“That’s the kind of hairpin I am”: ‘Gentleman Jim’ and ‘The Strawberry Blonde’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

In Gentleman Jim a basic premise of the humor is that a good face-to-face brawl is one of the things that make life worth living. Here the physical and the sensual are a good deal less destructive than in White Heat and a good deal more pervasive than in Me and My Gal and The Bowery. Seen alongside The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, this movie’s celebration of turn-of-the-century urban vigor establishes it as a vision, imaginary or otherwise, of a time when personal wholeness and physical joy were much more accessible and more fully communal. But the conflict between eros and civilization turns up again, largely in the form of a refined young lady, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who watches “Gentleman Jim” (Errol Flynn) performing on a theatre stage and wonders aloud why anyone would pay good money to see this guy—a bankteller turned boxer—as an actor. The question is a bit of an in-joke and the answer, of course, lies in Flynn himself: he may or may not be much of an actor, but he has great physical appeal. Vicki Ware and Jim Corbett are at odds through much of the film, but their sexual antagonism doesn’t boil over into romance until her hitherto-verbal belligerence begins to assume tones that are more physical and less uninhibited. Up to that point, their relationship seems a function of their differing responses to Vicki’s remark that “After all, we all started out in the same wooden washtub.” She means this only in a snootily abstract way, as an affirmation of democratic principle, but he takes it in a wholly physical sense, as an unbuttoned acceptance of skin-to-skin pleasures.

The film’s celebration of the physical emerges largely through the great kinetic energy of the action itself and through sheer accumulation of sensations and zesty physical detail. One brief bit, for example, simply shows John L. Sullivan (Ward Bond) leaving a punching bag at his training camp, flinging a heroic spray of sweat from his forehead and grabbing a fresh beer from a ringside ice bucket. Here too there is a good deal of spitting—which, in most cases, becomes an appropriately uncouth expression of comic joy. Patterns of emotion often develop in ways that are at once simple and intensely immediate: the repeated view of Corbett’s father (Alan Hale) grinning and burbling something like “That’s my boy, he’s my son”; members of the family repeating John L.’s name in a tiny comic ritual; some boxing action in which two unsuspecting Olympic Club members are so surprised by Corbett’s prowess that a double take rapidly escalates into a triple and quadruple take. In a movie of less authentic vitality, such simplicity might seem highly suspect, but the most noticeable thing about Gentleman Jim is precisely the contagiousness of its vigorous ambience.

Errol Flynn as James J. Corbett

Seen in social terms, the film’s emphasis on pugilism (professional and domestic) may suggest a rather narrow glorification of masculinity, but its celebrations of maleness manage to transcend any merely narcissistic masculine bias. On at least two occasions in the film, male characters give evening-gowned ladies a loud and palsy slap on their bare backs, and in a fine early scene Corbett wheedles Miss Ware into the no-woman’s-land of the Olympic Gym and leaves her holding his hat, coat and cigar while he spars a bit with the club boxing instructor. Each of these instances involves humor at the expense of haughty feminine elegance, but over the course of the entire film they function less as crude rebuffs than as gestures through which men and women begin to live on earthier and more equal terms. Another of the movie’s points, sometimes put forward a bit awkwardly, is that Corbett’s flamboyant gentlemanly presence has revolutionized boxing’s social image. In one way this merely suggests that he’s helping “clean up” boxing (a perennial need, it seems), but more specifically in the movie this “revolution” centers on the elimination of the Victorian hierarchy wherein only men were permitted to frequent the world of blood, booze, and fleshly joys in saloons and boxing arenas. And the sexual implications are by no means one-sided. Much is made of Corbett’s ballet-dancer behavior in and out of the ring, and some running jokes center on his fastidiousness about his neckties and the condition of his hair. All these aspects of the film’s comedy cast a satirical light on the exclusive Victorian distinctions between “masculine” and “feminine.”

The Corbett family itself, with its parties, dances, and brawls, suggests an extension of this freedom, a freshening of communal as well as personal vitality. The Corbett women, mother and daughter, tend to be more conventional Victorians than Vicki Ware, but they are part of a striking celebration of the family unit based on conflict. The Corbetts are continually fighting, hence the movie’s recurring cry, “The Corbetts are at it again!” But they are also an extraordinarily tight-knit bunch and, putting aside all cheap cracks about “the fighting Irish,” the film leaves us with the feeling that this family’s unity derives directly from the joy its members take in fighting with each other. Much of the film’s fighting has a comic tone to it; moreover, there is so much fighting that a playful, ebullient sort of satire emerges, too. But if this fighting seems a charmingly absurd human obsession here, it unmistakably represents a healthy externalization of human conflicts as well. The film’s psychology is surely oversimplified, and yet its unabashed delight in the expenditure of physical energy gives its comic vision a certain unique truth. Particularly in contrast to the neurotic families of 19th and 20th century literature, the Corbetts’ delightful extroversion represents a challenge to culturally endorsed introversion. That it is a celebration rather than an examination of extroversion is a sign of the film’s limitations. But even though it tells us less than we need to know about why the Corbetts are the way they are, Gentleman Jim brings us under the spell of a freedom which would seem visionary were it not so completely unpretentious.

