Monday, January 17, 2022

The Roaring Twenties (1939): I'm an Absorber, Not an Observer

This is my entry in CineMaven's Essays From the Couch For the Umpteenth Blogathon. You know, movies you've seen so many times every word, look and outcome is carved in your heart? Click HERE for more cinematic obsessions by people like us... you know, movie nuts.

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

There are people who study the cinema, and rave about the art of film, but me - I love the movies - pure and simple. Frankly, I'm a little sketchy on directors, writers, cinematographers and the like. I guess I prefer to believe that it all comes together by magic. It's always the actors and the characters they play that hook me. I know they are crucial ingredients in the final recipe, but great writing, great scoring, all that great behind the screen stuff - for me it all serves the personalities I'm involved with. And I say involved because, yes, I'm one of those people who can watch the same movie over and over again until I actually feel as though I am an invisible participant - the voice who encourages, agrees, swoons, warns and despairs. See, I'm an absorber, not an observer. Don't expect me to talk about great visual shots, director intentions and the like. I'm not one of those people. I do not stand apart as a cool observer. I see them, but the movie, if I love it, is absorbed as a whole into my mind and heart. And a really special movie is one I can watch again and again. Nothing changes, except maybe me. The emotions I write over the story might change as I change over the years, but the story remains reliably the same. I know, I'm nuts.

It might also be a character flaw of mine that I am always sympathetic to James Cagney, no matter how corrupt the character he is playing. Hey, I even root for Cody Jarrett ("White Heat"), but that's another story. His personal charm makes me overlook the last 10 guys he might have plugged, but it's always for a good reason, isn't it? His unique and particular sense of honor and morality is unbreakable. I'd have made a great gun moll. Anyway, there is less of a conflict for me (legal-wise) in "The Roaring Twenties," Cagney's last gangster role until the aforementioned Cody Jarrett a decade and a world away.

The Story 

Eddie Bartlett at the top of his game

"The Roaring Twenties" is based on writer and gad about producer Mark Hellinger's memory story of that fabled era, with fictional characters based on real-life people he may or may not have rubbed elbows with (he seemed to be a bit of a fabulist, but what the heck, he was a writer).

By 1939, enough time had passed for some cultural reflection on the aftermath of World War I, a crime wave caused by prohibition, and the stock market crash of 1929. 1939 also saw the world on the brink of another war. The story opens with a warning of things to come (Mussolini and Hitler are featured prominently) and a nostalgic look backwards to World War I, the war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy. It is there that we meet our everyman, Eddie Bartlett (Cagney) and the two "friends" who have a dramatic impact on his life; George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). They form a bond of sorts in the trenches of France and their characters are quickly defined: Eddie is a tough but decent guy who just wants to get along and go back to his job in a garage, Lloyd is a classy guy, a lawyer who dreams of an office in the Chrysler Building and George, well, George really likes that machine gun and thinks it might do him some good back home. Some of Eddie's boredom and loneliness at the front is soothed by his regular letters from a very nifty looking gal who lives in Mineola, Long Island. 

Three in a trench

Documentary style, we see that when Johnny came marching home again after the war, soldiers are met with parades and little else. The Jazz age beckoned, women's skirts are being raised and their hair bobbed. The biggest change comes with the passage of the Volstead Act and the proliferation of  bootleg booze and gangland crime as the response to "an unpopular law and an unwilling public." Eddie lands back at home with his loyal cabbie buddy Danny (played by everybody's best pal, Frank McHugh), but is unable to find a job no matter how hard he tries. 

So much for the thanks of a grateful nation.
You can't live on a parade.

A respite from the disappointment comes when Eddie and Danny drive out to Mineola to meet this hot pen pal dish of Eddie's. Unfortunately for Eddie, Jean, the girl of his dreams (Priscilla Lane), is really a high school student who sent him a dolled up photo from a school play. Another disappointment for Eddie, who tells her he will look her up in a few years.

Jean is not quite the sexy dame she claimed to be.
Eddie should have known then and there she was a little liar.

