Reality is rarely clear cut, often depressing and…well…ordinary. Movies function much better when they deviate into plausible interpretations and/or simplifications of its more complex truths. Occasionally, however, reality gives fiction a genuine run for its money. Case in point: Charles Vidor’s Love Me Or Leave Me (1955); a relatively faithful bio-pic of torch singer, Ruth Etting's sordid life, her meteoric rise from dime-a-dozen taxi dancer to one of the most sought after vocal stylists of her generation; two thirds the stuff dreams could be made of, if only the realities of living a nightmare did not so swiftly intrude. In this case, Ruth Etting (Doris Day) has sold her soul to the devil’s disciple; Marty ‘the Gimp’ Snyder (James Cagney). Yet, Vidor’s musical avoids giving us the clichéd villain and the proverbial damsel in distress; Cagney, doing an intriguing revamp of the brutish gangland mug he trademarked in countless Warner Bros. fare throughout the thirties and forties, and Day, quite simply a revelation, as she sheds practically every last vestige of virginal wholesomeness to play this creature whose wants supersede the good sense God gave a lemon. Again, under the rubric of ‘life is imperfect’, movies (at least of a certain vintage) used to be prototypes of our aspirations. However, Love Me Or Leave Me gets more curious with each repeat viewing because the villain here marries, berates and terrorizes our heroine. And Etting is hardly blameless or the shrinking violet in need of being rescued. In fact, she creates a good deal of her own misery and comes to pay for it in the end. These are not beautiful people and certainly not the stock characterizations we are used to seeing in a movie musical – of any vintage – much less one produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the Cartier of studios.
That the real Ruth Etting ultimately conquered her worst fears, escaped from under Snyder’s oppressiveness and managed to live a pseudo-‘happily ever after’ with someone else, bodes well for the trappings of the conventional Hollywood musical. But until this denouement, there is absolutely nothing straight forward about this picture; a challenge to make, a breakthrough and far grittier vision than we were used to seeing, and ultimately, a real game-changer for the genre. If anything, Love Me Or Leave Me is a cautionary tale wrapped in the enigma of the proverbial ‘feel good’. Even so, there is very little joyousness to behold in this textbook example about fledgling ambition knowing no master. The plot is deceptively wafer-thin, but it never falls back on the clichéd ‘boy sings song and gets girl’ principle that has remained a main staple ever since the genre began. That Love Me Or Leave Me was made at all is a minor miracle, considering the stringency of the Production Code: guidelines that absolutely forbade such overt sinfulness. That MGM producer, Joseph Pasternak – known for his light and frothy confections - even deigned to consider Etting’s life worthy of the musical lore is even more of a stretch; the screenplay by Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart an astonishing departure from anything Metro had yet done in the genre, and arguably, would never again dare to duplicate.
There is an insidious bite to these characterizations that has nothing to do with the usual tongue-in-cheek sass of stock characters inhabiting a traditional Hollywood musical. The level of venom exuded by this warring couple reaches its fevered pitch in a moment when Snyder, disgusted by his lack of progress in Hollywood, rhetorically spits, “Don’t they know who I am?”, to which Etting coolly shoots back, “Who are you Marty?”. The implication here is that apart from his Chicagoan ties to organized crime, Marty Snyder is just a little fish in a very big pond; a rather sanctimonious irony, since Tinsel Town and the Mafia were, for a good many decades, uncomfortably aligned as very strange bedfellows with kickbacks aplenty and at least one very high profile murder involving movie-land’s then reining sexpot, Lana Turner. But back to Day’s Etting and her steely-eyed and tart-mouthed defiance, met with, “Well, whoever I am, baby, I’m what makes you tick!” And in this regard, Marty Snyder is absolutely right. Etting’s success came about largely because of his bulldozing influence. However, as Etting quickly proved, she was no slouch in the singing department; the puppet pulling her own strings and thus, creating deep-seeded friction in their subsequent marriage. “You don’t have to sell me on anything,” the cinematic Etting cruelly tells Marty the day after their honeymoon, “I’m sold” – the sudden realization she has prostituted herself for a chance at the big time, tainted with thick phlegmy regret, enough to stick in both their craws.
