James Cagney to Doris Day, “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955)
Day and Cagney were born to play these unforgettable characters
By Michael Hadley
After Doris Day completed her seven year contract at Warner Brothers in 1954, she became a free agent who could choose her next film from an array of offers at various studios. She ultimately accepted the lead role in a major MGM musical biography of 1920’s torch singer Ruth Etting called Love Me or Leave Me. Ruth Etting was a notable jazz vocalist who came from very humble beginnings and made it to the big time by relying on the strong-arm tactics of a small time Chicago gangster named Martin Snyder.
Snyder, also known as “The Gimp” because of a club foot, spotted Etting at a speakeasy and became her manager to launch her career. He basically bullied Chicago nightclub owners into hiring her until word got out that she was indeed a very talented singer.
The role of Ruth Etting was a huge departure for Day, who up until that point, had been typecast as the girl-next-door in a series of frothy musicals at Warner Brothers. For Day to act this role convincingly, she had to undergo a significant image transformation and traverse a far wider acting range than she had attempted before. Several sources report that Ruth Etting actually preferred Jane Powell to portray her on screen. Other sources indicate that Ava Gardner and Jane Russell were both attached to the part before Day was hired.
Day by her own admission was initially reluctant to tackle such a challenging role. She worried that audiences would not accept her playing a sexy and overtly ambitious character. She also had reservations about wearing scanty costumes and smoking and drinking in seedy nightclub settings. Fortunately, Joe Pasternak, the producer, convinced her that she brought an inherent dignity to the role that would offset the more unsavory aspects of the character. His prognostication proved to be right on the money. The role marked a huge turning point in Day’s film career. She ascended to a new level of respect in the film industry and audiences saw her in a whole new light. It was a classic case of against-type casting that paid huge dividends for the actress and the film.
The combustible Jimmy Cagney was cast first in the role of Marty (“the Gimp”) Snyder, the small time Chicago hoodlum who ran a laundry business that served lower rung Chicago nightclubs. The role fit Cagney perfectly and he urged producers to cast Doris Day opposite him. Cagney was another astute observer who saw in Day a natural gift for dramatic acting that not been tapped before. He once said that Doris Day illustrated his definition of good acting: “Just plant yourself, look the other person in the eye and tell him the truth.”
The chemistry between Day and Cagney is dynamite. There is no denying these two actors caught lightning in a bottle during their scenes together in this film. Their onscreen relationship is edgy, complex, combative and ultimately heartbreaking. Each character feeds off what the other can do for them in pure self-interest while gradually growing to care about each other in spite of the impossibility of their union.
At times, you find yourself rooting for him over Doris Day because no one is immune to desperately wanting someone or something they cannot have.”
Cagney is by all accounts one of the most dynamic actors to ever appear on screen. You cannot take your eyes off him as he manhandles anyone who tries to interfere with his master plan to pilot Ruth Etting’s career. His pitch perfect performance makes it clear that he is madly in love with Etting to the point of obsession. He also does a masterful job of conveying the false bravado and underlying insecurity of someone who seizes control to mask a pitiful lack of artistic taste and sophistication. He makes you care for this two-bit mobster as only Cagney can. At times, you find yourself rooting for him over Doris Day because no one is immune to desperately wanting someone or something they cannot have. And if you don’t find yourself repeating his delightful butchering of her last name (“What’s her name again? Ett-ling?”), you need a serious Cagney primer.
The film also boasts one of the most tuneful musical scores ever with Day doing full justice to such classics as “Ten Cents A Dance,” “Mean to Me” and “You Made Me Love You” among others. Day is at her absolute vocal peak here: she manages to honor the more subdued vocal style of Ruth Etting while simultaneously leveraging her own lustrous voice to drive home the complexity and inherent sadness of her character. She has rarely been as openly sensual in her vocal interpretations, whether swaying freely with her legs akimbo and her hands on her hips in “Ten Cents A Dance” or expressing the deep yearning of lost love in “I’ll Never Stop Loving You.” In both performances, she makes you feel the heartache and regret her choices have brought her.
Some critics have complained about the rather claustrophobic staging of the big “Shaking the Blues Away” number that marks Etting’s triumphant debut at the Ziegfeld Follies. But I think Day’s strong vocals, graceful dancing and dazzling blue dress offset any staging limitations the director, Charles Vidor, may have imposed. The viewer is fully invested at that point in seeing Day / Etting achieve crowning success and the number is a fitting first act climax. Others have expressed disappointment with the lack of Day close-ups when she sings the title tune at the end of the film. The scene begs for a poignant close-up of the woman who makes her final attempt to payback the man who got her where she is. But Vidor chose to shoot Day’s final song exclusively from Cagney’s distant perspective. My guess is he felt it was more important to underscore Cagney’s sense of loss over Day’s heartfelt vocal performance.
For the most part, the supporting characters are relegated to the sidelines while the two leads hold court center stage. Cameron Mitchell is adequate but completely overshadowed by Day and Cagney. His role as Johnny the pianist who first notices Etting’s vocal gifts and falls for her is thankless, but Mitchell does nothing to make the character noteworthy or interesting. He therefore becomes more of a plot point than a fully developed character. Robert Keith offers solid support as a talent agent and friend to both Etting and Snyder, and Harry Bellaver makes a lovable lug out of the dim-witted henchman who is hopelessly devoted to Cagney.
“Love Me or Leave Me” remains one of the most fully realized musical biographies on film. It is one of those movies you can watch over and over again without failing to be mesmerized by the potent chemistry of the leading actors. Clearly, Day and Cagney were born to play these unforgettable and timeless characters.