To make a living, Eddie shares cab driving duties with Danny and it is then that he innocently brings some bootleg booze into a speakeasy and we are introduced to the unforgettable club hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George). Eddie is nabbed by the cops for violating the Volstead Act and reluctantly takes the rap for Panama, who proves to be an all right dame when she bails him out and introduces Eddie to the world of bootleg booze and fast, easy money. Eddie likes her as a friend, but it's clear Panama has fallen for our hero hook, line and sinker. 

Eddie shows Jean around the office.

Fast forward to Eddie's criminal rise in the booze business. He's a hard worker! Lloyd was the mouthpiece who initially couldn't keep Eddie out of jail, but Eddie, ever loyal to his friends, keeps Lloyd on as his lawyer. He mainly has him purchasing taxi cabs as as a cushion against hard times. Lloyd does not like Eddie's criminal enterprise, but he sticks around anyway with a perpetual disapproving puss. Oh, and he pockets the money.

Eddie once again connects with his Mineola gal, who is now dancing and singing in the chorus of a show. Since she is no longer a school girl and has filled out rather nicely, Eddie takes his shot and he and Jean become an item. He is so smitten with her that he strong arms Panama and the club owner into giving her a singing job. Meanwhile, Eddie has also hooked up with the dangerous George and together they move into the big time rackets.

You know the rest, right? Jean and Lloyd fall in love. Everyone can see it coming like a freight train except Eddie. Ever the realist, George even tries to warn Eddie that Lloyd is moving in on his girl, and Panama agrees, but Eddie refuses to consider such traitorous behavior from his friend and sweetheart. "I trust my friends" he fatally growls and walks away. George tells Panama that is a big mistake. "I don't trust mine," he says, to which she replies "they don't trust you either," and the two clear-eyed people who really know the score share a knowing smile. His is lethal, hers is full of resignation.

"I trust my friends." Eddie's big mistake

Meanwhile, poor Danny is murdered by a rival gang, George double crosses Eddie, the stock market crashes, and Prohibition is repealed. George, ever resourceful like a sewer rat, comes out fine and, when Eddie offers to sell his fleet of cabs to George for some much needed cash, George leaves him with one cab," 'cause you're gonna need it." 

Jean asks Eddie how he is. He's back to driving a cab.
How the hell does she think he is?

George was right. After the illegal booze business dries up, Eddie is back driving a cab. And who does he pick up for a fare one day? Why, Jean in a mink coat laden down with Christmas gifts. She even invites Eddie into her lovely home with her adorable little boy, when Lloyd comes home and wants Eddie to stick around and talk about old times. What fun! Jean and Lloyd - what a pair. These two knuckleheads deserve each other. Eddie declines because how much humiliation and heartbreak can a guy take, but generously warns Lloyd, who is now with the District Attorney's office, that George is a danger to him because he knows too much.

So it comes to pass that George's henchmen warn Jean that if Lloyd talks he will die. What else would a clueless little self centered bitch do? Why of course, go back to Eddie, who is now drowning his sorrows in legal booze while Panama sort of sings at some dinghy dive, and ask for his help. Ah, but he still has a thing for her and so, unshaven and so down on his luck that, as one fancy thug says, "the rags of his pants are beatin' him to death", he goes to George to ask him to lay off Lloyd. Well, George is nothing if not consistent. Naturally he declines and figures he needs to get rid of Eddie, too. Happy New Year. 

But, Eddie still has some fight in him, and he manages to plug George (and a few others) and escape, only to be gunned down on the street by George's goons. 

The rest is poetry. Eddie, shot in the back, staggers down a city block until he comes to the steps of a church. He manages, blindly, to climb a few steps only to finally surrender to death. Panama races to him as he takes a balletic fall to the street, but it is too late. She cradles his lifeless body in her arms and when a passing cop (man, those cops are always too late) asks her who he was and what was his business, she utters those unforgettable closing words (backed by "Melancholy Baby"), "he used to be a big shot." Chills.

In a world where good people go wrong, Panama and Eddie strike a post-prohibition Pieta pose for their final curtain.

The Things I Want to Say

As I said, I find myself as a tragically unheard voice in this story. Here's a few things I need to get off my chest.

First: Eddie - do not bring that bottle of bootleg booze into Panama's club. If you don't go there, you might remain happy driving a cab until something better comes along. Of course there would be no story if this happened, but play with me here.

