Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fame at Any Price

Film: Love Me or Leave Me
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.


  1. I haven't seen this but I had to comment on Jimmy Cagney.

    As much as I love movies like Public Enemy, The Roaring Twenties and especially White Heat, my favorite Cagney performances are those where he isn't playing a gangster. (Although he's still a tough guy!)

    My favorite Cagney movie is Footlight Parade! I also love Midsummer Night's Dream, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Bride Came COD. And have you ever seen The Crowd Roars where he's a racecar driver? Geez Louise! The ending is TOTALLY NUTS!

    1. It's really easy to forget that Cagney was incredibly talented as an actor. He got pigeonholed into a lot of tough guy roles, probably because of his stature and his naturally fast patter. The guy had real skill, though. Love Me or Leave Me is an instance where he plays that same character, but allows us to see under the facade.

  2. As you said this isn't a musical per se but a drama with musical performances, a very different animal. There is nothing bright and shiny about this. I think it was a huge oversight that Doris wasn't nominated, it's her best dramatic work and vocally she's at her peak. At least Cagney was acknowledged with a nomination but it really is a complex dance they perform together.

    Surprising that this came from the ultimate dream factory, mid-50's MGM, since aside from the high gloss look this is a hard number featuring two rather contemptible people caught in a sick relationship.

    Ruth Etting sings like a dream but she's a mercenary grabber who uses the Gimp shamelessly planning on dumping him when he's taken her as far as possible and then becoming trapped in her own web and while he's emotionally enslaved by her he's still a dominating bully who thinks nothing of slapping her around and verbally abusing her. Having read Day and Cagney's autobiographies they both said the scene after he pulls her out of the Follies was filmed to be much more intense. Rather than fading to black it continued on with him beating her severely almost up to the point of the rape that broke her spirit at which point she consented to their marriage adding an extra layer to the following scene where he was obviously trying to make a conciliatory gesture and her shutting him down by saying "You don't have to sell me, I'm sold."

    Having also read a biography of Ruth Etting the basic facts of the film are close to the truth, though Alderman's real first name was Myrl not Johnny. Surprisingly since it paints her in a not terribly flattering light Etting was a consultant on the film but she stated that they had left out the most important part of her life, her decades long happy marriage to Alderman.

    One of the things that saves this from being a standard drama about unpleasant people is the strong magnetism of both Day and Cagney. Because of their individual warmth and the accessibility of their charisma the audience can actually sympathize with both while their shred each other in front of our eyes.

    It also helps that the film is packed wall to wall with amazing music, several of which were numbers introduced by Etting-Ten Cents a Dance was a signature song of hers in her heyday, and that even new numbers like I'll Never Stop Loving You feel right for the period.

    I like poor put upon Georgie too. I'm also a fan of Robert Keith who plays Barney, it's odd that he's listed as Bernard in the credits since everyone calls him Barney throughout the film. He was everywhere in the 50's. I was shocked when I found out that he was Brian Keith's father since there is zero family resemblance.

    Vidor mutes the emotional impact of the final number by shooting it in long shot but otherwise does a decent if unexceptional job of direction, however it's the lead pair that make the movie worth watching.

    1. It's an interesting performance from Day. I agree that she's at her vocal peak here--her musical numbers are really good and all work for the film. Maybe it's that she is such an emotionally abusive character and something of a drunk that got her overlooked for a nomination. There's something very unwholesome about Ruth Etting in this. Cagney, on the other hand, is a punk, but he's human. It's a rare case where he plays someone truly despicable in so many ways that is still really sympathetic in so many others.

      I'm not kidding when I put this at or near the top of his performances, or at least his gangster character performances.

    2. I don't think it was the drinking that kept her out since Susan Hayward, who would have been my choice to win that year, was nominated for her work as Lillian Roth in I'll Cry Tomorrow and she was a much more severe boozer than Etting is shown to be. But the idea that it was the blatant opportunism of the character which hurt her could be a valid cause.

      Lillian Roth was shown as a sad, kind woman plagued by demons that pulled her down the horrifying rabbit hole of blackout alcoholism whereas Etting, while certainly not deserving of the abuse the Gimp dished out, is complicit in creating her situation. Doris wrote that she received a great deal of mail taking her to task for portraying someone who is shown drinking, manipulating etc. since so many of her fans saw her as a "nice" girl. Perhaps there was a faction of those people within the Hollywood community.

      Whatever the reason it's a shame, she was better than a couple of the other performances that did make the cut. She's heads and tails above the nothing performance that scored Jennifer Jones a nod in Love is a Many Splendored Thing.

      As for Cagney I'd agree this is one of his best performances because he shades it so well. Cody Jarrett is a monumental piece of work but he's flat out nuts so Cagney didn't need to rein himself in as much as he does with Snyder who is merely tormented so has a firmer grip on reality which makes his dilemma all the more difficult.

    3. I see where you're going. There are other boozy women who merited nominations, after all (Smash-up, another Susan Hayward role, is a fine example). But it may also be that there seemed to be no real consequences of the drinking, either. Ruth Etting drank, wore somewhat revealing outfits and, admittedly, used Marty Snyder and ended up getting what she wanted. In other cases where women act in this way in films of the era, they end up having to more or less repent for their sins. Ruth doesn't, and that might really be the biggest factor here. There are no negative consequences for her (not really, anyway) for anything that she does.