Except for one superbly staged production number, ‘Shakin’ The Blues Away’ – done in a grand manner L.B. Mayer himself might have generously approved (Etting, in a luminously shimmering sequin and feather, robin-egg blue gown, hoisted atop a revolving platform by a small entourage of top hat and tuxedoed young men) – the musical offerings on tap elsewhere are isolated rehearsals for more polished performances we never get to see; Day, utterly magnetic and holding her own in a tiny corner of the vast Cinemascope canvass, accompanied by little more than a piano or quartet. The numbers are staged primarily to satisfy the dramatic arc instead of the other way around. And it is saying much of both Day’s performance and the end result, that Love Me Or Leave Me steadily evolves into exactly the sort of musical cocktail one might hope to ingest, while getting under the froth and the foam for a more richly inebriating experience. The picture is superbly acted; given substance and style by Day’s inflected, though never melodramatic vocalizations. Of course, her act is not a solo; the other ball of fire belonging to an old campaigner – James Cagney, menacing, if pint-sized and a little on the portly side. Compellingly, Cagney affords ‘the gimp’ a soul, something the enterprising ‘Ruthie’, in all her blind-sided, social-climbing ambition, arguably lacks. Day and Cagney are oddly mated but never mismatched, which is precisely the point. We can suspiciously buy into their relationship because neither is represented herein as the innocent. We can even empathize with Marty after he foregoes bullying and thereafter is repeatedly wounded in his amorous affections by the more calculating Ruth. Poor Marty…he really is a fool in love.
Better still, Vidor’s predilection for remaining true to the seedy twenty’s milieu has resulted in a veritable cavalcade of Etting’s own songs given a new lease on life. Percy Faith’s arrangements and Day’s unsentimental, yet velvety smooth delivery add girth and pathos, particularly to the bluesy temptation, ‘Ten Cents a Dance’ and, melodic ‘It All Depends on You.’ Two new songs especially composed for the film would also emerge as instant hits; ‘Never Look Back’ – a rather haunting ballad written by Chilton Price, and the more sad-eyed and intimate, ‘I'll Never Stop Loving You’ by Nicholas Brodzsky and Sammy Cahn. Many of the contradictions that dogged Etting’s personal life are exemplified in this repertoire; Etting’s plucky early resolve to achieve fame as a singer, offset by her disastrous miscalculation to cut corners, allowing Marty to have his way with both her and her career. At one point, pianist/arranger, Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) implores ‘Ruthie’ to reconsider her indentured servitude to Marty, explaining, “They’ll want you because you’re good, not because they’re being forced to like you.” Alas, this difference is moot to Etting, itching for her big break now – something Marty can deliver with the wave of his hand, but Alderman cannot even promise at some affixed point in the future.
Love Me Or Leave Me closely mirrors the harshness of Etting’s struggle to be famous while occasionally hinting, or simply omitting the nastier details. A few caveats are worth noting. The real Etting, a natural talent who modeled her singing style on Marion Harris, first caught the eye of Chicagoan hood, Martin ‘Moe The Gimp’ Snyder after she was asked to perform as a last minute substitute for a male vocalist taken ill. The film would have us believe Ruthie’s green girl was turned after a somewhat unprepossessing stint as a taxi dancer who wallops a patron for getting fresh; fired from the establishment, but quickly catching Marty’s eye. Cagney’s Marty promises Ruthie the world and gives every indication he can deliver it without delay, but thereafter increasingly has trouble making good on his promises. On the flipside, the real Marty Snyder was very much ‘well-connected’; something Cagney’s movie incarnation is not. Cagney plays Marty as a two-bit hood and hustler, his own worst enemy, employing thug tactics to run his modest laundry racket into the ground. But the real Marty had actually made inroads in the nightclub circuit after working as a bodyguard in his youth for singer, Al Jolson. Etting would later describe her whirlwind success under Marty’s Svengali-like tutelage, and their subsequent marriage as anything but a Cinderella story. The film omits the fact Snyder was already married at the time he began to tempt his protégée with furs and diamonds.