Second: Eddie - DO NOT FALL FOR JEAN. SHE IS A LITTLE CHEAT AND IS TOXIC FOR YOU. Plus, her singing is high school level at best. If you grow up to be Marty Snyder in "Love Me or Leave Me," at least you'll find a better singer in Ruth Etting to obsess over.

What the hell is this dumb dame talking about?
Who are Marty Snyder and Ruth Etting?

Third: Eddie - It's okay to trust your friends. Danny and Panama are your friends and, trust me, you can trust them. But, and listen carefully to me Eddie; JEAN, LLOYD AND GEORGE ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. Therefore, do not trust them. Got it?

Fourth: Eddie - Look, Panama is really in love with you. You could do worse. Stick with her. And while you're at it, stop drinking. When Jean tracks you down and begs for your help telling you that it's Lloyd's duty to go after George - man, please let there be a half a grapefruit on that table just made for her sanctimonious little kisser. She sees you're boozed up and a mess and doesn't even ask how you are.

Fifth*: This one is for, you, Panama. Girl - look harder - Eddie is not dead! When you tell the cop he's dead - you need to take another look. He is clearly breathing. Get our lad to the hospital quickly! 

*Number five is an indication I have seen this movie umpteen times. Take another look at the clip above and you'll see it.

The Characters/Actors

The best thing about Jean's act are the
smoking chorus girls behind her.

Let's start with Jean, played by Priscilla Lane. I hate her. She is a user and a cheat. The first time she meets Lloyd she practically drools. A little minx in a good girl wrapper. Priscilla Lane is pretty, but she just isn't in the same league as the other principles. Her best moments are as the innocent schoolgirl. In no way can I believe that she is hot enough for speakeasy patrons, let alone Eddie. Plus, her singing stinks. When Eddie, who always foots the bill, asks her how her singing lessons are coming, Jean tells him not to waste his money. Those are the truest words she speaks in this movie.

When Wonder Bread meets bologna: The first meeting between Jean and Lloyd. Look at those goo-goo eyes she gives him.

Lloyd, played by that big slice of white bread Jeffrey Lynn, made for an equally annoying and ultimately boring character. Another self-righteous guy who steals his friend's girl. Eddie calls him big, dumb and good looking. He might have added untrustworthy weasel.


Poor Danny. He just wasn't cut out for this racket.

Danny, played by Frank McHugh, is terrific as always. He's like Lassie - a guy's best pal. When he is murdered by Eddie's gangland rival, a little bit of the heart goes out of Eddie, and it's the beginning of the end.

George introduces Eddie to the big time - and murder.

George is one nasty, heartless S.O.B. and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Humphrey Bogart, waiting for superstardom, is unrelentingly snarky, sneering, nasty and pretty darn wonderful here. Sure he's shifty and cowardly, but you always know where George is coming from. In a topsy turvey world of uncertainty, you can always count on George to be George.

Everything Panama is is written on her face

Panama, as played by Gladys George, is simply perfect. Her total devotion to Eddie, even when he is so clearly besotted with Jean, is heartbreaking. She plays the speakeasy hostess with panache and humor, but her hurt is always there. More than once Eddie tells her to "shaddup," and she never gets sore, just takes it because she loves him yet knows it is useless to try and stop him from self destruction. When she tells him that they both have finished out of the money in the race to the top, you know this is a woman who sticks with her man through thick and thin. It's to Eddie's credit that he is still with her at the end. In an unforgettable performance, Gladys George, with her whisky-soaked voice and brassy manner, steals every scene she is in. In typical Warner Brothers fashion, Glenda Farrell, Ann Sheridan and Lee Patrick were considered for the role of Panama (based, in part on the legendary Texas Guinan), but it's hard to imagine anyone else coming close to Gladys George's beautiful portrait of a tragic all-around good dame with a heart of gold. And no nod for a Best Supporting Oscar. 

"Melancholy Baby" - Eddie knows he's a sucker and is walking into danger, but he's a guy that has to do the right thing.

