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.



Caftan Woman said...

I am so glad you are "home." I have tears in my eyes from your eloquent and heartfelt review of a movie in which live.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, CW. I cried a little when I wrote it because my heart was so full, but they were tears of happiness. Can't wait to get over to your place and read about the five pennies - one of my early faves.

Linda J. Sandahl said...

Every so often Hollywood made a movie that was not just entertaining or even moving but actually profound. I think this is one of them, largely due to the wholly committed performances by the two leads.

Tonya said...

What a lovely review. It's been years since I've seen this movie. The discomfort of seeing this relationship comes from knowing it's based on real life and it's been hard for me to watch again. I remember how Doris and James's pairing captivated me so much and your review really helps to point out why. Thanks for a great post.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Linda. There is no doubt this goes beyond just entertaining. Talk about a toxic relationship.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Tonya. It was years for me, too - and I was surprised at how powerful it is. Maybe because we are much more sensitized to domestic violence and abuse, it has an extra layer of meaning. But in this case, the manipulation went both ways. Glad the film had the courage to show that.

Silver Screenings said...

Loved this review. It's smart, insightful, and moving – so much so that I'm now wondering why the heck I haven't seen this film before.

FlickChick said...

Hey Ruth - thanks for the kind words. I'm a real sucker for films that feature stars at the top of their powers and this one has it in spades. If you can find it, I think you'll enjoy it for the great performances and the great music, as well as an adult story for a change.