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Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Love Me Or Leave Me - 1955


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The slightly fictionalized life story of Ruth Etting, popular jazz singing star of the '20s and '30s. Doris Day stars with James Cagney.

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Dreams Are What Le Cinema Is For: Love Me Or Leave Me - 1955

  1. 1. LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME 1955 The musical biopic, as a genre, is one grown so homogeneous and formulaic over the years, even films I’m seeing for the first time have a sense of déjà vu about them. Irrespective of the subject or its title - The Helen Morgan Story, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Funny Girl, Star!, or Lady Sings The Blues - these films hew so closely to a standard Hollywood rags-to-riches soap opera blueprint that their basis in biographical fact matters, at most, only tangentially. Doris Day as Ruth Etting James Cagney as Martin (Moe the Gimp) Snyder 1/7
  2. 2. Cameron Mitchell as Johnny Alderman For a public never tiring of being fed endless variations on the same Horatio Alger myth, celebrities and their alternately sordid/glamorous life stories have long been a wellspring of source material for Hollywood's dream machine. Hollywood and the old studio system has always trafficked in the wholesale packaging and commodification of reassuring fantasies designed to both titillate and tranquilize. And as such, movie biographies, musical or otherwise, have never really been about the actual lives of their chosen subjects so much as they were middle-class cautionary tales detailing the perils of pursuing the very sort of fame, glamour and wealth that make going to the movies so alluring in the first place. These interchangeable tales of sin and sequins always start out advocating the virtues of hard work, talent, and ambition; only to pull a moralistic about-face in the last reel, revealing the brass ring of success to be only nickel plate. America’s perverse love/hate relationship with celebrity demands that our glorification of wealth and notoriety never be rewarded with stories about famous people who are actually happy. In the end, it always seems as if our innate puritanism gets the better of us, allowing only for the depiction of stardom as a fundamentally empty, joyless kind of ambition. A goal fraught with heartache and awash with tears behind the tinsel. Love Me or Leave Me follows a similar course, but distinguishes itself by making the road it takes toward its anticipated comforting conclusion one of the bitterest and bumpiest I've ever encountered in an MGM musical. The biographical musical's claim to being "Life-inspired," "Told as it really happened," or "Based on a true story," is less an assertion of verisimilitude so much as a marketing ploy allowing for the recycling of "showbiz melodrama" tropes dating back as far as 1929's Broadway Melody. If queried about its track record of making biographical films that bear little to no resemblance to the actual lives of their subjects, Hollywood’s response would most likely be along the lines of: “If you want facts, go see a documentary!” And indeed, dramatic interest and entertainment value always trumps truth in movie bios. And so it goes with Love Me or Leave Me, the reasonably accurate (read: mostly made-up ) story of Ruth Etting, popular jazz singing star of the '20s and '30s. 2/7
  3. 3. During the 1920s and '30s, Ruth Etting gained fame as "America's Radio Sweetheart" and "America's Sweetheart of Song." When we first meet Ruth Etting (Doris Day), it’s the 1920s and she’s working as a taxi dancer in a seedy Chicago dime-a-dance dive that’s being squeezed by small-time racketeer Marty Snyder (James Cagney). Recognizing an opportunity for exploitation when he sees one, Snyder attempts to put a squeeze of another sort on the spunky, well- put-together Etting after she's sacked for defending herself against the physical advances of an over-ardent customer. In a romantic song-and-dance as old as Herod and as topical as an episode of Judge Judy; Snyder hopes to curry the favor of Etting through the gracious bestowing of a lot of strings-attached assistance. Although initially apprehensive, Ruth, a woman not unfamiliar with bread and knowing upon which side hers is buttered, soon finds herself the begrudging recipient of the diminutive mobster’s largesse. (That sentence reads smuttier than perhaps intended.) As Martin Snyder, Cagney adds another memorable character to his Rogues Gallery of cinema bad guys. My