People fall in love hard and fast.
Sometimes that love is deep, passionate and personal. Other times, that love is quick and painless. The word “love” is thrown around almost everyday with seemingly little thought or reason: “I love her/him”; “I love this song”; “Brie Larson? I love her”. Those sentiments can all be true and valid, but when is the line crossed between “really like” and “love”? Is there a difference between the two? In terms of relationships: how does one know that someone is right for you?
These are age old questions, which will probably never be fully answered to everyone’s satisfaction. That is OK. The discussion is what makes life much more interesting. Personally, the answers to those questions — and questions that run in a similar vein — are best found in personal experiences. “You just know” is a typical response to the last question posed in the previous paragraph. What good does that do for someone who has not had those experiences?
To grasp an answer to these questions, film can be a great look at the human experience. And what better emotion to make a film about than love. As previously stated: love, no matter how strong or for whom/what the emotion is for, is something we all experience at some point. The highly relate-able, often sought after feeling, is the perfect emotional anchor for a film. There are tons of great examples where love is on full display in films from every decades, providing an enlightening and enriching experience for audiences around the world.
In college, I stumbled upon a film that answered and discussed what love is and how it can be expressed. It is not a film too many would include as their favorite, but it is a film, for me, that holds a lot of truth. After watching in college, I was smitten with the performances and the story it tells. Following up on a re-watch recently, the film remains cheery (and I remain smitten), yet the film holds stark truths about a little thing called love.
Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde, and the band played on.
The Strawberry Blonde (as it is known today, though promotional material at the time of its release in 1941 advertised the film as Strawberry Blonde) is a tour-de-force Hollywood feature — on paper. Directed by Raoul Walsh (he portrayed John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation, as well as a director of early Hollywood features), the films stars James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth — with Jack Carson and Alan Hale, Sr. in supporting roles. To top off this stellar crop of talent, the film is written by Julius and Philip Epstein — the twin brothers writing team who co-wrote Casablanca. On star power alone, The Strawberry Blonde should be among the great films of Hollywood’s storied past.
Alas, the film gets lost along the wayside of pop culture history. Its stars became known for other roles, rightly so if I am being honest, and the film did not shift the political or cultural landscape of the day. But, I am here waving its flag. The Strawberry Blonde has themes and a message that remains fresh to modern audiences. Broadly, the film tells the tale of a bonafide love triangle, but, looking at its characters and their actions more closely, its message about love and companionship is of vital importance — and entertainment.
Biff Grimes (James Cagney) is an angry man, but he has everything one would want in life: a good, stable job and someone that loves him. For Biff, however, the quest for a lifetime of happiness does not come easy. The job, the town dentist, is something that, sort of, falls into his lap. He begins a romance with Virginia (the film’s “strawberry blonde” played by Rita Hayworth) only to realize that the soulmate he was looking for is someone completely different: Virginia’s friend Amy (played by Olivia de Havilland). At the top, the story is wholesome, rife with charming Americana — most notably its Oscar nominated music. Digging deeper, the story unravels to unearth some valuable human emotions.
The flashback way the story is told works for this simple story. When we meet Biff, he is already married to Amy. They have a nice house and Biff seems to be successful in his line of work. Cagney, who wanted a role where he was not playing the stereotypical gangster type he was known for, is just exactly his usual “self” in these opening scenes: a tough guy. He is a loudmouth and picking fights with college kids. We move into the backstory of Biff’s life, and the meat and potatoes of the film, when he is reintroduced to Hugo Barnstead (played by Jack Carson). Biff and Hugo had a falling out — which we learn of as the flashback continues. But when we first see them in the past, they are best friends. So much so, Biff and Hugo go on a double date with Virginia (the apple of both men’s eyes) and Amy. Biff scoffs, at first, wanting no part if he can not have Virginia. Hugo relents, but ultimately ends up with Virginia.
On their first “date”, Biff and Amy want no part of each other. They are both timid and stand-offish toward one another. It is safe to say that their first encounter does not qualify at love at first sight, but, to me, the signs of attraction are there. Biff is rude, but Amy takes it in stride. She is quick and witty and gives Biff some wisecracks that are equal — and better — than his. Why? She clearly enjoys his company. Regardless of why, which we find out later, there is an attraction between the two established early on. (It certainly helps that Cagney and de Havilland are at the top of their game; they are electric on screen). There is a love brewing between the two that falls in-between “head over heels” and “I am teasing you because I like you”. Whatever their attraction levels, they exist — and all one needs is a spark.
Despite this first interaction, it takes time before Biff and Amy are together. Biff ultimately goes on a date with Virginia, but the duo’s time together is shallow and unfulfilling. There is a connection missing between the two. Where Biff is quick and blunt, Virginia is aloof and carefree. Biff tries to force the issue: he wants to end with Virginia. Her desires are less clear; I am sure she would be happy with Biff, but she is not so clear cut. These connections is the film’s way of commenting on love. One can not force the issue. Despite enjoying each other’s company and liking each other — at least at face value — the internal connection between two people is important for love to exist. To truly love someone, there needs to be some unspoken connection between a couple — one that is only realized when you meet the right partner.
For the film’s sake, but also something endured constantly, that love is tested. Biff ends up working with his friend Hugo, but ultimately takes the fall after a scandal breaks out. Biff winds up in jail for five years. In Biff’s case, like in many romantic stories, it takes time to ultimately be with one’s soulmate. Biff’s time away (in jail) and working at job he was uneasy about separated him from the community he grew and loved. He becomes lonely. The one person to provide the friendship and comfort is the only other lonesome person in town: Amy. Fate? Probably, but I think she fell for him almost instantly and no problem waiting for him to come around and confess their feelings for one another.
Biff Grimes: You get lonesome?
Amy Lind: Yes.
Biff Grimes: I know how you feel. I get lonesome, too.
There is a saying — “Time heals all”. Most of the time, the phrase is paired with moments of heartbreak. In Biff and Amy’s case, time heals the affliction in their hearts. They ultimately end up together and the film flashes forward. We see a married couple, a household where happiness exists alongside some tension. It stems from Biff’s “tough guy” mentality, but the way he thinks and acts does deter Amy away. He can be obnoxious, but the two always find themselves with each other.
The last scene is a perfect example: a hotheaded Biff gets into a fight and Amy is disgusted with his behavior. Yet, the two fill a void and Biff realizes he needs Amy in his life more so than being a tough guy. The two reconcile, in a charming way, and walk down the street in each other’s arms. It is a happy ending, but there is nothing wrong with that. Two people that should be together end up together. Call it fate, call it love, call it scripted Hollywood nonsense, there is still something beautiful to seeing love exist and knowing that somehow life/love will all work out.
After re-watching The Strawberry Blonde, I know the film is not the end-all-be-all when it comes to defining true love. The film is another layer in potential answers that could be someone’s conclusion. For me, The Strawberry Blonde is heartwarming and charming. The film has me believing not to force any sort of relationship — whether it be friendly or romantically — as those who are meant to be will be. I am an optimistic person, by nature, and I am sure there is a negative argument to be had. But why live that way? Why focus on the negative? All good things come to those who wait — even true love.
Questions remain unanswered for some, but The Strawberry Blonde clears the picture: you know true love when you encounter it, and it’s worth the wait.