Finally, there is Eddie, as played by James Cagney. Like I said, I'm always rooting for Jim, but this time there is a little more decency, a little more pathos and a lot of bad breaks for his gangster. Like Tom Powers ("The Public Enemy") and Rocky Sullivan ("Angels with Dirty Faces"), Eddie's path to a life of crime was sparked by an outside societal force. But, in this case, it wasn't poverty. It was a country that did not honor its wartime heroes once they returned home, and that really stings. Those of us who lived through Vietnam witnessed similar treatment, and recognize it even today. Cagney always swings for the fences, and his Eddie glitters like a blinding jewel that keeps each portion of the story in motion. While willing to murder if the situation calls for it (rival Nick Brown gets it in the back through a closed door, but he deserved it because he killed Danny), he retains a basic goodness and touching naiveté. He's even polite enough to apologize for socking Lloyd in the jaw after he discovers that he and Jean have been seeing one another on the sly. Everything about what Eddie has done and felt and what he is going to do is indicated in his face and mannerism when he momentarily stops at the piano when "Melancholy Baby" is played before his final confrontation with George. And that last scene...not even Fred Astaire could have managed such a graceful and tragic exit. Nobody died quite like James Cagney. 1939 was a tough year for honors, but it is an award worthy performance.

Final Thoughts: So What is it About this Movie?

I don't know...I think besides the amazing acting and cast of characters, it's the time period and the quasi newsreel quality of the story I like. Told as a memory, it offers a terrifying yet romantic rose-colored view of a recent past, and I'm nothing if not a true romantic. I always want to believe that Eddie will make it out alive and that he and Panama will once again prosper in spite of the odds against them because they got a raw deal and are the good guys in this saga. That's what makes this an umpteenth movie for me: knowing the outcome but hoping for something different each and every time because those guys deserve it and I love them.

Maybe this time Eddie will see that Panama's better for him?

If you made it to the end here, you, too, must be part of the repeat offender tribe. Join the rest of us by clicking here. And many thanks to Theresa for hosting this event and giving me a chance to gush about a movie I adore. Again.

Friday, December 10, 2021

The "It's a Wonderful Life" 75th Anniversary Celebration: It's a Wonderful (and Sexy) Kiss


This is my entry in the “It’s a Wonderful Life Blogathon” hosted by The Classic Movie Muse. Click HERE for more great posts celebrating the 75th anniversary of this classic.

I hate to be a wet blanket at this party, but I have a bit of an issue both with George Bailey and James Stewart. 

Oh George, you are such a good guy, really. I mean look at all the sacrifices you’ve made, all the good things you’ve done and all the hardships you’ve endured. But let’s face it, you can be one grumpy s.o.b. It’s a good thing Mary loves you. And Clarence and the rest of Bedford Falls. Okay, maybe there is a reason. I'm open to it.

Now to James. It’s kind of in my movie loving DNA to love this actor. I mean, who doesn’t? But, it seems to me that he is always playing a rather disagreeable fellow. “Rear Window”? He’s complaining about Grace Kelly. GRACE KELLY! Come on. In “Vertigo” he is harassing Kim Novak and being totally obnoxious to Barbara Bel Geddes. Why Katharine Hepburn did a stint in his arms in “The Philadelphia Story” is a mystery to me (thank goodness she came to her senses and fell back into Cary Grant’s arms). And in “Bell, Book and Candle” it makes one wonder why Kim Novak’s witch didn’t cast a permanent spell to erase his disagreeable tendencies. Now that I come to think of it, his casting in “It’s a Wonderful Life" is a pretty perfect blend of character and actor.

But there was one thing Mr. Stewart did in his films that I heartily approve of  - he was a pretty darn good kisser, and therefore, so was George Bailey. Take a gander at George’s 2 greatest kisses and a bunch of others by Mr. Stewart. Since someone took the time to make this video, I guess I’m not the only one to think Mr. Stewart sizzled in the lip lock department.

That scene by the telephone is pretty darn sexy for a holiday movie, isn’t it? The longing, the desire, passion….aww – I guess I’ll just have to watch it again this year. I always suspected there was more to George Bailey than just the good old Building and Loan.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

George Tobias: Hey! That's Abner Kravitz!

This is my entry in the What a Character Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club. Click here for more about our favorite folks who don't need star billing to shine.

George Tobias as himself

For me, the best character actors are the ones who press that automatic happiness button that's wired in our movie-loving brains. As soon as they appear, you recognize them and the world - movie-wise, that is - is a better place. Like a cuddle under a warm blanket or the platonic hug from an old and dear friend, certain actors who operate below the star billing can provide us with a sense of reassurance. Once they appear, we know everything is going to be fine. And even if it isn't, well, we thought it might.