favorite character touch: Snyder's inability to remember Ruth Etting's last name (he calls her "Ettling" for the longest time!) In spite of an awareness of Snyder's increasingly possessive actions on her behalf being motivated by a romantic interest she cannot return, Etting—the nakedly opportunistic possessor of both a burning ambition to be a singer and a moral compass desperately in need of adjustment—nevertheless permits the gangster to bankroll and promote her career while she strings him along. Not exactly a problem until continued success incites in the songstress a longing for independence that increases in direct proportion to Snyder’s obsessive need to control her every waking moment. Further fanning the flames of discontent is the ongoing flirtation between Etting and onetime on-the- Snyder-payroll pianist, Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell). Yes, for a brief period, both Etting and Alderman are being paid by Snyder while making goo-goo eyes at one another behind his back. A mobster, an opportunist, and a double-crosser: what a lovable cast of characters! 3/7
  4. 4. Although Love Me or Leave Me was made with the compensated consent of then- living Martin Snyder, Ruth Etting, and Myrl Alderman (changed to "Johnny" for the film), upon the film's release Etting is said to have dismissed the film as "Half fairy tale." That I even enjoyed spending time in the company of three such largely unsympathetic and self-interested individuals is a testament to the irreproachable charm of both Doris Day and James Cagney; the tuneful score of period standards made famous by Etting; and the obfuscating dexterity of Daniel Fuchs Oscar-winning story and Isobel Lennart’s (Funny Girl) Oscar-nominated screenplay. WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM If the above statement gives the impression that I’m less than thrilled by Love Me or Leave Me’s somewhat flinty cast of characters, let me clarify that nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, the hard-bitten characterizations and refreshingly cynical tone of Love Me or Leave Me place it far beyond the pale of your typical, sentimental, MGM musical fare. And by me, that is just fine. I truly love movie musicals, but a rarely-discussed downside to this pop-cultural predilection of mine is how frequently I'm forced to endure the most cloyingly false and saccharine plotlines just to get to the singing and dancing. Love Me or Leave Me is such an atypically dark depiction of ambition and obsessive love that one immediately senses that there is no way a film this sordid would ever be green-lighted were it not purportedly based on true events. Doris Day has had just about enough of your shit. Succeeding where Martin Scorsese’s not-dissimilar New York, New York failed, Love Me or Leave Me finds the humanity behind its hard-boiled characters and delivers a solid musical drama that takes an unflinching look at the kind of relationship that is doubtless more common in show business than we're usually shown. It all makes for a remarkably gripping viewing experience as anticipated romantic clinches and cliches are dashed left and right by characters with scarcely a sentimental bone in their bodies. Chiefly due to the powerhouse performances of Doris Day & James Cagney, what might otherwise be abhorrently unpleasant material becomes truly compelling human drama. Marred only by the occasional lapse into perhaps Production Code-mandated, tacked-on morality. 4/7
  5. 5. Although the film's production values are all top notch, one has to keep reminding oneself that Love Me or Leave Me is set in the 1920s. The musical and visual tone is decidedly '50s. Doris Day's big musical number,"Shaking the Blues Away," owes more to Judy Garland's "Get Happy" number in Summer Stock (1950) than The Ziegfeld Follies. PERFORMANCES If you’re a fan of the extensive catalog of mobsters, hoods, and mugs that made James Cagney one of the biggest stars at Warner Bros. in the '30s & '40s, then his performance in Love Me or Leave Me might feel like a late-career “best of” reprisal of the kind of roles he near-copyrighted in his heyday (Cagney was 55 at the time). Fair enough. For Cagney doesn't do a lot here that he hasn't done before. But whether his pugnacious, poignantly lovesick Moe the Gimp is your first or fiftieth exposure to James Cagney onscreen, there’s no getting past the fact that the man kicks serious ass. Looking very much throughout the film like a fist with eyes, Cagney—whether combative, funny, wounded, or monstrous—is such a magnetic, menacing, and dynamic a presence, you literally can’t take your