Is there anything more excruciating than listening to a power dirge by Josh Corban? Judge George Hatch thinks that the original song stylings of Ruth Etting run a close second. MGM, wisely, let Doris Day do the singing in this dark and daring "dramusical."
"You're making a big mistake"
"I've made so many, one more won't make any difference."
During the 1950s, MGM produced over 60 musicals, most of them screen adaptations of successful Broadway shows like Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But among the most popular were original musical bio-dramas of famous singers who endured career crises and tortured lives on their way to success. 1955 was a banner year for the studio, and they released three such films. I'll Cry Tomorrow featured Susan Hayward recreating the rise and fall of Lillian Roth and her bouts with alcoholism and despair. In Interrupted Melody, Eleanor Parker portrayed Marjorie Lawrence, an Australian opera singer who struggled with a slowly progressive paralysis.
The third film was Love Me or Leave Me starring Doris Day as Ruth Etting, a nightclub chanteuse who was the protégé and personal punching bag of a Chicago hood and went on to become one of the most memorable performers of the Jazz Age, a Ziegfeld discovery, and a Hollywood ingénue. With an audience primed by spurious, gossip-mongering tabloids such as Confidential and Whisper, this film combined show biz glitz with gangster guile, and it immediately grabbed the public's attention. Love Me or Leave Me became one of MGM's biggest critical and box-office hits of the decade.
Facts of the Case
Ruth Etting (Doris Day, Calamity Jane) is a young taxi dancer who wants to stop working the floor in sleazy Chicago night joints and make it to the stage. But, because she has a bad attitude, she can't hold down a job long enough to fill the slots in her dime-a-dance card or garner enough chits to buy a new pair of stockings. "You ain't goin' nowhere, duchess, if you keep sayin' 'no' to the customers," a co-worker advises. Ruth catches the eye of Marty "The Gimp" Snyder (James Cagney, Mister Roberts), a local mobster with plenty of connections. He sees her as just another dame with only a little mileage on her and promises to make her a star.
Marty puts her on stage, all right—as a chorus dancer. But Ruth wants to sing; she also knows what Marty wants, and she ain't about to put out. They play cat-and-mouse games as Ruth gets her way and Marty gets no payoff at all. He goes so far as to hire Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell, House of Bamboo) to coach her—"A few sessions, just to make it look good."—unaware that Ruth is already trying to get what she can out of Johnny. Marty packs the audiences of small cabarets with his lackeys and orders them to clap loud and whistle after Ruth's every song, no matter what she sounds like. He soon realizes that, "Hey! This applause is legit. I don't have to stack the house no more."
Marty manipulates Ruth's career and life. Ruth, in turn, uses Marty's Chicago clout to jump-start her career from speakeasies to the Ziegfeld Follies and then on to Hollywood. But his crude mannerisms and bulldozing tactics eventually make him an albatross around her neck when she hits the big time. They enter into a rocky marriage and a manager-star relationship that lasts for 15 grueling years of physical and psychological abuse. Marty does make her a star—of radio, recording, the Broadway stage, and the big screen—but at a price much steeper than Ruth had expected to pay.
As soon as the screenplay for Love Me or Leave Me got the green light, the coveted role of Ruth Etting was a prime target for both Hollywood newcomers looking for their big break and established stars already under contract, including such luminaries as Ava Gardner. Doris Day managed to snag the lead through a combination of serendipity and studio smarts. Day had made well over a dozen successful films for Warner Bros., including Michael Curtiz's Young Man with a Horn (1950) and I'll See You in My Dreams (1951), David Butler's Calamity Jane (1953), and Gordon Douglas's Young at Heart (1954). But it was time for her to move on.
Day was considered a lightweight whose popularity was founded on her sweet disposition, sincere vocal style, and girl-next-door image, complete with a freckled face and sunny smile. MGM thought the part of Ruth Etting was beyond her range, but they did want a singer. James Cagney had already been cast as mobster Marty Snyder, and he'd previously worked with Day in The West Point Story (1950). Cagney admired Day's spunk as a singer/actress and convinced the studio to give her the role.