My introduction to the stars of classic films came through television. Older stars who worked in TV were identified by my mother (See Alice Faye on "The Hollywood Palace"? She used to be a great big star). When it came to movies,  I was a Warner Brothers gal from the get-go, chiefly because those were the only films my local TV station seemed to show. Plus, they really did have the best roster of supporting players, didn't they? So, it was only natural for me to recognize that guy playing an immigrant from some foreign land as good old Abner Kravitz from "Bewitched."

Warner Brothers cornered the market on New York types (my favorite type, by the way), and George was no exception. Having spent most the the 1920s and early 1930s on the stage, he committed to Hollywood in 1939 and somehow became everybody's favorite immigrant. Some of the roles played by this nice Jewish boy were an uncredited Soviet in "Ninotchka," Sascha in "Music in My Heart," Pasha in "Affectionately Yours," Igor Propotkin in "Out of the Fog," Nick Popoli in "My Wild Irish Rose," and Vassili Markovitch in "Silk Stockings." Two of my favorite George Tobias immigrants are Rosario La Mata in 1940's "Torrid Zone" and Nicholas Pappalas in 1941's "Strawberry Blonde." In both films he supported James Cagney, and they seemed to go together like peanut butter and jelly.

A revolutionary George Tobias

Somehow, somebody thought George would make a good Central American revolutionary in "Torrid Zone." Despite the questionable believability factor here, George plays his role with such ingratiating good humor and gusto that you just have to root for him to escape justice and live to fight another day.

Nick and Biff reminisce about the good old days in "Strawberry Blonde"

The other part I adore him in is as Nick the Greek barber in "Strawberry Blonde." As the usual best friend he gets some very funny lines, my favorite being "boy how those foreigners murder the English language" in his heavy Greek accent while observing a German band singer. Noting that the beautiful strawberry blonde of the title (Rita Hayworth) would not have turned into a nagging shrew if he had married her, he states that "a woman who has 17 children got no time to nag." 

In 1943, George got to show another side of himself in "Thank Your Lucky Stars," a Warner Brothers showcase of performers who donated their salaries to the Hollywood Canteen. Supported by Olivia de Havilland and Ida Lupino as jitterbuggers, George donned a zoot suit and, as always, gave it his all. For once he got support from "A" list leading ladies.

When not playing a fellow from some foreign land, George also turned up everywhere and anywhere as the good friend of the hero. Never a double-crosser, he was reliable and sympathetic, and when he sometimes met his demise as the script demanded, you can't help but miss him (thinking "Captains of the Clouds" here).

Abner and Gladys Kravitz

And then there was Mr. Kravitz. George did lots of television and when he landed on "Bewitched," well, what can I say? He was the fellow I was always happy to see - just like in the movies.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Living Your Inner Life in Public: The Lure of the Love of Film

A couple of things, movie-wise, have been converging around me lately. Powerful things...things that are hard to put into words. But, I'll give it a go.

First, I've been watching a whole lot of films starring my favorite actor. I think I'll leave him out of it for now, since I've written so much about him. I've been moved to tears (I'm crying a lot know how it can be) not by any specific film, but by coming to understand what makes a performer an artist. It's generosity. They can be the most talented, but without generosity there can be no greatness. The ones who hold back, who keep something apart, you can have them. Now, can you think of that performer who you love, who speaks to you in a language of feeling, who takes your breath away by willing to expose the most deeply felt emotions that real people struggle to hide? Then insert that name in your heart, for they are generous with their gifts. They sprinkle the ordinary with stardust.

Second, I actually went to the movies for the first time in well over a year*. What brought me to tears this time was not the movie itself but the coming attractions. So many exciting thing to come! I've been so insulated in my home watching movies this past year and a half that I forgot what it felt like to sit in a theater. With people. Watching those trailers, I realized there are those out there still creating stories meant to move us, excite us, amuse and thrill us. In this time of such civil ugliness, there are still people who are invested in the magic of visual storytelling and who long to take us on that journey.