eyes off of him. I never fail to marvel at Cagney's ability to create sympathetic monsters. As versatile an actor as they come, Cagney could have you rooting for a character in one scene and booing him in the next. Pictured here with character actor Harry Bellaver, Cagney gives one of those looks you really wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of. I’m a Doris Day fan from way back. But unlike most, my least favorite films of hers are those so-called sophisticated sex comedies she made with that interchangeably bland lineup of lantern-jawed stiffs: Rock Hudson, Rod Taylor, and James Garner. I know I’m alone in this, but I've always felt Doris Day—an actress of untapped versatility and an effortless appeal that made her considerable talent all too easy to dismiss—was sabotaged throughout her career by always being paired with handsome-but-dull leading men. Doris had a lot more danger and sex behind that million-dollar smile than she was ever able (or willing) to take advantage of, but in Love Me or Leave Me, she more than rises to the occasion. She delivers what is to me the best performance of her career and meets Cagney’s intensity head to head. She drinks, she's tough, she fires off her hard-bitten dialogue as if to the manner born, and she's one helluva crier (her sobs are so body-wracking they break your heart). There’s no way to look at her work here and not wish she had ventured into more dramatic roles in her career. (Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but if it’s true Doris Day was 5/7
  6. 6. offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, based on her performance here, more's the pity she didn't accept it.) In this particularly harrowing scene, Doris Day is nothing short of phenomenal. How she failed to receive an Oscar nomination for her performance is a mystery (of the film's 6 Oscar nods, Cagney's was the only nomination in the acting categories). The scenes these two share crackle with a vibrancy and tension thoroughly absent from Day's scenes with Cameron Mitchell. Day and Cagney had previously appeared together in the 1950 musical, The West Point Story . THE STUFF OF FANTASY Lest one begin to think Love Me or Leave Me is nothing but a lot of sturm und drang, rest assured that things are enlivened considerably by a passel of songs Doris Day gets to sing and dance to (quite marvelously, I might add). Although the songs are period-perfect, the arrangements are strictly 1950s, and Ms. Day sounds absolutely nothing like Ruth Etting, which is all to the better since she looks nothing like her either. Day is in fine voice and for once her spectacular figure is shown off to full a series of sexy, form-fitting gowns totally wrong for the 1920s, but who's complaining? A staple of show-biz biographies is the played for laughs "starting at the bottom" scene where the neophyte star "amusingly" ruins a musical number by not knowing the steps. In Funny Girl it was "Roller Skate Rag," in Star! it was "Oh! What a Lovely War." In Love Me or Leave Me, Doris flubs the dance steps to "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" Curious how in all of these scenes the least experienced dancer is always placed front and center. THE STUFF OF DREAMS Tossing aside any need for Love Me or Leave Me to actually be a historically/narratively accurate biography of Ruth Etting (If you must, you can see and hear her on YouTube, and read her considerably seamier story online), I have to say that I have nothing but praise for this film. In fact, I admire it a great deal and consider it to be one of the best of the overworked musical biopic genre. It isn't often that a mere musical offers up so gloomy a portrait of obsession, or showcases characters of such ambiguously complex motives and attachments. Love Me or Leave Me's old-school, MGM gloss is considerable, but there's a maturity to the whole enterprise which more than makes up for the film's occasional adherence to by-the-numbers movie bio plotting. In a way that feels very contemporary now but must have been jarring in 1955, Love Me or Leave Me maneuvers its tricky shifts in tone 6/7
  7. 7. expertly. The songs never bring the story to a halt and the drama always feels honest (sometimes brutally so) to the characters. Of course, what brings me back to Love Me or Leave Me time and time again are the performances of Doris Day and James Cagney. Who would ever guess that Doris Day could be so rivetingly sexy playing sullen and cynical? And as for Cagney...well, they don't make 'em like him any more. A polished diamond in the rough if there ever was one. Copyright © Ken Anderson 7/7