For comparison, MGM has wisely included two VitaPhone shorts of the real Ruth Etting, "A Modern Cinderella" and "Roseland," a simple love story with roughly the same beginning as Love Me or Leave Me: As a "hostess" at the famous dance hall, Etting is mauled by a customer, then is rescued by a handsome man and gets to sing a song. I don't know what the real Marty Snyder looked like, but Etting was fragile and waif-like. It's easy to see how she could be controlled by the gangster but difficult to imagine her fighting back in any way…or, for that matter, to understand why he would be interested in her in the first place, except as a pawn to manipulate. Etting was called "America's Sweetheart of Song," but I found her trilling and warbling high-pitched vocalizations annoying as hell and near painful to listen to. I shiver just thinking if MGM had tried to play it safe and had Etting's caterwauling coming out of Day's mouth.
Doris Day has a sexy, athletic shape, full of curves, and she shows a lot of cleavage in the stunning gowns designed by Helen Rose. Day has an incredibly luminous screen presence, and in every scene they share, she matches Cagney's swagger with a mean strut of her own. Following a brutal and inevitable rape, Day beautifully captures the emotionally crushed Etting, who suddenly realizes that she's lost the one thing that kept her on the same give-and-take level as Snyder. She loses her self-respect and confidence and simply assumes the role of Marty's mannequin, posed, positioned, and paid to sing when told.
And here's where the story takes a surprising turn. As Marty pushes Ruth to stardom, her name is everywhere, but no one really knows who he is. And his bullying strategies carry no weight in New York or Hollywood. When he tries to take control of a dress rehearsal, he's brushed off. "Go back and play cops and robbers where they're still scared of you." Still in a depressed funk, Ruth challenges him with, "Just who are you, Marty? Have you directed any plays? Have you produced any films? What have you done?" "I'm the one who made you!" he says. "I'm the one who makes you tick! In New York, you treated me like I was nothing. From now on, wherever we go, I want you to butt in and say, 'He's with me! We're together!'" In total frustration, he shouts, "They'll know who I am!"
Marty's growing inferiority complex gets another unwanted jolt when his loyal bodyguard, Georgie (Harry Bellaver), lays out the facts. "Sure, you're married to her. But for all they know, you could just be a guy hanging on to a meal ticket." Georgie gets a haymaker to the jaw for his insight. Against the advice of his lawyer, Marty decides to make a name for himself by opening a nightclub and demanding that Ruth sing for scale pay between her big-bucks movie shoot. "People are going to know I made this place. My money! Not one red cent of yours."
Ruth has also been having a not-so-secret affair with the composer and musical director of her film. Johnny Alderman has been trying to help her escape Marty's influence for years, and when Marty's rage finally turns ugly and erupts into violence, she decides it's time to sever their relationship with a divorce.
One of the most interesting aspects of Love Me or Leave Me is how well the songs are woven into the storyline, and often the lyrics advance or comment on the plot. Ruth sings a beautiful version of "You Made Me Love You" directly to Marty, and he feels he's winning her over. This is followed by the up-tempo "Stay on the Right Side of the Road," which is delivered as a naughty warning to Marty to "watch your step, buster, and don't push me too far."
Ruth keeps putting off going on trips, so Marty poses his latest invitation as a threat. "I'll go," Ruth says, "but then you'll never see me again. Because that makes me a tramp and I'm not a tramp, no matter what you think." Marty acts like a boyish school kid when he tells Ruth, "I'm stuck on you, kid. I got big plans for both us." Ruth admits she's not stuck on him. Her career is more important, but she reminds Marty that he'll never be sorry for helping her. "What do you mean? I'm sorry already." He's smitten, sorry, and steaming mad.
Two other songs are closely linked. Ruth is now a success and delivers a rousing rendition of "Everybody Loves My Baby," followed by the sultry torch song "Mean to Me." You have to watch Marty's hands here as he taps and slides his fingers across the table. He's grinning because "everybody does love his baby." But his face drops when Ruth sings:
Mean to me…why must you be mean to me?
Marty is now ashamed over his treatment of Ruth, and his fingers slip slowly off and under the table. Day has the showier role, but it's these subtleties that earned Cagney his Oscar nod. The closing song is "Love Me or Leave Me." Adding a little bit of MGM sugar and schmaltz to the film's ending, Ruth is indeed singing in Marty's club. He hears these words, too, and realizes mistakes he's made. With a twinge of regret, he tells his lawyer, "You gotta give her credit. The girl can sing. About that, I was never wrong."