And it's a funny journey, isn't it? Norma Desmond says we are alone in the dark. On one hand that is true. Our experience is singular. Anyone who breathes movies can tell you that they stir a rich inner life, a private world that is precious. That world can bring great joy and also serve as a ballast against troubled times. If you are lucky, it will never leave you. On the other hand, we sit among our friends and strangers, sharing a common experience. We hear the chuckle, the sniff that precedes the tear, and we become part of a shared journey.

Will the movie-going experience ever be the same again after we've gotten so used to watching everything under the sun on our large, high definition televisions? I simply don't know. I recently watched "Cinema Paradiso," not only a love letter to film, but one to that paradoxically communal and intimate experience of entering that very sacred portal to an inner life.  Amazing how something so fixed and permanent as a piece of film can lead us to a nostalgic past, a hopeful present, a deep and longing passion, a soul cleansing belly laugh or all of the above all at once.

Truthfully, there are no words to adequately describe these moments, but all I could do is try. The best movies are never real. How could they be? They are real plus, real extra...masquerading as life, but with that extra bit of beauty that defines some sort of art.

*Oh, and for those 2 idiots who were seated in my row...if you want to have a running commentary between you 2 during the film, please go home and watch movies on television. When you are in the theater, you're not in your ****ing living room. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Producers (1967): Here's a Funny Story.....

Maybe it's the state of affairs all around us, but I've been in a particularly sensitive mood these days...for so many days, it seems. Almost anything can make me bust out in tears - usually something beautiful; a song, a moment from a film, a memory. And when it comes to comedy, I simply can no longer abide the joke cloaked in meanness. 

So, here's the funny story. When I saw the topic for the CMBA Blogathon, I jumped at the chance to select "The Producers," my go-to comedy that never fails to make me laugh. However, once I started to put a few thoughts down on paper, it all seemed vaguely familiar. And no wonder. I had written about this same film in in 2012 CMBA Comedy Blogathon and in the 2018 CMBA Outlaws Blogathon. What's that quote about insanity?

Anyway, I picked it yet again, so now I'm faced with the challenge of saying something different about it. I mean really, I felt I had said it all in 2 pretty decent articles. And yet here we are again - me, Mel, Max and Leo. So, here are the links if you feel inclined to read about the film:

This time I'm doing something a little different.

First, let me bow down in awe of the great Mel Brooks. Almost all of my comedy gods are gone, some long gone before my time. But, praise whoever, Mel is still here with us and I firmly believe the world is a more joyful place because he is here (that goes for you, too, Jack Nicholson, but that's a whole 'nother story). 

Here's the great man accepting his Oscar for Best Screenplay (after some shtick from Sinatra and Rickles -ah those were the days when the Oscars were fun).

The tale of 2 swindlers who give us "Springtime for Hitler" is a love letter to the comedy traditions of vaudeville, burlesque and early television. It is humor put forth with the adolescent's complete conviction about what is funny. And who is braver and freer than the adolescent before the world of adults infects him or her with self-doubt? I am so grateful Mel never grew up.

The secret ingredient here - and all great comedies have one of those, don't they? - is love. The important presence of Zero Mostel as Max is offered with love for all that he is here - and all that he went through in the past. His Max is outrageous, venal, a joyous liar and an entitled thief, but somewhere in there, there is love. Somehow, one feels he is loving the moment, no matter how perilous. There is also love between Zero and his Leo (Gene Wilder, so sweet in his first big role). Mel's humor is based in love. That is why we can laugh at Hitler. That is why we can laugh at 2 Jews ditching their swastika armbands in a trashcan after they secure the rights to Franz Liebkind's Nazi-fueled fever dream of a play. Deep in our hearts we want to believe love wins.

When our hearts are so broken by the world, it takes a loving heart to mend them. And a funny loving heart? Even better. Well, leave it to that great humanitarian Mel Brooks to give us so generously what we need. "The Producers" says come play with me, come revel in the bawdy, uninhibited humor that obliterates hipness and coolness. Cleverness is merely humor without humanity. Artificial Intelligence can be clever. It takes a human being to give us Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Laughter is the Best Medicine Blogathon. Click here for more needed comic relief. And boy, do we need it!

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Love Me or Leave Me (1955) - A Bad Romance


This is my entry in The Biopic Blogathon, hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.  Click here for more favorite biopics. They’re all true, right?