Gentleman Jim celebrates the family with a vigor usually reserved for friendship and sex in Walsh’s films. And while the Corbetts are more jubilant and rambunctious than many of John Ford’s families, Ford’s often supply us with a greater sense of the dynamics of family relationships. Walsh, I think, comes closer to the foundations of human behavior than Ford does, but Ford’s sense of social psychology is far more intricate and precise. Likewise, Gentleman Jim emphasizes qualities and concerns which Walsh holds in common with Howard Hawks, but Walsh’s celebration of male friendship isn’t nearly as demanding as Hawks’s, and the relationship of conflict and affection is treated (by director and characters alike) with far greater sophistication in Hawks’s films. But if the raffish high spirits of Gentleman Jim make it less resonant than its counterparts in Hawks and Ford, its joy is neither mindless nor oversimplified. On the contrary, this festive movie gains resonance of its own through the anarchic social spirit beneath its comic surface, through the shrewd realistic touches amid its roughhouse romanticism, and through its recognition of the darker side of the forces it plays with.

Errol Flynn and entourage

Unlike a good many Warner Brothers films that preceded it, Gentleman Jim isn’t a movie that wears its cause on its sleeve. Yet for all its comic exuberance, indeed because of it, this is one of the studio’s richest films in social terms. Gentleman Jim has no “message” but it does have the Corbetts, and it does satirize people who think that their money makes them something special, and it does refuse to take the title character’s success story seriously. It also has a scene in which an interfering sheriff and his deputy are summarily dumped into San Francisco Bay—a moment which assumes a modest but significant place in the film’s pattern of goodhumored anarchy. The film as a whole can be seen socially as a celebration of a half-imagined, half-remembered San Francisco, a city which Walsh has more recently called “the heart of the country.” Thus, while the conventional social protest film points up the need for a healthier social order and perhaps makes a few suggestions of likely directions, every inch of Gentleman Jim goes beyond the need to something like the actual creation. The gap between social proposals and communal fulfillment is vast, but this film’s success in imagining something better and then giving us a taste of it is very special indeed.

The film’s romanticism is made more persuasive by the use of detail, some of which is modestly realistic in nature. The film lingers over bits of “period detail,” Billy Delaney’s pocket watch (seen in closeup as he winds it with a key) and various aspects of saloon decor. Animals mingle with people, especially in the Corbetts’ neighborhood (where the family runs a livery stable), and this, of course, is just one of the ways in which the film emphasizes physical reality. But there are also some rather original touches which add to the film’s charm and conviction. In one case, the title character finishes a streetside conversation which has become an argument, and departs. But instead of fading out, Walsh’s camera follows Flynn for a few moments as he moves rapidly down the street, dodging oncoming pedestrians with much the same quickness and grace used to dodge punches in the ring. Delight in the physical feat is the chief effect here, but of course this glimpse of Corbett in the midst of everyday action also tells us something about his intensity and his singlemindedness, evoking an element of obsession beneath his cavalier qualities. In another intriguing moment, Walsh cuts away from a view of the Corbetts running wild in a New Orleans hotel room to show us two pugs exchanging a dour, covert look of disbelief. The characters’ glance speaks for a whole style of behavior; and Walsh’s glance, as director, is one of the means by which this film evokes a society’s workings from the inside out. The comedy of the pugs’ unspoken disapproval and the Corbetts’ uncouth delight becomes one more facet of the film’s celebration of an amiable chaos.