Love Me or Leave Me was directed by King Vidor, a master of the bio-drama, whose films include: A Song to Remember (1945), about Frederic Chopin; Hans Christian Andersen (1952); and The Joker Is Wild (1957), starring Frank Sinatra as comedian Joe E. Lewis. Vidor had his share of box-office flops, but Love Me or Leave Me stands as a showcase of his talent for drawing surprising performances from the most unexpected people. In this case, it was Doris Day who was brave enough to take on a tough script with a rough story. She changed her image at a time when most actors didn't want to take chances with their celebrity status. She's absolutely spectacular as Ruth Etting, determined but vulnerable, and she did her own singing and dancing. Her voice is sweet, clear, and, at times, heartbreaking. And she can kick as high as any Rockette. It's a shame she was overlooked at awards ceremonies, but she was the first woman in thirty years to earn top-billing over her costar.
James Cagney reprised some of his gangster personas, but his role as Marty Snyder is multifaceted and has more emotional depth because he's constantly changing his character's personality from a sweet-talking conman to a frustrated lover prone to violent outbursts. He delivers his lines with frightening conviction. In the closing line, however, I could hear a hint of George M. Cohan from Yankee Doodle Dandy. In the same year, Cagney starred in Mister Roberts, and his last film was Ragtime in 1981. In 1974, he received the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. The rest of the cast is full of familiar faces, all delivering fine support, except for Cameron Mitchell as Ruth's potential lover. Mitchell simply stands around looking like a stand-up cardboard ad for cigarettes. There's no spark to him, and he has all the charm of a lounge lizard. But special mention goes to Harry Bellaver (Miss Sadie Thompson) as Georgie, Marty's right-hand man, and Robert Keith (Written on the Wind) as Bernard Loomis, Marty's lawyer and show business liaison.
Love Me or Leave Me is one of MGM's most opulent and detailed productions. The art direction and set decoration are meticulously designed and capture the flavor of the period. Rose earned Best Costume nomination for Interrupted Melody and an Academy Award for her work on I'll Cry Tomorrow, but, like Day, her work here was sadly passed over. The score is a must-buy for lovers of the film, and it includes such titles as "It All Depends on You," Shaking the Blues Away," "Ten Cents a Dance," "Never Look Back," "Sam, The Old Accordion Man," and "I'll Never Stop Loving You."
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards but won only one: Daniel Fuchs earned the award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story (he was also co-nominated with Isobel Lennart for Best Screenplay). Some terrific gangster idioms provide a few laughs, as does a nice touch with Marty mispronouncing Ruth's last name as Ettling. It's a clever way of showing how little he really thinks of her at first. She never corrects him, but once he starts falling for her, he goes to Miss Etting, and then Ruthie.
Warner Home Video's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is near excellent, rich in saturated colors, but I found the darker scenes looked a little better by using the "Enhanced Black" option on my remote. The Dolby Digital 5.0 stereo is the best I've heard. I wish studios would provide this as an option to 2.0 and 5.1, because it's the perfect middle ground for those without a home-theater system. On my 32-inch TV, the 5.1 always emphasizes the score and special sound effects, relegating dialogue to the background.
In addition to the two Ruth Etting shorts already mentioned, there is another called "A Salute to the Theatres," which should really be "A Salute to MGM." It's basically a set of previews and behind-the-scene looks at the other studio productions being released in 1955, including Jupiter's Darling, Hit the Deck!, and The Prodigal.
The extras are a bit skimpy, and it would be nice to have an AMC-style "Backstory" feature on the making of the film and the censorship problems the film ran into in bringing this bio-drama to the screen. I understand that the rape scene is a mere snippet of what was shot and that some of the dialogue was considered questionable. Most appreciated, however, would have been a commentary—even a brief one—by Ms. Day herself.
Love Me or Leave Me can be purchased separately, or as part of The Doris Day Collection boxed set of eight discs, with some repackaged releases, such as Calamity Jane, and others that are new to DVD, such as Teacher's Pet.
After years catching Love Me or Leave Me in all of its CinemaScope glory on Turner Classic Movies and then dealing with fuzzy tapes (and even DVD-R!), it's a real treat to have the film itself on hand. If you've never seen it, now is the time.
Not guilty! Love it…and leave it in your DVD player!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Three Vintage Shorts: "A Salute to the Theaters," "A Modern Cinderella," and "Roseland"
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