“I married him nine-tenths out of fear and one-tenth out of pity,” Etting would later suggest. She virtually surrendered all managerial decisions to Marty. Superficially, this afforded Etting a shortcut to her goals; an uninterrupted streak of live bookings, radio appearances and an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Records – not bad for a virtual unknown from Nebraska. Snyder’s pressure tactics also helped Etting land her big Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. This would be Etting’s watershed moment; for although she could sell a song with gusto, she utterly lacked the terpsichorean grace or acting chops to move beyond and become a valued and versatile ‘star’. Increasingly, she found herself being relegated to on-stage cameos or, on film, left to short subjects affording her little more than the opportunity to sing one or two hit songs. Radio work filled in these gaps and paid the bills. But Etting’s ambition, coupled with Snyder’s mounting intolerances, eventually created an impossible rift. Wise in money matters, squirreling a little away from each paycheck to invest in California real estate, and living frugally (it is rumored Etting even sewed her own clothes); by 1935, Ruth Etting announced she was preparing for retirement. Her reasons in remaining active an additional two years have never been entirely disclosed, though likely, it had more to do with her desire to build a tidy little nest egg to sustain her after the marriage completely imploded. Paying Snyder $50,000 to settle old gambling debts – a king’s ransom then – Etting divorced her one-time mentor to publicly pursue pianist, Myrl Alderman (rechristened as Johnny in the film). The fictional account of Etting’s romance treats this relationship as platonic; established early on with Marty’s complicity and steadily blossoming into genuine – if mostly unrequited love. But in reality, Myrl and Etting had been carrying on since 1938, despite the fact each was – and would remain – married to their respective spouses for several more years.
Eventually, Snyder’s ego boiled over. Taking Alderman hostage from a local radio station, Snyder threatened to prove himself at the point of a pistol. At trial, it was suggested Snyder’s motive had been jealousy; attorneys arguing he neither intended to kill Alderman nor his own family, but merely to pump a bullet in a delicate area so that the question of whether or not an affair could continue would be answered to his satisfaction. Whatever the truth in it, Snyder shot Alderman – a non-fatal wound. He was eventually charged, convicted and served a scant eighteen months in prison for his ‘crime of passion’. To some extent, this was quite enough to satisfy MGM’s prerequisite for a ‘happy ending’. The truth, however, was somewhat more disconcerting; the couple’s young daughter, Edith, racing to the bedroom to retrieve Etting’s gun, bought for her protection, pointing it at her own father as he wrestled with Etting after shooting Alderman; her misfire hitting the floor just footsteps away. Three days later, Alderman’s second wife, Alma, had a bombshell of her own to detonate; an alienation of affection lawsuit that created ripples in a career-altering scandal for all concerned. Indeed, Alma would find herself on the other side as ‘the other woman’ when Alderman’s first wife, Helen, suggested to the court Alma had spirited Myrl away from her; a case of bad karma or kismet to be sure. While attorneys ironed out the wrinkles of this countersuit, reporting the Mexican marriage between Myrl and Alma was not legal, the court cleared Etting of all charges associated with the alienation of affection lawsuit. In the end, Etting and Myrl did not run off together into the sunset, so much as they slinked away with the sting and pall of notorious tittle-tattle dangling over their little farm like the sword of Damocles: America’s singing sweetheart no more.
Love Me Or Leave Me opens with Etting getting fired from her ‘ten cents a dance’ gig; the episode witnessed by Marty and his right-hand, Georgie (Harry Bellaver). Marty offers to help Ruth get her first real ‘big break’. Having just been groped like a tart, Ruth is understandably skeptical of Marty’s motives. Actually, she has him pegged pretty well – just a mug interested in getting in her drawers, except Marty pretends to be more magnanimous than that; walking away after handing out his card and telling Etting to take it to a nearby club as her calling card. “You know what you’re problem is, girlie,” he suggests, “You ain’t got no faith in human nature.” But Etting does possess an acute sixth sense for sniffing out both rubes and an opportunity. Greedily, she wants the latter more, and thus, is willing to make sacrifices along the way. In short order she becomes a rather unsuccessful chorine in a bawdy all-girl revue; her clumsiness witnessed with mild amusement by piano accompanist, Johnny Alderman. Learning of Ruth’s aspirations to become a great chanteuse, Alderman offers to work with her. But before their fledgling alliance can get off the ground, Marty returns. He is expecting an awful lot for his two-bit plug; ordering Ruth to pack her bags and fly with him and Georgie to Florida. Etting, however, is no fool. Nor will she be bullied. After a loaded exchange in which Marty threatens to dump her right back on the streets where he found her, Ruth beats him to the punch by walking out on the opportunity he has provided. Sheepishly, Marty reassesses she is quite serious. Okay, so Ruth Etting isn’t just some dumb dame he can bounce on his knee for an hour or two. So what? So, he will need a different angle to win this game.