Ward Bond and Errol Flynn

An especially important aspect of the movie’s strength comes from an awareness of the other side of its elation and energy. Part of this has to do with Corbett’s pal, Walter Lowrey (Jack Carson), an inveterate bumbler who gives the film a comic motif of failure beneath the continuing stream of Corbett’s success. Walter is not “comic relief,” inasmuch as virtually the entire family is comedy, but he effectively neutralizes any generalizations about the American Dream evoked in Corbett’s own career. Meanwhile, the two remain fast friends in a way that has nothing to do with Hawks’s code of male friendship (Hawks’s is exclusive, while Walsh’s is inclusive, or at least indiscriminate by comparison). When Walter’s gauche behavior gets him kicked out of a post-fight soirée at the Olympic Club, Corbett leaves too—a protest against snobbism, a gesture of non-exclusive comradeship. Even more important to the film’s darker side, however, are its intimations of mortality. Some comic moments revolve around the infirmity of the flesh, well-heeled old men creaking and puffing through calisthenics at the Olympic Club, a little boy looking at Corbett and asking his mother “Why doesn’t daddy look like that in his underwear?” And in the most touching scene in the film, there is Ward Bond’s humbled John L. Sullivan passing on his title and Corbett accepting it with a sensitivity that reflects the knowledge that he too will fall sooner or later. Ward Bond’s performance gives a chunky, stoic grace to a scene which undercuts the film’s raffishness, but which also deepens the context of its hedonism.

Here as elsewhere, Walsh’s directorial efforts seem to focus above all on the zest and humor of the performances. But Gentleman Jim is also one of his most impressively mounted films. The enormous energy of the mise-en-scène is consistently contagious: it establishes its idiom early and sustains it throughout, and the result is more of a whole directorially than in any other Walsh film I’ve encountered. Even an uncharacteristic touch—viewing John L. Sullivan’s first and last entrances via mirrors—seems uniquely appropriate to the image the character casts. Best of all are the fight scenes with their great physical release, and their elaborate sense of space. The topper comes just after the knockout punch in a match on a waterfront barge: Walsh cuts back to a view of the entire improvised arena for a composition which celebrates both conqueror and conquered and, hence, the event, the fight itself.

***

The Strawberry Blonde is unusually domestic for a Walsh film, and rather sentimental to boot. Nevertheless, it has a good deal in common with Gentleman Jim, including a Nineties setting (New York rather than San Francisco), a combative hero (James Cagney), and Alan Hale as a comical rowdy father. But there are also some important differences: Biff Grimes (Cagney) lacks Jim Corbett’s gift for dominating the events of his own life; women have far greater importance here, with the title character (Rita Hayworth) and Amy (Olivia DeHavilland) being the central forces of the film; male friendship is complicated by betrayals and delusions (here the Jack Carson character is the traitor, while the unfortunate Grimes is rather like the Carson character in Gentleman Jim).

Grimes falls for Vivian (Hayworth), but loses her to Hugo Barnstead (Carson), falls for Amy (DeHavilland) instead and marries her, gets duped into taking legal responsibility for some of Hugo’s shady schemes and goes to jail for it, gets an opportunity for revenge but decides he doesn’t really need it (Hugo and Vivian have become a miserably quarrelsome couple, while Biff and Amy are easing along in unexpected happiness). All this is played broadly, for comedy and sentiment alike, and while its appeal is much less profound than Gentleman Jim‘s, there is plenty to enjoy. There’s a good deal of music, including a sing-along after the film is seemingly over, and period flavor dominates (leeches for black eyes, free lunches in saloons, buggy rides, home-study dentistry courses, park bands, livery stables, a dance café, etc.). As the sing-along confirms, the film is more nostalgia trip than anything else, but its nostalgia does not preclude references to Tammany Hall politics and to a D.A. who is under pressure to “get convictions” before an election. Moreover, the American Dream, or rather the myth of free individual enterprise, gets surprisingly skeptical treatment here (via the contrast of Hugo’s devious salesmanship with Biff’s hard-earned acceptance of his own modest lot), and Walsh’s anarchic irreverence emerges in a scene where a strolling couple (Cagney and Hayworth) leave a pile of banana skins beneath the Statue of Liberty.

James Cagney and Alan Hale

Some of the most characteristic humor has to do with Biff’s father (Alan Hale), who is more boyish than his own son (a circumstance that is alluded to in an otherwise willy remark: “But Dad! I brought you up!”). The elder Grimes flirts insanely, almost as a matter of policy, and insists on flagrant fibbing as one of life’s great pleasures—along with fighting, of course. At one point, father and son are even competing for the same girls. Walsh’s earthy humor emerges elsewhere, too. In one sequence, Hugo dupes the ever-gullible Biff into returning a rented buggy to the livery stable; Biff finds himself stuck with the bill but has no money, and so the proprietor hands him a pitchfork and points to his work while Walsh cuts to a line of horses’ rear ends. In a charming sequence at the dance café, a very fat and very European couple blows beer foam at Grimes and Vivian when the latter reacts with prissy disapproval at the sight of all that brew; Grimes very nearly gets into a brawl, but the fat couple ultimately leaves an impression of robust “old world” ribaldry. It is the kind of scene Manny Farber may have had in mind when he dubbed Walsh a “poet of the American immigrant.” This poetic ribaldry is also involved at times with the ethnic and sexual stereotypes which modern audiences find disturbing. A barber with an accent (George Tobias), for example, notes that Vivian would have been a different woman if she’d married him: “With seventeen kids you got no time to nag.”

