Doris Day tested her image’s bounds as Ms. Wholesome when she took on the role of torch singer Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me. We’ll never know for certain, but Day’s break from convention could explain why she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award as this is Day’s finest film. Love Me or Leave Me is a fictionalized biopic of Etting but a powerful, frightening look at obsession…or as frightening as it can be depicted in 1955. Day utterly surprises as a cynical and opportunistic star while Cagney, playing his last gangster, emits fear by cooking up a smothering recipe for love.
Ruth Etting (Day) has dreams of being a singer. When she meets Marty “The Gimp” Snyder (Cagney), he proclaims he’ll take her to the top. As Etting’s star rises, though, Snyder’s control of her threatens everything she’s worked for.
Etting isn’t a name most people will know today, and I went into Love Me or Leave Me entirely cold. After watching it I was bummed I didn’t get the opportunity to screen it with an audience at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival where it was presented. When I look for a biopic I enjoy, I’d put up this one as a solid example. Etting’s life is fictionalized, but there’s enough good with the bad, the acting is phenomenal, and you can tell that the people behind the camera and penning the script wanted to tell a story, not write a tabloid article.
Jane Russell was offered the role before Day, but the real Etting hews closer to Loretta Young for me. After watching Day sing “Que Sera, Sera” it’s easy to overlook the fact that she could actually act. This is her best role, but audiences were reluctant to embrace Miss Wholesome as a cynical taxi dancer willing to do what she has to in order to succeed. Just the idea of Day drinking and smoking was enough to get audiences up in arms. In actuality Etting’s life was heavily altered and the third act undeservedly softens the character.
I say undeservedly because there’s no reason for Day’s Etting to apologize for anything even though the script wants her to. Her snobby demeanor is evident from the beginning; she’s introduced facetiously by another dancer who makes fun of Etting’s refrain that “you’re different. You’re going places.” Apparently this is Etting’s mantra repeated to everyone she’s come in contact with. Her interests dovetail nicely with Marty Snyder’s who “likes to help a girl out when I can.” Etting understands Snyder’s racket – butter her up and take her on a disreputable “trip” to Florida – and plays up to Snyder, but always with the upfront knowledge that she isn’t going to be his kept woman…though Etting, in reality, was. For his part, Snyder believes by acknowledging how he’d act in the past that Ruth will believe he’s found a woman he can be truly honest with.
Snyder soon becomes the Svengali to Ruth’s Galatea. Ruth’s ascendance up the ladder to stardom is a foregone conclusion, so Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart’s script make the smart choice to look at how fame alters Ruth and Snyder’s relationship. For every ounce of fame Ruth accrues, Snyder tightens his grip. Cagney could have rested on his gangster laurels, giving us another Cody Jarrett, but he’s a man with criminal connections driven mad by an emotion he believes to be love. He tells himself, and Ruth, that “the day will come when you’ll thank me” because her success is bound up with his, both in his scheming to put her out there and her talent. Fame would have happened to Etting eventually, but it’s unknown whether her grandiosity would have been assured.
Things turn scary when Etting tries to strike out on her own, hiding her feelings for piano player Johnny Alderman (a smooth talking Cameron Mitchell). Snyder’s terror moves from the psychological to the physical as he demands Ruth give up jobs and spend all her time with him. Certain scenes were cut by the censors for being too authentic in portraying an abusive relationship, including Snyder raping Etting at one point. Cagney’s menace works so well because he isn’t playing a larger than life figure with the veneer of fiction; he’s a flesh and blood reality too many women will experience in their lives. Ultimately, Love Me or Leave Me’s saddest element has nothing to do with the story, but with those damn censors. Etting ends up apologizing to Snyder at the end, regardless of the fact he’s attempted to murder someone in front of her, in a misguided attempt at softening Cagney in some small way. Sure, Etting’s success was aided by Snyder, but to go to him and say she shouldn’t have left him all alone…what?
Additionally, some moments draw parallels with A Star is Born (1954), such as Day singing on a stage with a piano and a bare bulb. And, I’m sorry, but no one, not even Doris Day, can top Garland’s rendition of “You Made Me Love You.” But, hey, if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best!
Love Me or Leave Me is a glossy biopic common during the era, but where it succeeds unlike others (looking at you Jeanne Eagels) is in the acting and a script that wants to look deeper than the typical rags to riches motif. Doris Day finds her greatest acting challenge and James Cagney will leave your skin crawling.
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