So, Marty gets Etting’s boss, Frobisher (Tom Tully), to give her an even bigger break singing the intro for the star of his show, Eddie Fulton (Claude Stroud). He also hires Johnny at twice his usual going rate to be Ruth’s coach. This creates a mild friction between Johnny – who doesn’t much care to be bought by the gimp – and Marty; also, between Ruth and Johnny, and, Ruth and Marty. “What does the public know?” Marty reasons, “You tell the public they’re singers and they’re singers!” As yet not having heard Etting perform, Marty reasons thug muscle alone is enough to put her over. Marty is, of course, merely placating her ambitions. He has no idea of the genie he has just managed to uncork from its bottle. Ruth plays her cards close to her vest. She suggests to Marty that Fulton might miss a show. It could happen. After all, Fulton is a terrible gambler up to his eyeballs in debt to the mob. So, Marty arranges it and Ruth gets her big break, against Frobisher’s strenuous objections and defying Johnny’s appeal to rid herself of Marty’s influence while she still can. “I’ve tried it without help,” Ruth explains, “I didn’t mind it being hard. I minded that it didn’t work.”
Backstage, Marty at last reveals the first ominous signs he will not back down from making Ruth beholding to him. His denied invitation to a weekend house party quickly boils over into a threat. Alas, like all men in love, he has made a miscalculation of just how far Ruth is unwilling to go to satisfy his needs. Instead, she strings him along, suggesting while she ‘likes’ him and is exceedingly grateful for the doors he has opened on her behalf, she is not ‘stuck’ on him as he professes to be on her: another bitter pill for Marty to swallow. But he does, endeavoring to hurry Ruth’s career to the next level – hoping against hope this will be paid out in big dividends of reciprocated love rather than pity or a mere sense of obligation. Marty bullies Ruth into giving New York booking agent, Bernard V. Loomis (Robert Keith) the heave-hoe; branching into radio and landing Ruth her own show – a prime spot that continues her career upswing. But behind the scenes, things are getting more problematic. Johnny professes his love for Ruth. Regrettably, this is counterbalanced by his absolute disdain for Marty. Neither Ruth nor Johnny is willing to see things the other’s way. Johnny is mad for Ruth. But she denies his affections; also, hers for him. Meanwhile, Ruth’s radio stint is a smash. Alas, when her contract comes up for renewal, the station manager, Brelston (Robert Carson) is shocked to discover Marty has orchestrated an even more lucrative opportunity for Ruth to headline The Ziegfeld Follies. “What’s the use of having half of Chicago?” Marty reasons, “She’s going to have all of New York!”
Tragically, Ruth’s debut for Ziegfeld marks the beginning of a slow, sad decline as Marty is given his first real glimpse into the realization that with her newfound success on Broadway Ruth Etting no longer needs him to manage her career. Everyone can see Marty is out of his depth and his element. Despite having gotten off to a bad start back in Chicago, Marty and Loomis now become best friends; Loomis’ – a gentle and understanding sort – the first to astutely surmise the toxicity in their relationship and empathize with Marty because he has affixed his desires to a gal who really only wants one thing…well, two – neither of them being Marty Snyder. Johnny stands up to Marty. He really despises him and is promptly fired. But Ruth takes pity on Marty. An altercation backstage leads to Ruth’s dismissal from the Follies. Even so, Marty is already moving them on to greener pastures. Orchestrating a deal for Ruth to make a picture in Hollywood, she recognizes – perhaps for the very first time – that her life and career are inextricably dependent on the one man whom she finds physically repugnant but marries anyway. From this moment forward, Ruth grows more jaded with drink, refusing to allow Marty even the remotest pleasure by acknowledging his contributions, affording them both the kind of lifestyle to which she has always aspired to and felt she was entitled; star-billing, a plush bungalow, adoring fans: a 24 kt. gold-plated cell.
