One Sunday afternoon, dentist Biff Grimes (James Cagney) gets a phone call about a man who urgently needs to have a tooth pulled. Biff doesn’t typically work on Sundays, but when he finds out the man in question is Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), he’s willing to make an exception. It’s not because Hugo is a big-shot business man and he thinks having him as a patient would be good for his career. No, his reasons are much more personal.
About ten years earlier, Biff was studying to become a dentist and was good friends with Hugo. Back then, all the guys in town would line up to watch Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth) as she walked by. One night, Hugo manages to land a date with Virginia and he asks Biff to come with him because Virginia was bringing her friend Amy (Olivia de Havilland). Virginia is concerned with being respectable and proper (or at least appearing to be), but her friend Amy is much more forward-thinking and loves to shock people with her modern ideas. Biff finds Amy rather off-putting and after that night, he puts all his efforts into wooing Virginia. The two of them spend a memorable day together and Biff asks to see her again, but she can’t see him for a few weeks.
When the day of their date arrives, Biff waits for Virginia in the park, but is in for a surprise when Amy shows up instead. Even worse, he gets word that earlier that day, Virginia married Hugo. After talking to her for a while, Biff begins to see something in Amy that he hadn’t seen before and they start seeing each other. Eventually, they get married and when they run into Virginia one day, she invites them over for dinner. By then, Hugo’s contracting business has really taken off and he offers Biff a job as Vice President of his company. However, Hugo is involved in some illegal business practices and really just wants Biff around to take the fall for it.
Biff ends up spending a few years in prison because of Hugo, but while he’s there, he finishes his dentistry program and starts practicing as soon as his sentence is over. So when Biff gets the call about Hugo needing his tooth pulled, he knows this is his chance to get his revenge. But when Hugo and Virginia arrive and he sees how miserable they are together, he realizes he’s truly gotten the last laugh.
I’d never even heard of The Strawberry Blonde before today, but I’m really glad I took a chance on it. It’s funny and pretty endearing for the most part. James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland were hilarious in this and played off each other so well. Cagney has charisma to spare here and did such a great job of making Biff sympathetic. You don’t typically think of Olivia de Havilland as a comedienne, but she made me laugh out loud in this movie. All she had to do was wink and I was cracking up. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Alan Hale, who played Biff’s father. Rita Hayworth didn’t really have to do very much other than act very proper. I actually liked Rita the most in her last scene where we get to see how eight years of marriage to Hugo has changed her. Also, you might be surprised to know this was directed by Raoul Walsh. At the time, he wanted a little change of pace from movies like High Sierra and The Roaring Twenties, and The Strawberry Blonde fit the bill perfectly for that. Walsh proved he can direct comedy just as well as he can direct gritty noirs or gangster films.
The only thing keeping me from calling The Strawberry Blonde “completely charming” is the fact that the way Biff gets revenge on Hugo is awfully ghoulish. Hugo certainly deserved to get some kind of punishment for his behavior, but watching him get a tooth yanked with no anesthesia while his wife and former friends laugh with delight just seemed too awful even for him.