Written and researched by Michael Hadley
“Cameron Mitchell is adequate but completely overshadowed by Day and Cagney. His role as Johnny the pianist who first notices Etting’s vocal gifts and falls for her is thankless, but Mitchell does nothing to make the character noteworthy or interesting.”
Assault on a (Movie) Queen: James Cagney slaps Doris – for real
James Cagney slaps Doris Day for real in the above take during the filming of “Love Me or Leave Me”- in the interests of realism and without telling her in advance. Doris is genuinely shocked but stays in character, as Cagney knew she would. You can see her shock in the top image and, as director Charles Vidor provides comfort below, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her and perhaps today such methods would be unacceptable. However, Cagney’s aim would seem to have been achieved judging by the reaction of one film critic who wrote, “When Mr. Cagney finally slaps Miss Day in the face, the audience reacts to the shameful violence with genuine and audible gasp”. Could it possibly have been a publicity stunt? It’s interesting that a Life Magazine photographer was on hand for the filming and the photographs soon made their way into the magazine, below.
Watch Life Magazine’s photo coverage of the event:
In her book, Doris Day, Her Own Story, she said:
I prepared for the role by listening to all the Ruth Etting records. She had a quiet way of speaking and singing. It was not my intention to mimic her, but to suggest her style with little inflections and shadings that I picked up from the recordings.”
By Paul E Brogan
In 1955, after seven years as a major star at Warner Brothers and a string of successful films, Doris Day began to freelance. The first project she chose was a lavish musical biography at MGM entitled, “Love Me or Leave Me”. It was the story of 20’s and 30’s chanteuse, Ruth Etting and her relationship with Marty “The Gimp” Snyder. It opened that summer to critical and box-office kudos. The well-fashioned script pulls no punches in it’s depiction of the sometimes seamy and tawdry lives of its principal characters. Etting and Snyder often used one another for their own personal gain and, for a change, the film doesn’t gloss over some of the less than savory aspects of their lives. The result is one of the best musical dramas ever committed to film.
The rise of Etting, from dance hall girl to Ziegfeld star was told amidst the settings of Chicago and New York. She meets Snyder, who wants to use her and utilizes his obsession with her in order to attain her goal – stardom. Their relationship is one that is filled with violence, jealousy, and rage, and the realism with which this is presented is unsettling. Those who like their musicals served up with a sugar coating should steer clear of this memorable classic.
Doris Day gives a tour de force performance as Etting. It’s a Doris Day that we’ve never seen before and the heartbreaking reality that she brings to every scene is unforgettable. Vocally, she sings with passion and style, dazzling with such song classics as “Shakin the Blues Away”, “Ten Cents a Dance” and “You Made Me Love You”, and the Oscar nominated, “I’ll Never Stop Loving You”. However, it is her rendition of “It All Depends on You”, accompanied by only a piano, in which she creates a lasting image. To those who have never really listened to her voice. her range,phrasing, breath control and tonal quality, not to mention the feeling that she puts into a song, will make them easily become admirers of what may be one of the finest female pop voices in music history.
James Cagney is nothing short of outstanding as Marty Snyder and his scenes with Day crackle with intensity. Cameron Mitchell as Johnny, the man Ruth loves, is also fine and MGM has spared no expense in making this a production of the highest calibre. It’s a film for the ages!
Paul E Brogan
From Great Entertainers Blogspot:
“It was in Hollywood that Ruth’s loveless marriage to Marty Snyder finally fell apart.
In 1937, Ruth fell for her accompanist, Myrl Alderman, and in a rage, the Gimp shot him. Alderman. survived, Snyder went to jail and Ruth ended up divorcing him and marrying her true love, Alderman.
The couple relocated to an eight-acre farm outside of Colorado Springs in 1938. Alderman, who was raised in Colorado Springs, operated a restaurant there for a time. For Ruth. the scandal was too much for her career to survive. She made a few attempts at a comeback but her days as America’s Sweetheart were over. Etting and Alderman remained married until his death in Denver in 1966. Ruth Etting died in 1978 and Martin Snyder died in 1981.
Ruth Etting reportedly disapproved of Day playing her. Etting had wanted Jane Powell to play her but the studio insisted on an actress with more acting ability. Not to say that Jane Powell was a bad actress, but she did not have the range that Doris Day had.
Doris Day wrote in her autobiography that she hesitated before accepting the lead in this film. Ruth Etting was a kept woman who clawed her way up from seamy Chicago nightclubs to the Ziegfeld Follies. It would require her to drink, wear scant, sexy costumes and to string along a man she didn’t love in order to further her career. There was also a certain vulgarity about Ruth Etting that she didn’t want to play. Producer Joe Pasternak convinced Day to accept the role because she would give the part some dignity that would play away from the vulgarity.
After the film was released, Doris Day was deluged with mail from fans attacking her, a Christian Scientist, for playing a lewd woman who smoked, drank, and wore scant costumes in the nightclub scenes. Day cared about everyone who was disturbed by her characterization, and she answered every piece of mail, explaining the necessity for realism, and that it was essential to separate actress Doris Day from character Ruth Etting. She felt that as a performer, she had the same responsibility to the public that a politician has to the electorate.
In 1999, Ruth Etting’s version of Ten Cents A Dance, and in February of 2005, her version of Love Me or Leave Me, were inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.”
– Down Memory Lane: Doris Day as Ruth Etting Great Entertainers Blogspot