In Hollywood, Ruth is delighted to learn her musical arranger will be none other than Johnny Alderman. In the interim away from Snyder’s influence, Johnny has managed to make his own way and establish a solid reputation in the biz. Snyder is not particularly pleased to be reunited with the man who continues to regard him as little more than a thug in a three-piece suit. But he is counseled by Loomis to let the studio’s agreement stand; both men quite unaware that between rehearsals Ruth and Johnny have begun to rekindle their passion for one another. Marty assigns Georgie to keep a close eye on their ‘professional’ relationship. For a while, Ruth and Johnny are very clever at keeping their affair a secret. Georgie has nothing to report back and Marty is satisfied it is all just business as usual. But very soon, Georgie learns Ruth is two-timing his boss. Thus, when she asks Marty for a divorce he is already prepared with a few reprisals of his own. Divorce? In a pig’s eye, and not unless Ruth wants to see her Hollywood contract evaporate, or at the very least, wrecked unless she also agrees to appear at the nightclub Marty is currently planning to open on the West Coast. Johnny encourages Ruth to stand her ground. Even Ruth can see the marriage has come to an impasse. But before she can effectively put her foot down, Marty tails the couple back to Ruth’s apartment, pumping a pair of bullets into Johnny’s back. Taken to jail for his crime of passion, Marty tells Ruth he is well rid of whatever magnetic hold she once had on him. Although Johnny survives this ordeal, Marty is nevertheless convicted and serves a term in prison. In his absence, Ruth sees to it that the plans he had for the new nightclub continue full-steam ahead. She even deigns to make the opening night premiere; a chance to pay Marty back – somewhat – by ensuring a sell-out engagement at his club. “Gotta give her credit,” Marty tells Loomis as the pair stand at the bar, “The girl can sing. About that, I never was wrong.”
Love Me Or Leave Me is anything but conventional and much more a sub-genre or hybrid: the big-budget musical meets the gritty noir. While there have been far too many musical bio-pics to sugar-coat and/or grotesquely distort the real-life circumstances of their subject, Love Me Or Leave Me is a fairly ‘ruth’less affair (pun intended); Etting depicted rather intriguingly as both enterprising and semi-tragic. The real victim of the piece, however, is James Cagney’s ingeniously concocted reprobate; tyrannical on the surface, but otherwise just a poor slob, more cerebral than he is given credit for, and, hopelessly unable to rid himself of the pall of a physical attraction to the only woman who is monumentally unimpressed by the girth of his sphere of influence, though decidedly, not above exploiting it to get exactly what she wants. Only an old ham like Cagney could have pulled this one off – and does – with oodles of wounded sincerity. Owing a lot to the old cliché of ‘be careful what you wish for’, Love Me Or Leave Me emanates some fairly potent animosity throughout its 122 minutes. It also carries far more dramatic ballast than any musical of its vintage. There have been exceptionally few since to rival its streak of mean-spiritedness. The Lennart/Fuchs screenplay cleverly betrays one of the fundamental principles of the musical genre with its virtual absence of comedy. There are no light-hearted moments in this picture; no tender embraces either. And yet, even so, if works both as a musical entertainment and as a drama. While a good many critics have made the mistake of classifying Love Me Or Leave Me as caught in the crosshairs between musical and tragedy, in retrospect, it references a far more intense character study, elevating the art of verisimilitude with music on the side to an entirely new and decidedly more ambitious level. Most musicals are contented with sandwiching meaningless dialogue between highlighted songs and dances, using both to string along the audience with a plot any six year old could appreciate. But Love Me Or Leave Me takes a very adult and substantive view, that the songs are meant to augment the drama, rather than be the whole show. In the last analysis, Love Me Or Leave Me is a monumental achievement because it refuses to follow the trajectory of a typical Hollywood musical. It never shies away from being grittier, darker, more unapologetic and sobering than even most dramas, expunging the warm and fuzzy 'feel good' for a sultrier (occasionally sleazier) patina to suggest - if unable to blatantly illustrate - the seedier sides to passion, avarice and pride.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is competently rendered. There are rumors this one is coming to Blu-ray via their Archive branch, and soon - but no actual confirmation as yet. So, we are momentarily contented to have this anamorphic widescreen transfer; yielding solid Eastman colors that are quite often bold. The shortcomings of Eastman stock are, alas, apparent; reds that lean toward pink or orange rather than that iconic fire-engine hue only Technicolor can provide and flesh tones that, on occasion, look a tad flat and pasty, but otherwise, generally satisfy. Fine details are nicely realized throughout. Blacks are a tad weaker than anticipated and contrast, while consistent, also tends to lack a strong defining characteristic. A few scene transitions, dissolves and fades suffer from a momentary lapse in image quality, exemplified by overly exaggerated grain – a flaw inherent in many early Cinemascope movies. Overall, we cannot really complain about what’s here. It passes – while never attaining levels to truly impress. Edge enhancement is infrequently present but never distracts. The remastered 5.1 audio is rather extraordinary with an impressive sonic spread across all five channels that really make the orchestral arrangements come to life. Dialogue, however, is a tad strident sounding. Bottom line: if you simply cannot wait for this one to come to Blu-ray, the DVD is adequate. Good but not great, which is what we’ll decidedly expect from the Warner Archive if and when this one makes the leap to hi-def.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)