Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955)

A few weeks ago I celebrated my return to blogging with a giveaway.  I asked people to enter by leaving me a comment with a suggestion of a movie that I should watch and blog about.  I had several great suggestions, all of which I plan on watching at some point in the future, and the winner of the giveaway was Kristina of Speakeasy!  Her suggestion was a movie starring Doris Day and James Cagney and it was one that I had never heard of before, a movie called LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME.

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is a biopic about Ruth Etting (Doris Day) and Martin Snyder (James Cagney) aka Marty the Gimp, a Chicago gangster who helped start her career.  Marty meets Ruth at a taxi club in Chicago in the 1920s.  Although he is there to shake down the owner, Marty is distracted when a fight breaks out on the dance floor.  Ruth has kicked yet another customer in the shins for getting fresh and her boss has had enough.  Marty sees Ruth get fired and follows her into the back dressing room.  Ruth initially resists Marty’s offers for help, suspecting he only intends to use her and discard her, but she finally agrees to take his card.  Marty uses his nightclub connections to get Ruth a job in the chorus at a fancy club and it is here that she meets handsome pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell).

Ruth soon tires of just being part of the chorus and sets her sights on her true ambition, to be a singer.  Marty in the meantime is now ready to claim his reward for helping Ruth and tells her she is going to Miami with him.  Ruth refuses to be his mistress however, and Marty relents even offering to get her singing lessons with Johnny.  Ruth turns out to have natural talent and Marty gets her a gig headlining at the club.  Johnny warns Ruth that Marty’s intentions are not honorable and that she should make her own way, without the gangster’s help.  Ruth maintains that she knows what Marty is expecting but that she needs his connections, besides what is the harm in just playing along?

Ruth’s career begins to take off, her debut as headliner at the club a great success, and Marty begins to fall in love with her.  One night after a show Ruth introduces Marty to Bernard V Loomis, an agent from New York.  Loomis says that he has lined up auditions for Ruth but Marty jealously dismisses him.  Marty tells Ruth he has bigger plans for her and soon sets her up with her very own radio show with Johnny as conductor.  Ruth’s popularity grows and soon Marty has set her up with that Ziegfeld Follies.  Johnny has fallen in love with Ruth by this time and pleads with her again to leave Martin and let Loomis represent her, but she still refuses.  Johnny tells Marty that he won’t accompany Ruth the New York and the two men argue about the woman they both love.

In New York Ruth is fitting in well with the follies but Marty isn’t so happy.  New York folks don’t hold him in the same regard as the ones in Chicago and Marty is chaffing at the perceived slights and insults.  He continues to act as Ruth’s manager while Loomis keeps a low profile to avoid damaging Ruth’s chances and angering Marty.  During Ruth’s big night Marty tries to reign in his jealousy but when he is prevented from visiting her backstage between acts, Marty flies into a rage and becomes violent.  He attacks and beats a stagehand before he is forcibly removed while a shaken Ruth goes back on stage.  Back in their hotel Marty is making phone calls to Chicago when Ruth returns.  He tells her that she is no longer going to be part of the show in New York and that he is breaking her contract.  Ruth refuses and angrily tells Marty that she hates the way he is acting and that his actions are ruining everything.  Marty in turn reproaches Ruth for not standing beside him when he has done so much to help her.  Ruth tearfully says that there is no way to pay Marty back for what he has done but Marty begs to disagree and forcibly kisses her.  Soon after Ruth agrees to marry Marty, even though she does not love him, out of a sense of obligation and leaves the production in New York.  Marty takes Ruth all over the country and her career continues to grow and thrive under his direction.  Ruth is miserably unhappy and takes up drinking.  One night Marty comes into her dressing room at a club with big news…he has gotten Ruth a part in a major Hollywood motion picture!  Ruth is less than enthused, much to Marty’s frustration and irritation, but she perks up considerably when a phone call comes in from none other than Johnny Alderman.

When I first saw Kristina’s suggestion I was intrigued, as well as a little unsure of what to expect.  I knew Doris Day, in fact I had many fond memories of watching PILLOW TALK and LOVER, COME BACK with my sister during our slumber parties.  I knew James Cagney too and somehow the mash-up of WHITE HEAT and PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES wasn’t something I could get my head around.

