Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
I’ve always liked James Cagney. Like a lot of the classic Golden Age actors, Cagney got roped into a particular type. Think of Cagney and you think of a tough thug, his character from White Heat or The Public Enemy, or even Mister Roberts. It’s easy to forget that Cagney was a unique song and dance man as well, as evidenced by Yankee Doodle Dandy. With Love Me or Leave Me, we get both of those worlds. Cagney doesn’t dance here, but this is definitely a musical, and Cagney gets to go back to his thuggish roots. It’s also, according to IMDB, only the second time since he became a star that Cagney settled for second billing, ceding the top spot to Doris Day. It’s also evidently Cagney’s last gangster role, which makes it noteworthy.
Love Me or Leave Me is the story of Ruth Etting, and it’s evidently based at least in part on a real story of the real Ruth Etting (Doris Day). I don’t know how true to life it is. I’ll be frank: I’d never heard of Ruth Etting before popping this into the spinner and only know this is based on a real story because of my post-viewing research on the film.
We start in the ‘20s with Ruth working in a dime-a-dance club where she catches the attention of Marty “Moe the Gimp” Snyder (James Cagney). She loses the job when she kicks one of her customers for stomping on her foot one too many times. Marty is immediately smitten with her and heads to the back room where he offers to help her find another job. How can he do this? Well, Marty is a mobster who does the laundry for clubs all over Chicago and runs a protection racket at the same time with his associate Georgie (Harry Bellaver). Marty uses his influence to get her a job as a dancer, but what Ruth really wants to do is sing.
Marty arranges that, too. In fact, Marty attempts to arrange everything in Ruth’s life and takes some liberties with that, offering her trips to Florida where his intentions are plainly obvious. Ruth resists this, but realizes that Marty is a chance for her to actually start a real career. The wrench in this works is Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), who is also obviously interested in Ruth. It’s evident that in this case, the interest is reciprocated. Almost on a whim Marty hires Johnny as Ruth’s accompanist.
Marty, acting as Ruth’s manager, gets her into the Ziegfeld Follies and Johnny heads to California. Marty makes an ass of himself and eventually gets himself kicked out of the theater but also gets into business with agent Bernard Loomis (Robert Keith). The problem is that while he’s convinced himself that he’s got Ruth’s best interests at heart, he’s also had to fight for everything he’s ever gotten in his life, and he knows no other way to do things than by pure aggression and going full steam ahead. Eventually, Ruth marries Marty, who takes her on a whirlwind tour of the country and eventually lands her a picture deal in Hollywood where Johnny Alderman reappears as the musical director of the film. Naturally the last half hour gets pretty hairy.
I was a little surprised initially that Doris Day didn’t get a nomination and I think she might have earned it in some respects, but in Love Me or Leave Me, she’s mainly worth watching when she’s singing, and she sings a lot in this. That’s not a bad thing, because Doris Day is always worth watching when she’s singing anyway.
No, this is Cagney’s picture from start to finish. I’ve always liked Cagney as an actor and I especially like him in his classic tough guy roles. And for as much as I like films like White Heat, this might be Cagney at his Cagney-est. Marty Snyder is a rough little shit, an annoying bastard with a Napoleonic complex the size of a building. It is pure pleasure to watch Cagney’s Marty dig himself into a series of holes because his ego won’t let him do anything less. But it works not because Cagney plays it tough, but because he gives Marty Snyder a genuine emotional side. This is a guy who really hurts a lot and who is vulnerable and hates his own vulnerability. For all of Cagney’s gangster roles, this one might well be the most human.
The story itself is not a traditional musical. Ruth only sings when she’s on stage and there’s no singing of feelings except in those spots where she appears to be singing to Johnny when she’s rehearsing with Johnny. The story isn’t a traditional one at all. This is plays like a romance without the romance. It works completely for me, but it’s also the one aspect of this film that might not work for some people and lovers of more traditional films.
This isn’t a fun film, but it might well be a great one. If nothing else, Cagney is worth your time and I have a soft spot for his pal Georgie, too.
Why to watch Love Me or Leave Me: Hard to say no to Doris Day and James Cagney.
Why not to watch: This is not the easy-breezy musical you might assume it is.