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde (1941)

Gilda (1946): Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)
Gilda (1946) Opening Banner

You may not know it, but you’ve seen Gilda.

In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins play inmates in the Shawshank State Penitentiary.  In a famous scene, Andy Dufresne (Robbins) slides into the seat behind Red (Freeman) in the prison’s crowded movie theater.  

Red-

Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Red insists, holding up a hand.  His eyes are transfixed on the giant movie screen before him.  “Here she comes.  This is the part I really like.  This is when she does that shit with her hair.”

Oh yeah, I know,” Andy says with a smile.  “I’ve seen it three times this month.”

We then see what has Red and Andy transfixed.  A black and white film, two men in suits walking into a room.

Gilda, are you decent?” one asks.

The camera closes in on a woman who throws her head back and Rita Hayworth’s face fills the frame.

Me?” she asks with a mile-wide smile and anything-but-decent voice.

The prisoners hoot and holler, Red laughs, and Andy smiles.

The Shawshank Redemption is based on the Stephen King novella with the lengthier title Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.  As anyone familiar with the film or novella knows, Andy escapes by spending years digging a tunnel out of his cell, which he covers with a poster of Rita Hayworth.

When it came to having a poster of Rita Hayworth hanging on his wall, Andy Dufresne was in good company.  The poster in the film was made from a famous shot of Hayworth taken by Bob Landry for the August 11, 1941 issue of Life magazine.  It became one of the most popular pin-ups of American troops during World War II.  

Andy Dufresne and the Rita Hayworth poster in The Shawshank Redemption
Andy Dufresne and Rita Hayworth in The Shawshank Redemption

If you watch Gilda—or even just the few seconds of her that show up in The Shawshank Redemption, you know why Stephen King, Andy Dufresne, and millions of G.I.’s picked Rita Hayworth as their preferred pin-up girl.

Rita Hayworth looks good on a poster.  But looking good on a poster is modeling, not acting.

Rita Hayworth glove striptease in Gilda (1946)

Gilda is a film mostly remembered for two scenes, both showcasing Hayworth’s innate sex appeal.  The first is her opening scene in the film as showcased in Shawshank.  In the second, Gilda dons a black strapless gown and long black gloves and sings “Put the Blame on Mame” to an appreciative crowd.  During the song, she yet again “does that shit with her hair” before slowly rolling down one glove and discarding it.  This one glove striptease—the director didn’t dare risk having Hayworth remove both gloves—shocked and titillated audiences of 1946 as much as anything on the screen today.

Rita Hayworth’s Gilda is seductive and mysterious, equalling loving and hating her one-time lover and eventual husband Johnny Farrell.  She drives Farrell mad by playing the part of a femme fatale, though in truth she only has eyes for him.

Yet outside those two scenes, Gilda drags.  Johnny Farrell and Gilda sparring mostly falls flat, and it’s hard to understand why they love and hate one another so deeply.  The twist that Gilda is not a femme fatale but has been faithful to both her husbands is obvious to the audience and only makes Johnny look like a fool for suspecing her of serial infidelity.

Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale lacks the chilling calculation of Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or the confident sex appeal of Lauren Bacall’s Slim Browning in To Have and Have Not.

Part of the problem is that Hayworth’s true talent was dancing, and she doesn’t get to do much of that here.  She was as good a dancer as Ginger Rogers and made two well-danced but mostly forgotten films with Fred Astaire.

But the best stars of the golden age have what the French call je ne sais quoi, an indefinable charisma that you can’t look away from, no matter how bad the film.

Whatever it is that makes audiences want to watch films that are seventy-five years old, Rita Hayworth doesn’t have it.

There’s no shame in it.  Most people don’t.

Gilda (1946) Verdict:  Had Its Day, But That Day is Done

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)