The strawberry blonde (1941) is a parody of The Olden Days with James Cagney in the unusual role of a stiff-necked and somewhat moralistic loser who becomes the butt of his huckster pal’s schemes. That he finds happiness with Olivia de Havilland is only because he has finally woken up and stopped being a slow-witted fool. Not the usual Cagney outing.
Jack Carson plays Cagney’s pal in his typical fast-talking smart aleck role. Mr. Carson is dependably funny, and has an interesting way of being able to play a creep or a poor soul even though his delivery remains the same no matter in what film he appears. The other characters around him seem to make him sympathetic or arrogant. Mr. Cagney is a hapless dental student, equally busy with keeping his drunken skirt-chasing rogue of a Da, played with his usual nothing-up-my-sleeve finesse by Alan Hale, as he is with pursing the girl of his dreams.
The girl of his dreams is played by Rita Hayworth, the strawberry blonde of the piece, as elegant appearing as a wedding cake on the outside, but inside as common as a mug of beer. Olivia de Havilland is her friend, and a nurse, seen as an unromantic profession of serious and single-minded ladies soon to be spinsters. To make matters worse in Cagney’s eyes, she is also a suffragette who smokes. Not very expertly. But she does.
On their first date, a fix-up when Cagney thought he was going to get Hayworth but gets stuck with Miss de Havilland instead, there is much bickering and posturing about modern women, to which Mr. Cagney scoffs with one of his many platitudes, “An empty barrel makes the most noise.”
We get an eyeful of straw boaters and leg-o’mutton sleeves, and lots of choruses of “The Band Played On.” When Carson steals Hayworth from him and marries her, Cagney dejectedly tries to make do with de Havilland, never really appreciating her until time passes and he sees what a brassy gal his ideal Miss Hayworth really is, how unhappy their marriage is, and what a swell gal the suffragette turns out to be.
Carson gets rich as a shady contractor. When Cagney and de Havilland come to dinner, Carson and Hayworth show off their new electric lighting.
“I just can’t get over that electric light,” an awed Miss de Havilland remarks, “Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Not if you pay the bills,” is Carson’s line, delivered in a cute way of trying too hard to be funny. Even when he’s a braggart and a blowhard, it’s hard to dislike him. They have a new dish for dinner, something called “spaghetti” which none of them knows how to eat.
Carson throws his down and out old buddy a bone by giving him a job in his company, but makes Cagney the fall guy when because of inferior materials being used, a building Carson’s firm is constructing collapses. Cagney’s father also happens to be fatally injured in the collapse. Cagney goes to jail for several years, and so the plot turns from one of smirking over high button shoes to a tragedy. But wait, no, it’s not a tragedy, because there are more comic scenes of Cagney keeping up with his dental studies in prison. When he gets out of jail, he removes Carson’s sore tooth without anesthetic, just for spite.
Cagney, who would never even whistle at Hayworth out of respect for her, abandons his idealistic obsession and instead finds happiness with the down-to-earth de Havilland. The film ends, charmingly, with another round of “The Band Played On” in sing-along style with the words printed out on title cards as they might have been in the early days of silent films, with the final card in elegant script declaring, “Thank You, Come Again.”