Shot in spectacular CinemaScope and starring two of Hollywood’s most beloved talents, MGM gave the story of recording, radio, stage and screen star Ruth Etting the star treatment in its own right. With Charles Vidor at the helm, a screen play by Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart from a story by Mr. Fuchs and produced by Joe Pasternak for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955) is one of my all-time favorite biopics.
Ruth Etting began her show business career designing costumes for the chorus at the popular, Chicago nightclub the Marigold Gardens. It wasn’t long, however, before Etting became a chorus girl herself meeting the man who would become her husband, local gangster Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder who was immediately taken with the young woman. Soon Snyder, using shady tactics he learned on the streets, would help clear a path to stardom for Etting and before long the former chorus girl was known both as “Chicago’s Sweetheart” and as Mrs. Martin Snyder.
The union of Etting and Snyder resulted in a difficult personal journey for the popular singer, one that lasted two decades and during which Ruth also became one of the biggest stars in the world. Eventually known as “America’s Sweetheart of Song,” Etting reached the pinnacle of recording success with over sixty hit songs while under contract with Columbia Records. She also became an instant hit on the New York stage starring in Ziegfeld Follies productions and had a successful run in Hollywood appearing in a string of movie shorts and three feature films.
It was during Etting’s time in Hollywood that the bottom fell out of the Etting/Snyder marriage. Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, it was also the end of her career when the scandal broke that Martin Snyder shot Myrl Alderman, Etting’s accompanist and the man she was in love with. Ruth Etting divorced Snyder and married Alderman to whom she remained happily married until his death 28 years later.
LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME tells the story of Ruth Etting’s years with Snyder, something Etting herself didn’t appreciate saying “It’s a shame that the beautiful part of my life, my 28-year marriage to Myrl was left out completely because that was the real highlight of my story.” Etting’s feelings are understandable, but no one can say those difficult years don’t make a compelling story.
I remember reading Eddie Cantor‘s biography, Take My Life in which he talks about the many show business people he worked with throughout his career, Ruth Etting included. Etting and Cantor worked together in the “Follies of 1927,” on the stage production of “Whoopee” and in Frank Tuttle’s ROMAN SCANDALS (1933). In the book Cantor recalls how “Colonel Gimp” Snyder, “a tough guy with a very soft spot” was a constant backstage presence prone to threatening any man who so much as looked toward Ruth Etting. The soft spot was exclusively for Ruth – “there never was a guy who did more willingly for any woman nor was there ever a man prouder of a woman’s talent.” Cantor goes on to tell the story of the opening night of “Whoopee” and how Snyder jumped into his arms and kissed him after Etting delivered her six lines, “I knew the dame could sing,” the man yelled excitedly, “but to act…TO ACT!” Eddie thought, but didn’t dare say that anyone who heard the man would’ve thought Etting was Ethel Barrymore. Most memorable to Cantor was Ruth Etting’s own reactions on that opening night and every other night after each and every show because they were the complete opposite of Martin Snyder’s. “She’d do her job, go through the motions and go to bed early. She kept to herself and when she laughed she did so only with her mouth. Her laughter never reached her eyes.” Cantor describes the pairing by saying that it was clear Ruth felt nothing for Snyder but gratitude and stayed with him only out of loyalty. He then says that when Ruth decided to leave the Gimp, after two decades she “found her freedom and her happiness.”
To tell that story MGM went with the already legendary James Cagney to play Martin “the Gimp” Snyder, but the studio had a tougher time finding the perfect Ruth Etting. At the top of the list were Jane Russell who turned down the part and superstar Ava Gardner who desperately wanted it. It was Cagney who suggested Doris Day to producer Joe Pasternak. Jimmy and Doris Day had worked together five years earlier in Roy Del Ruth’s THE WEST POINT STORY (1950) and Cagney knew she could not only deliver the dramatic goods, but also had the singing over those other actresses. Thankfully MGM took his advice. To his credit, Cagney also recognized that the Etting part was pivotal to the movie so he relinquished top billing for the first time since becoming a star in the 1930s. James Cagney would later write that of the over sixty films he’d appeared in throughout his career LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is one of his favorites. Doris Day has also referred to it as “what might be the best film I was ever in.”
LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME shows how Ruth Etting meets Martin “the Gimp” Snyder and how she quickly moves up the show business ranks from chorus girl to star under his close supervision, for lack of a better word. It also portrays her love affair with her accompanist, Johnny Alderman (played by Cameron Mitchell). The more famous Etting becomes the more Marty Snyder feels he owns her and the more she feels she owes him until she’s little more than a commodity going through the motions exactly as he dictates. In order to survive Etting resigns herself to accept two constants in her life – Snyder will ensure her continued show business success and she’s firmly under his thumb.
What James Cagney brings to LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is of surprise to no one. He’s fantastic and according to Eddie Cantor his portrayal of Snyder is spot on. This also happens to be one of my favorite of Cagney’s roles, which is saying a lot because I don’t think he ever missed a beat. In this movie Jimmy plays the last gangster he portrayed in a movie and brings out “the heavy” with usual flair using that wonderful physicality. I don’t think anyone could play the throw-your-weight-around street hood better than he could. But then there’s the heart, that little soft spot Cantor talked about, which could break your heart a little each and every time. My favorite scene, if I had to choose one, is the one where Marty’s talking bad about the Hollywood producer behind the film Ruth will star in. He’s saying the guy thinks he’s a big shot, but he’s really a nobody. As he rants and raves an embittered Ruth turns to him and says “Who do you think you are, Marty? What have you done?” Without missing a beat a desire to murder her flashes across Cagney’s face. But then there’s hurt. A lot of it. He settles down a bit, looks straight at her and with rage simmering just beneath the surface says “Whoever I am, kiddo, I’m what makes you tick and don’t ever forget that.” Then he walks into the next room and destroys the furniture. Damn. Great. Stuff.