The real Ruth Etting and Marty Snyder

From dorisday.net

Ruth Etting had over sixty hit recordings and working in stage, screen, and radio.  She grew up wanting to be an artist, sketching and drawing wherever she was able, before attending art school in Chicago when she was sixteen.  While attending classes Ruth got a job at the Marigold Gardens nightclub and it was there that the showbiz bug bit.  Ruth had sung in school and in the church choir, but had never taken formal vocal lessons.  She styled her singing after Marion Harris but varied her tempos and phrases in order to make it uniquely her own.  Her big break came one night when the featured soloist, who happened to be male, became ill and dropped out.  Ruth quickly changed costumes, scanned the music, and lowered her register (something that added to her singing appeal) and the rest is history.  She did marry Martin Snyder in 1922, at the age of 25, and stayed married to him until 1937.  There was another man named Alderman but his first name was Harry and he was married when he and Ruth started seeing each other.  Ruth and Alderman married in 1938 and moved to a farm in Colorado Springs where they lived mostly out of the public eye for the rest of their lives.  Of course with any film based on the life of a real person, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME takes some liberties with historical fact.  For example, Ruth never worked as a taxi club dancer this was simply done to highlight the song “Ten Cents a Dance”.  But historical accuracy is not what makes this movie so good.  It comes from the fact that Ava Gardener said no.

There was some discussion of Jane Powell taking the lead role, but the studios could not see her in the role of a nightclub singer.  Ava Gardener was a front-runner for the part but she turned it down because she didn’t want to have her singing dubbed again as it was in SHOWBOAT, as did George Cukor when he was offered the chance to direct though his reason was not wanting to direct a film with gangsters.  According to Robert Osborne on TCM, the story goes that when the film came out both Gardener and Cukor went to see it.  Exiting the theater Gardener said, “George, we made a mistake.”  Cukor responded, “No we didn’t because if we had said yes it would not have been THAT good.”

James Cagney is the one who suggested Doris Day for the role of Ruth Etting after the two had worked together on WEST POINT STORY.  Doris Day was unsure about playing Ruth Etting because she was concerned about portraying a woman who was basically a gold-digger or a kept woman.  This role would force her to portray Ruth’s struggle from seedy nightclubs to the New York spotlight complete with skimpy costumes, drinking, swearing, and other lewd behavior.  Director Joe Pasternak told her that she would bring a sense of dignity to a part that would offset the otherwise vulgar behavior of Ruth Etting.  I think that this is true because the usual Doris Day “how dare you” indignity comes out in scenes but not like when Rock Hudson slings her over his shoulder in PILLOW TALK.  There it is used for comic effect but in this film it gives Ruth a sense of moral fiber and changes her reasons for doing what she does from just trying to get ahead to world-weary knowledge.  By that I mean that through Doris Day’s portrayal we see Ruth as a woman who is using Marty and manipulating him not because she is a floozy looking for a meal ticket, but because she is a woman who has seen what is needed to get ahead in show business and is trying to avoid paying that price.  She doesn’t want to sleep with Marty so she plays along just enough to keep him happy but without compromising her morals.  In that light we can start to sympathize with Ruth, especially after Marty attacks her.  After that moment she is defeated and deflated, becoming more like an abused spouse than a scheming gold-digger.  The scene where Marty attacks Ruth actually went much further than what ended up in the final cut of the film.  In a scene that was mostly removed by the censors, Doris Day recalled: “[Co-star James Cagney] attacks me savagely; and the way Cagney played it, believe me, it was savage. He slammed me against the wall, ripped off my dress, my beads flying, and after a tempestuous struggle, in which I tried to fight him off with every realistic ounce of strength I had, he threw me on the bed and raped me. It was a scene that took a lot out of me, but it was one of the most fully realized physical scenes I have ever played…It wasn’t until I saw the movie in its release that I became aware that most of the scene had been cut.”  I was surprised at how frankly this film dealt with issues like sex, abuse, and even rape.  It seemed a much more modern film than 1955, and it is even more surprising that the censors let so much through.  Or maybe it is simply to the credit of the writing (Oscar winning writing from Daniel Fuchs), directing, and the superb acting of James Cagney (who received an Oscar nomination for his role) and Doris Day that the message and true intentions behind Marty and Ruth’s relationship comes through in spite of the Hayes Office.

Doris Day is an actress that mostly is remembered for happier roles.  Her films with Rock Hudson, PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES, and YOUNG AT HEART are far more familiar roles but beneath this happy, comic actress was a truly great talent for the dramatic.  This is a much darker movie than Doris Day usually made but it is an example of what a truly talented and engaging actress she was.  In her hands Ruth Etting becomes a woman who is trapped, first by her circumstances and then by a jealous and possessive man, but who struggles to preserve her dignity while having the strength to pursue her dreams.  Joe Pasternak was right when he told Doris Day that she would bring dignity to the role.  She brings not only that but also her immense talent to a role that really should have garnered her an Oscar nomination, if not the award.

Thanks to Kristina at Speakeasy for the suggestion!  If you have a film that you think I should see let me know in the comments below!