Love Me or Leave Me should have proven to the world that Doris Day had to be taken seriously. The fact that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her breakthrough dramatic role is proof that it didn’t. Her performance in Charlies Vidor’s 1955 biopic of Ruth Etting is possibly the best one she ever gave outside of Pillow Talk and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The story, which won the Oscar for Best Writing – Original Motion Picture Story, is a fictionalized version of Etting’s life. Etting (Day) was a 1920s Chicago club singer who climbed the showbiz ladder to eventually reach Hollywood. However, she needed the help of a low-ranking mobster named “Moe the Gimp” (Cagney), who convinced her that his connections could somehow take her to the top. He was abusive and their relationship was destructive. Etting found solace with Myrl Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), a pianist she knew in Chicago. But Moe made sure that they couldn’t be together and eventually forced Etting to marry him.
Moe dreamed of being a star himself, so once Etting was set up in Hollywood, he tried to open a club. But his paranoia got the best of him, as he shot Alderman. In the real world, Moe was convicted of attempted murder and Alderman and Etting were married by the time his trial began. (Alderman also had issues of his own, since he was married to his second wife at the time, but facts like that can’t get squeezed into a two-hour movie.) Etting had already retired from performing by the time of the shooting in 1938.
In the movie though, there’s an uncomfortable happy ending, where Moe gets what he wanted (a successful club), with the help of the woman he physically abused constantly. Today this all seems preposterous and betrays the film’s deft handling of drama with music. For the first two hours of this film, it is a rare dramatic musical, proving that “musical” isn’t a genre but a style. Yet, the ending feels like a cop-out, because we can’t have a musical with a sad ending. If you don’t know how Etting’s real life panned out, perhaps the ending is easier to swallow.
Warner Bros. released the beautiful Cinemascope film on Blu-ray back in September 2016. The Warner Archive releases are uniformly stunning and this is no different. The film was shot on Eastman Color by Arthur E. Arling. Love Me Or Leave Me is notably more closed-in than other musicals, as Vidor made sure the film’s look matched its often dark tone.
The extras on the disc are:
- A Modern Cinderella – This is a 1932 Vitaphoone short starring the real Ruth Etting. It runs 17 minutes and has her playing an Italian dressmaker’s daughter who delivers a dress to a fancy ball. She’s mistaken for a party guest after a drunk Brian Donlevy (!) sees her wearing the dress.
- Roseland – This is a 1930 short that runs 12 minutes and also stars Etting. She plays a young singer who enters a radio contest. Both of these shorts are fascinating, as they give us a glimpse at the real talent she had.
- Salute to the Theaters – This is a 1955 MGM piece that has George Murphy talking about the studio’s then-upcoming releases. There’s also a visit to the Love Me Or Leave Me set.
Love Me Or Leave Me is a wonderful movie lifted by Doris Day’s performance and James Cagney’s ability to completely transform into a hobbling Marty The Gimp. Still, what could have been a truly great drama that just happened to have some music in it is hurt by an ending that sees Ruth “owing” Marty something even after he shot her man. Ending aside, the film features a great selection of songs and is a great showpiece for Day, who sings every one of them.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review!