My heart explodes with love for this film. It has everything that enchants me about the movies. It may never make the list of the greatest films ever made, but it weaves a tale of dangerous emotions and irresistible characters and features knockout performances of epic chemistry by two of my favorite actors, James Cagney and Doris Day. I absorb it. It creates its own world in my imagination. It makes me feel. It makes me care.

Marty thinks he's in control

“Love Me or Leave Me” is a fictionalized (what else) version of the unsavory and pretty appalling professional life of singer Ruth Etting. Ms. Etting was a popular singer in the 1920s and 30s, known as “America’s Sweetheart of Song,” who was married to her violent mobster manager, Martin “Moe” Snyder, charmingly known as “Moe the Gimp.” Once Etting managed to free herself from Snyder she entered a romantic relationship with her accompanist, Myrl Alderman, whom Snyder promptly shot. All of this really happened (Snyder’s teenage daughter was also caught up in the gun play, but there was only so much of this that the movie could show). Anyway, in 1955 Etting, Snyder and Myrl Alderman (now Ruth’s husband), all sold the rights to their story to MGM. So, while the film certainly sanitizes a lot, it also has that smidgen of truth that some biopics can’t claim.

Ruth gets canned from her 10 cents a dance girl job,
but bigger and badder things are on the horizon

The story opens in the Chicago of the 1920s where Etting is working as a 10 cents a dance girl and Snyder is the local hood shaking down the establishment. She catches his eye and he tries his luck for a quick pick-up, offering to help her get a job on stage. She is ambitious and takes the help (she is hilarious when first hired as a dancer who can’t remember her steps) and that’s the beginning of a twisted, sadomasochistic relationship that ends with the above-mentioned shooting.

What makes this film so damn compelling are the performances of Day and Cagney and how they breathe life into a couple entangled in a relationship that is, to say the least, complicated. Each party thinks they are in control, until one of them is not.

Marty is always mouthing off, but Ruth holds the reins (for a while)

Doris Day is no little miss innocent here. Looking sexy as all hell in skimpy, skin-baring outfits (as well as some other less revealing but no less beautiful outfits, all designed by Helen Rose), Day comes across as 100% believable as the overly ambitious, hard drinking singer whose moral compass is a little off kilter. See how she works Marty to get her more of what she wants.

Doris looking amazing

The music, mostly songs Etting made famous, as well as a few new ones, is Doris at her best. Because each song is presented as part of a performance, the musical numbers blend seamlessly with the story. It’s a beautiful soundtrack that was hugely popular in its time.

This was Doris Day’s first real dramatic performance and she is perfect. She goes toe to toe with Cagney in some heated arguments that are downright uncomfortable in their intimacy and she never backs down. There is a real, twisted sexual tension between these two; his combined with hope, violence and jealousy and hers mingled with self-loathing and an over-estimated confidence in her ability to control him.
 Cagney loved Doris, lobbied for her to play the role, insisted that she get top billing (what a guy – the first time he relinquished it since attaining star status in 1931) and thought she was a great actress. I have to concur. Next to Judy Garland, I think she is probably the most talented all around performer in film. There was nothing she couldn’t do, and she did it all with a never showy naturalness that is sometimes underrated due to her later undeserved reputation as a professional virgin (although she was married in so many of those later comedies. Go figure). Her transformation from a hopeful, joyous performer to a beaten down woman who drinks to numb the pain is harrowing and touching (her “Ten Cents a Dance” number masterfully illustrates the hardness and sadness she develops after her marriage to Marty).

Marty Snyder was Cagney’s last gangster role and he simply blows up the screen with raw appeal. Nothing is held back in reserve and he takes my breath away. His Gimp is crude, brutal, an animal and yet, at the same time, charming, and lovesick and you just can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Ruth knows he is nuts for her and initially manipulates him while managing to keep his romantic overtures at bay. She accepts the help he gives her with her career and doesn’t seem to mind that, initially, most of that help was obtained through shady methods. She plays the game well, but in the end pays a big price. After a scandal making altercation backstage during Ruth’s Ziegfeld Follies debut, the couple get into a vicious, heartbreaking argument that ends with an off screen sexual assault and a miserable marriage. When he furiously attacks her because she would never acknowledge their relationship to the Ziegfeld crew, she says she couldn’t and he practically sobs that he would have done it for her (a tough guy holding back a sob is always a gut punch). Whew. It truly feels like watching the most private moments of a couple’s awful argument, feeling like you somehow intruded upon them and you shouldn’t be there.  The 1955 censors apparently cut out more explicit scenes of violence and sexual assault. According to Day's biography, that disturbing scene continued with Marty pushing Ruth against a wall, tearing her dress and raping her. The remaining scenes are disturbing enough. 

