It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.
This week’s musical:
Love Me or Leave Me – Musical #39
Director: Charles Vidor
Doris Day, James Cagney, Cameron Mitchell, Robert Keith, Tom Tully, Harry Bellaver, Richard Gaines, Claude Stroud, Audrey Young, Dorothy Abbott, Veda Ann Borg, Robert Dix (uncredited), Jay Adler,
Biographical musical on Ruth Etting (Day). Etting has dreams of becoming a singer. Etting is discovered by gangster Marty Snyder (Cagney) after she is fired as a taxi dancer. Using his force, Snyder helps Etting get singing bookings. Etting’s talent carries other offers, but Snyder still continues to control Etting’s life and career from Broadway to Hollywood, including having her marry him. Etting is also in love with her piano player Johnny Alderman (Mitchell), but is trapped by Snyder.
• The real Ruth Etting was born 1896 and died in 1978. She was famous in the 1920s and 1930s and starred in the Ziegfeld Follies from 1927 to 1931. Martin Snyder (1893-1981), known as Moe the Gimp, who was a gangster in Chicago. Etting and Snyder were married from 1922 to 1937. Snyder shot piano player Myrl Alderman in 1938, because Alderman and Etting were in love. Alderman and Etting were married from 1938 until Alderman’s death in 1966.
• The name of the piano player was changed from Myrl Alderman to Johnny Alderman.
• James Cagney suggested Doris Day to producer Joe Pasternak, because they worked well together in “The West Point Story” (1950). Jane Russell, Jane Powell and Ava Gardner were all considered for the role of Ruth Etting. Singer Jane Morgan was also considered for the role. Etting wanted Jane Powell to play the part. Russell turned down the role to star in “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” but she lost out on the role, according to her autobiography.
• Humphrey Bogart, Richard Widmark, Farley Granger and Fred Clark were considered for the role of Moe the Gimp Snyder.
• The film’s producer Joe Pasternak plays an uncredited role of a film producer in the movie.
• Most of the songs performed were made famous by Ruth Etting but two original songs were written for the film: “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” and “Never Look Back”
• Ruth Etting was disappointed in the film, because the happy part of her life – her marriage to Alderman – was omitted. Snyder didn’t like how he was portrayed.
• Costumes by Helen Rose
• The “Shakin’ the Blues Away” number
• “You Made Me Love You” performed by Doris Day
• “Stay on the Right Side Sister” performed by Doris Day
• “Everybody Loves My Baby But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me” performed by Doris Day
• “You’re Mean to Me” performed Doris Day
• “Sam, the Old Accordion Man” performed by Doris Day
• “Shakin’ the Blues Away” performed by Doris Day
Since the Musical Monday feature began in 2013, I have reviewed several musical biographical films that focus on the life and career of a performer or songwriter.
I can comfortably say that today’s musical, “Love Me or Leave Me” is one of the best musical biographical films. Starring powerhouse stars like Doris Day and James Cagney, this isn’t a light and fluffy musical. It’s a dark story about abuse and control over another person. Rape is even implied in the plot.
Doris Day plays singer and actress Ruth Etting, who was popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Etting retired in 1938. James Cagney plays gangster Martin “the Gimp” Snyder, oddly enough ended up working in Chicago City Hall from the 1940s through the 1970s. Both are excellent in their roles and only James Cagney was nominated for an Academy Award.
If Doris Day ever won an Academy Award, it should have been for Best Actress in “Love Me or Leave Me.” Prior to this film (with the exception of STORM WARNING), Day starred in musicals and family-friendly comedies at Warner Bros. These were all fun films, but “Love Me or Leave Me” gave Day the opportunity to show her dramatic range. She played a harder character than audiences were used to seeing her. Day’s characterization of Etting showed depth and change. At the beginnng as Etting’s star rises, Day is enthusiastic and vibrant, but quickly wounded by Marty Snyder. Once Etting and Snyder get married, Day’s character is bitter, hard and angry. She is so miserable that she can barely speak to people.
She wore harsh make-up, like bright red lipstick and bright blue eyeshadow. She smoked, she dranked and her costumes were a bit more sexy. Some people weren’t happy with this, and Doris Day personally answered each other their fan letters, according to her autobiography.
James Cagney became famous for playing a mug, and later for his singing and dancing ability. Cagney doesn’t dance or sing in this film. His character harkens back to those early 1930s tough guy characters but with more cruelness. This isn’t the Cagney of “Public Enemy” where he’s committing a crime to make money. His cruelness is personal, and he plays it so well. Cagney’s character is in love with Day and he will do anything to control her so that she stays with him. And the more he realizes she’s slipping away, the more he’s angry.
Cameron Mitchell is also good in the film, but as the third star, his role is small and largely thankless. Mitchell’s character leaves for California mid-way through the film and we don’t see him again until Etting heads to Hollywood.
People on set largely compared Marty Snyder to Doris Day’s current husband, Marty Melcher, who controlled Doris Day’s career and finances.
With musical biographical films, I usually cast a cautious eye and perhaps say it’s a nice picture but fairly fictional. There certainly is some fiction weaved into “Love Me or Leave Me.” For example, Ruth Etting said she never worked as a taxi dancer. Some of the timelines with career and marriage are murky too. Snyder and Etting were married earlier than the film implies, and she was with Florenz Ziegfeld for longer than one performance. Aside from these facts, everything else I’ve read seems pretty accurate. Etting loved her piano player, and Snyder shot Alderman out of jealousy. Etting was disappointed because her marriage with Alderman wasn’t the focus, which she felt was the highlight of her life, and Snyder didn’t like the way he was represented.
However, this is higher quality than most biopics. The storyline is cleaner, there are fewer cheap gimmicks, and it’s visually gorgeous. The Technicolor cinematography of Arthur E. Arling, A.S.C., is fantastic, particularly in scenes like the “Shakin’ the Blues Away” number, and Helen Rose’s gowns are fantastic.
This type of musical is different than say, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” The songs don’t tell a story that progress the plot. The songs here are popular hits that Ruth Etting performed during her career. Truthfully, this could be considered a drama with music. I think that someone who doesn’t like musicals, would still be interested in this film. The music mainly illustrates Etting’s rise to fame.
I do love the songs in the film. Only two new songs were written, but the rest are hits of the 1920s and 1930s. Watching this movie again and hearing the songs brought back good memories of listening to the CD as a teenager. I especially loved the song “Sam, the Old Accordion Man.”
The real showstopper is Day’s “Shakin’ the Blues Away,” performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. In a vibrant blue gown and surrounded by men in tuxedos, you can’t look away from this number. Ann Miller sings the same song in “Easter Parade,” but I just don’t find it as energetic or exciting as I do in this film.
If you are looking for a way to honor Doris Day’s life and career, seek this film out. It’s not as funny and happy as some of her other films, but she will knock your socks off with this performance. If it helps you decide: James Cagney wrote that this film was in the top five favorites of the 62 films he was in.