As for Doris Day – well, she shows quite the range in this movie despite the fact that she wrote in her autobiography that she hesitated before accepting the role. Playing Ruth Etting, a kept woman involved with a Chicago gangster would require a certain degree of crudeness that Day wasn’t comfortable with, but she manages to exude just the right amount of it coupled with refinement. As Etting Day exhibits a heat that’s lacking in many of her other roles, but the lady’s still present. I need say nothing more than she matches Cagney in every scene…
…but to illustrate the great range of her performance I’m deferring to two distinct moments in the film that he’s not in, two songs Day performs that illustrate a wonderful juxtaposition in character. In the first Ruth is now the headliner at the Chicago club, but her career is still in its infancy. She’s also still the wide-eyed optimist, excited about the prospects that lie ahead thanks to the help she’s received from Marty Snyder. What she doesn’t yet know is the degree to which Snyder thinks he owns her, that he has plans for her she will be forced to adhere to. So she goes out onto the nightclub stage and delivers a lively rendition of “Everybody Loves My Baby (but My Baby Don’t Love Nobody but Me),” a great number done with gusto and energy. An exuberant performance by the wide-eyed optimist. By the way, kudos must go to Helen Rose who designed the costumes in the movie. Doris looks gorgeous in all scenes wearing a lovely lilac number for this particular performance.
Much later in the movie – Ruth Etting is a huge star and in the midst of breaking all sorts of attendance records on a road tour. She’s retreated into her emotional shell by this point, resigned to accept her role as Marty Snyder’s singing property. Dressed in a sexy, tight black number she performs the gorgeous lament “Ten Cents a Dance” written by Rodgers and Hart. Here we see Ruth the cynic, the hollowed-out woman, numb, going through the motions, the result of being bought and sold as the song’s lyric suggests. While Day still gives the performance her signature style and dignity, if you will, this is in complete contrast to the lively number I describe above, offering much more in the two distinct interpretations than the mere difference in rhythm in the two songs would suggest. She’s singing here with clenched fists, angry, a woman who’s been around the block and is a lot worse for wear. And after the number’s over we see her walk, zombie-like into her dressing room, grabbing a drink from Marty’s tough-guy pal who’s waiting for her as she enters, clearly a ritual she performed many times before. With that same deflated affectation she sits, as if to wait for the next numbing performance. Doing nothing more than bitterly paying a debt. This is a great performance folks.
Also worthy of note, by the way, is Doris Day’s voice, which is in great form in this picture, perfect for the music and time depicted. It’s not a surprise that the soundtrack to LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME was a phenomenal success for her staying in the number-one spot among Billboard’s popular albums for an impressive 17 weeks. I believe that all but two numbers in the movie were originally popularized by Ruth Etting.
The resolution to LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is perhaps a bit Hollywoodized in the sense that Ruth pays Marty Snyder back in earnest for all he did for her career, but it’s a satisfying ending nonetheless. And audiences in 1955 agreed because the movie turned out to be a hit for MGM. It also garnered decent representation at the 1956 Oscars with a win for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story and nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Cagney), Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture, Best Music, Song (for Nicholas Brodzsky and Sammy Cahn for “I’ll Never Stop Loving You”), Best Sound, Recording (Wesley C. Miller) and Best Writing, Screenplay. Doris Day’s performance was not recognized, however, and I think she deserved it. I won’t go as far as to say she was snubbed because 1955 was a tough year, but she deserved the nod. I will say that this is yet another example, along the lines of the Garland snub for A STAR IS BORN when the powers that be seem to overlook singers as actors when in my view characterization in song takes acting to another level. Emoting a song properly so that it gives us a broader sense of the character and that also furthers the story can’t be easy to do. Why can’t “they” see that?
Anyway – since I’m posting this commentary as part of the gigantic CinemaScope Blogathon hosted by blogging greats Becky of Classic Becky’s Brain Food and Rich of Wide Screen World let me address that in relation to LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, which was one of nineteen CinemaScope productions released by MGM in 1955. Next to Fox MGM embraced CinemaScope with gusto in comparison to other studios. In fact its biggest hit that year was another CinemaScope release, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s GUYS AND DOLLS.
While CinemaScope holds a fascination with film fans, or at least I think it does, it wasn’t something that filmmakers were necessarily happy to use as it posed inherent problems. These include an unnatural curvature in the image and limitations like not being close-up friendly. To encourage filmmakers to use CinemaScope Fox got its top cinematographer, Charles G. Clarke to release a “best practices” manual titled “CinemaScope Photographic Techniques,” which noted cameras should be held back and held stationary as often as possible and edits should be kept to a minimum. All of this is done in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME just as many of the scenes are staged theatrically or as if on a stage where the players fill the screen, which is another practice encouraged in Clarke’s manual.
LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is shot beautifully and atmospherically in accordance with the era it depicts. Cedric Gibbons‘ art direction is gorgeous and the production looks expensive, which is not surprising for MGM. While I’d venture to say that this movie may not be the best example of CinemaScope because its story is a personal one, rather than an epic extravaganza, it’s still a credit to the style of filmmaking. LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME presents a rich, gutsy tapestry of the Roaring ’20s with both drama and musical well-served.
Now head on over to The CinemaScope Blogathon to read much more about the process and many other films of the era.
As a special treat you might want to take a look at this 1936 RKO musical short, MELODY IN MAY in which Ruth Etting plays herself as she did in most (if not all) big screen appearances.