This battle is about as emotional as it gets. Marty is a
dangerous and wounded animal and Ruth has run out of luck

Cagney’s Gimp eventually devolves into a man who has lost control of Ruth and his emotions, ending with a mean (and very real) slap across his soon to be ex-wife’s face and the eventual shooting of Alderman. It's debatable if Day knew the real slap was coming, but it was 100% real. Ouch. Audiences gasped at the shocking violence.

Of course, Cagney in the clink is always fun to watch. When Ruth comes to see him there he tells her it makes him feel like a kid again and that he is finally done with her. She realizes she is free, but she is not jubilant. Marty was like a bad addiction. You know it's so bad for you, but you can't imagine living without it.

Marriage to Marty means sadness and the end to sexy pjs

During each of Ruth’s performances the camera repeatedly gives us Marty’s reactions. At first, when a club owner is strong-armed into letting Ruth perform, Cagney is nervous and then relieved when he realizes the girl can actually sing. Next we see him filled with pride when he realizes that he doesn’t have to “stack the joint” with cronies and that customers actually want to pay to see her. Finally, we see the admiration fade to the realization that, after her smashing performance at the Follies, he has lost her and that she doesn’t need him anymore. All of these emotions are spelled out in a single look. I could go on and on about how towering this performance is, but I’ve always been a sucker for Cagney and this is one of  - if not my favorite – performance of his. He justly was nominated for an Academy Award (Ernest Borgnine won that year). Doris, unjustly, was not. The film did win the award for best story.

Marty fears the handwriting on the wall

So, what else? Cameron Mitchell as Alderman is very appealing and sympathetic and makes a nice, strong shoulder for Doris to cry on. 

Myrl Alderman becomes Johnny Alderman in the film

The gal who sings a nightclub jingle in the beginning is Audrey Young, who in real life was Mrs. Billy Wilder. The part of the agent who befriends both Ruth and Marty is played by Robert Keith, who was Brian Keith’s father. And three cheers to Harry Bellaver, who played Marty’s long suffering and ever present stooge and punching bag, Georgie. The look of the film is a little less 1920s and more 1950s MGM, but the lush orchestrations by Percy Faith are top notch. There are tons of little bits of business – Marty casually helping Ruth take off a bracelet during one of their nasty arguments, his inability to remember her name when they first get involved (calling her “Ettling”), Marty genially patting the back of the prison guard as he is led back to his cell – all serve to make these characters knowable to the audience.

Marty finally lands in a place he feels comfortable - the pokey

Ruth Etting was not very happy with the finished product (are they ever?) and would have preferred to have Jane Powell play her. Snyder was also unhappy with the way he was portrayed, but he should have been happy that he wasn’t portrayed more honestly. Ugly stories abound. Happily, after all the drama, Ruth and Myrl Alderman had a long and happy marriage, largely away from the spotlight. Marty, as his film character predicted, did eventually get sprung from prison. His exact fate is a little murky, but it seems he drifted back to Chicago and worked in a mailroom or a license bureau. Somehow I don't think all he did was sort letters....

Here are the real Ruth and Marty, as well as the recently shot Alderman with Ruth, and Marty’s daughter (who ended up living with Ruth - as I said, it was complicated), at his bedside.


And here is Ruth Etting singing her signature song, Love Me or Leave Me.


On a personal note, I have to say how grateful I am that I watched "Love Me or Leave Me" again for this blogathon. For quite a long time now I have been a little indifferent to classic film. It seemed the old spark was gone, and it saddened me. James Cagney was the very first actor, so many decades ago, who got me hooked on classic films. And here he is again, so many years later, reigniting that passion. Thanks for bringing me home, Mr. C. I better not stray too far from him again.