Saturday, August 26, 2023

Love Me or Leave Me: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Doris Day.

Doris Day, by her own choice, rarely ventured outside the sunny confines of musicals and romantic comedies. The few times she did, such as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Midnight Lace and the Ruth Etting biopic Love Me or Leave Me, Day proved that she could do strong dramatic roles. Perhaps a bit longer than it should have been, Love Me or Leave Me is a fine showcase for two great actors.

Ruth Etting (Day) wants to be a singer, but in 1920's Chicago, all she can find is work as a dime-a-dance girl. One night, she fights back against a particularly aggressive customer. While she gets immediately fired, her fiery nature and beauty attract the attention of powerful hoodlum Martin Snyder (James Cagney), better known as The Gimp due to his limp. Snyder is openly attracted to her, but like Anne Boleyn, she won't submit to Snyder sexually or romantically but is not above taking his patronage. 

Snyder puts her in the chorus of a club that is part of his extortion racket, but she keeps pushing to be allowed to sing. Snyder does not understand why she is so adamant about singing when to him there is no difference between singing and dancing, but he agrees to let her have a shot. Under the tutelage of pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), Etting becomes a great success. Snyder becomes Etting's manager, and he does get her good bookings even if he bullies and threatens everyone to get them. That includes Alderman, of whom he is suspicious of over his intentions. Alderman, who has fallen in love with Etting and vice versa, eventually quits her orchestra to go to California.

His bullying includes Etting, whom he initially calls "Etling". Her star rises to even make it to the Ziegfeld Follies, but Snyder cannot abide her taking any direction or career advice from anyone other than himself. Ruth Etting is a hit in the Follies, while Martin Snyder just hits anyone in the Follies. Out of a mix of fear and misguided gratitude, Etting marries Snyder. Snyder continues to book Etting in clubs, which are financially successful but at a cost to Etting's emotional wellbeing and Snyder's shady dealings. 

Fate turns her way when Snyder gets Etting a film contract. While initially reluctant, she gets a call from the film studio's musical director: none other than Johnny Alderman. While their budding romance is missed by her minder/Snyder's right-hand-man Georgie (Harry Bellaver), Snyder sees it instantly. He decides to pull Etting from her film career and book her at his new club on a permanent basis. She cannot stand it anymore and asks for a divorce. The lives of Snyder, Etting and Alderman all collide in a shocking but oddly happy conclusion.

Love Me or Leave Me is a little over two hours long, probably due to the number of musical numbers that Day performs. I am a big Doris Day fan, so I am not complaining about her voice and some of the musical numbers. Of particular note are the Shaking the Blues Away from her Follies performance. It is cinematically impressive, with the use of shadows and monochromatic opening. When she starts singing Everybody Love My Baby (But My Baby Don't Love Nobody but Me), director Charles Vidor does something incredibly clever and character revealing. He puts the focus on Cagney's Gimp as he watches the headless Etting singing, her figure gyrating to the music. It is clear that The Gimp is looking at Etting with a mix of lust and pride at his protege. Her head is quickly shown, but I found this brief moment quite revelatory about Snyder's perspective.

Other numbers, however, were pretty static, consisting of just her singing in one wide shot. At times, it made sense, such as when she sings I'll Never Stop Loving You (one of the two original songs for Love Me or Leave Me which was singled out for a Best Original Song nomination). It does take place at a rehearsal, so that staging makes sense. However, given her early start as a dime-a-dance girl, I think the film lost a great opportunity when she sings Ten Cents a Dance. Day delivers this tragic song exceptionally well, as she does with every song she sings. However, I think the film could have explored Etting's memories of her time when she did have to live off Ten Cents a Dance. The chance to reveal her experiences was there, but it was not taken.

That Doris Day can sing is not in doubt. What about her acting? Day was known for her sunny persona but Love Me or Leave Me reveals a strong dramatic actress. As Ruth Etting, Day showcases a stubborn survivor, one who is determined to get ahead no matter the opposition. We also see a slightly ruthless side to Etting through Day's performance, such as when she casually suggests that she could be a main performer should the usual club performer happen to miss a performance. Her Etting is tough, not afraid to take charge if it is to her own benefit. However, we also see the vulnerable, even conflicted figure. 

One of her best scenes is when Snyder demands she quit the Follies despite her triumph due to Snyder getting kicked out after he punches someone out backstage. As Snyder reminds her of all he has done for her career, the conflict between her gratitude for him paving the way and her desire to be successful overwhelm her. The emotional conflict comes through, and one deeply admires Doris Day for the dramatic strength she has.

It is surprising that Day was not nominated for Best Actress in Love Me or Leave Me while James Cagney was nominated was nominated for Best Actor. That is not to suggest that Cagney did not deserve recognition. His Martin "The Gimp" Snyder draws from his gangster persona, but he is more than a hood who takes a shine to this torch singer. Cagney makes his Snyder almost sympathetic in his mix of bully and baby. He is someone who just wants to be a success, someone whose bark can be sometimes worse than his bite. 

Cagney is deeply compelling as Snyder. Driven but easily wounded, desperate for respect from everyone. Snyder is nobody's fool. In one of the best scenes for Cagney, we see him observing Etting and Alderman rehearsing a song. At the end of it, he turns to Georgie and angrily says, "You stupid jerk". He sees clearly that they are in love and is infuriated by that. Cagney makes Snyder into both a fierce brawler and an almost frightened boy. He and Day work well together as this doomed couple.

Mitchell had little to do except be the love interest, but he was fine in the film.

In a strange turn of life imitating art, Love Me or Leave Me may be Ruth Etting's life story, but it could also be Doris Day's life story. Day's third husband was not only also named Marty (Martin Melcher) but like Snyder had near-total control of her career. Worse, after Melcher's sudden death, Day discovered not only that he left her millions of dollars in debt but had signed her to a television series without her consent or knowledge. Ruth Etting makes film for Paul Hunter Productions. Some of Day's biggest hits were directed by Ross Hunter. That might be stretching things, but it is an odd coincidence.

Another song from Love Me or Leave Me seems more apropos to both Ruth Etting and Doris Day's tumultuous lives: Mean to Me. Love Me or Leave Me perhaps could have been trimmed in its running time, and there is a strange suggestion of a happy ending. However, with two strong performances by James Cagney and Doris Day, it is well worth watching.



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