With or without stereotypes, much of the performing tends toward caricature. Cagney’s remarkable mime of frightened adolescence (at age 42!) and DeHavilland’s broad-gestured parody of emancipated womanhood stand out in this respect, as does a bit of dialogue on “love”: “‘it’s like an ingrown pain. It starts in yer stomach and works its way up to yer neck!” But the Cagney-DeHavilland pairing produces some unexpected subtleties as well. Twice in the film Biff tries to bluff his way through a major personal defeat, and both times Amy, knowing the truth and not wanting him to be hurt, goes along with his game, gently reining her own emotions in the process. The involvement of Tobias’s barber in the first instance makes the gesture a moment of delicately stated male friendship as well. And the couple’s reunion scene, with Biff returning from prison, is the finest in the film. The tentative nature of their conversation evokes both the emotional delicacy of the moment and a new humility and maturity in Biff. Cagney manages to sustain this feeling in spite of dialogue which has Biff observing that prison has taught him that “there’s an awful lot of good in people, if you just look for it.”

James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland

In a more consistently sophisticated script, that line might be taken as a reflection on the character’s misinterpretation of his own plight. In any event, Biff Grimes bumbles through mistaken relationships in a way that recalls Eddie Bartlett. Bur whereas Bartlett was too intent on his own course to heed Panama, Grimes is so highly suggestible that only Amy’s good faith saves him from a sadder lot. Just what attracts an intelligent and independent girl like Amy to a nice, unthinking boy like Biff is hard to say, but here too Cagney manages to communicate a vitality that is attractive and yet flawed (perhaps more than any other major star, he projects an all too human image). Walsh plays Cagney off against the two leading ladies, giving them closeups where Cagney gets more distant portraiture. Although the women provide the film’s dynamics, Cagney supplies its cohesive emotional strength. Biff is a boy/man to whom things happen, yet Cagney lends this pawn role unexpected complexity: a hint of tragic flaws in the blind spots, a suggestion of roguishness behind the youthful gallantry, a genuine sense of emotional growth which is fairly unique in Walsh’s movies. Ultimately, and regardless of Cagney’s nuance, Biff Grimes remains one of the American cinema’s boy/men: in the final scenes, he wins a fistfight (part of a running battle with some Yale boys over music) and crows with delight at the news of his imminent fatherhood. Once more, he invokes his favorite “explanation” of his behavior—”That’s the kind of hairpin I am!”—and once more we have the brawling, energetic, unreflective Walsh hero, this time in tacit partnership with the intelligence and humanism which Amy is permitted to evoke only in moments crucial to Biff.

GENTLEMAN JIM
Warner Brothers, 1942. Screenplay: Vincent Laurence, Horace McCoy. Cinematography: Sid Hickox. Art direction: Ted Smith. Editing: Jack Killifer. Music: Heinz Roemheld. Montages: Donald Siegel. Production: Robert Buckner.
The players: Errol Flynn (James J. Corbett), Alexis Smith (Victoria Ware), Jack Carson (Walter Lowrey), Alan Hale (Pat Corbett), Ward Bond (John L. Sullivan), John Loder (Clinton DeWitt), William Frawley, Minor Watson, Madeleine LeBeau, Arthur Shields, Dorothy Vaughn, James Flavin, Pat Flaherty.

THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE
Warner Brothers, 1941. Screenplay: Philip G. & Julius J. Epstein, after the play One Sunday Afternoon by James Hagan. Cinematography: James Wong Howe. Editing: William Holmes. Musical direction: Heinz Roemheld. Production: Hal B. Wallis; associate: William Cagney.
The players: James Cagney (Biff Grimes), Olivia De Havilland (Amy Lind), Jack Carson (Hugo Barnstead), Rita Hayworth (Virginia Brush), Alan Hale (Old Man Grimes), George Tobias (Nick Pappalas), Una O’Connor, George Reeves, Lucile Fairbanks, George Humbert, Edward McNamara, Russell Hicks.

Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue


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