‘This could be the best film I’ve made’ – Doris Day
During her seven-year contract with Warner Brothers, Doris Day made 17 pictures and became the studio’s most valuable asset at the box office. At the end of that contract, former Warner star James Cagney recommended her to MGM producer Joe Pasternak for the coveted lead in Love Me or Leave Me, the story of 1930’s singing star Ruth Etting. Already cast as the male lead, Cagney was so convinced that Day had the depth and talent as a singer and actress to handle this highly dramatic role that he ceded top billing to her, only the second time since 1931 that he had accepted less than top billing.
Etting made famous numerous songs now considered standards. In 1955, Day was the top female recording artist in the United States and had many hits of her own, so her selection to portray Etting was a logical choice. While music was important to the story, the picture’s highly emotional screenplay was adult material that necessitated actors who could deliver strong dramatic performances.
In the film, Ruth Etting (Day) is an aspiring and somewhat naïve young singer working in a ten-cents-a-dance joint when Marty Snyder (Cagney) spots her and offers to help her get into show business. He is a hot-tempered bully with a lot of contacts in Chicago, and he thinks he can add Ruth to his collection of pick-ups. Ruth is not a pick-up, but she is ambitious and she readily accepts his offer. Ignoring a warning from pianist/arranger Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) not to get involved with a known gangster, she turns her career over to Snyder.
When Snyder realizes that Ruth is becoming popular, he begins devoting his every waking hour to her career, still hoping that his efforts will yield what she so far has avoided: an intimate relationship with him. He makes deals for her to sing in clubs, gets her to star on her own radio program, and then arranges a contract for her with the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. Afraid of losing control of Ruth to the Ziegfeld professionals, however, Snyder pulls her out of the Follies. When she challenges him in an explosive argument, he rapes her. (This part of the scene didn’t stay in the film’s last cut.) Defeated emotionally, Ruth marries Snyder and begins achieving even greater successes on the nightclub circuit.
Snyder then negotiates a contract for Ruth to make a movie in Hollywood; however, much to his disapproval, her old friend Johnny is the musical director on the picture. Johnny has loved Ruth for years, and she secretly feels the same way about him. After Snyder physically attacks her during a bitter argument, Ruth asks for a divorce. Suspicious of Ruth’s feelings for Johnny, Snyder shoots him and is subsequently arrested.
This is a wonderful film, with Day and Cagney giving memorable performances. Both were surefire bets for Academy Award nominations, but ultimately Day was not among the five women nominated that year. Even so, she earned almost unanimous praise from critics worldwide and the picture was a huge success. After his retirement, Cagney (who got one of the film’s six Oscar nominations) cited the movie as one of the five best of his entire career.
Besides the film’s title song, written in 1928 by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn, the Oscar-nominated score included 11 complete songs and portions of several others. The two new songs written for the film, Never Look Back and I’ll Never Stop Loving You, were both substantial hits for Day, with the latter getting an Oscar nomination for best song. The soundtrack album was the recording industry’s best seller of the entire year.
The screenplay by Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart was Oscar-nominated, and Fuchs took home the Academy Award for best writing of the story. The color cinematography and costumes were first rate, as was the supporting cast. It included Robert Keith as Etting’s agent and Harry Bellaver as Snyder’s right-hand man. Charles Vidor, who earned a nomination from the Directors Guild of America as best director, delivered an historic film.
Ralph McKnight, New York
Love Me or Leave Me: behind the scenes
James Cagney slaps Doris Day for real in Love Me or Leave Me – in the interests of realism and without telling her in advance. Doris is genuinely shocked but stays in character. You can see her shock in the top image and below as director Charles Vidor provides comfort, 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 slaps Miss Day in the face, the audience reacts to the shameful violence with a genuine and audible gasp”.
Could it possibly have been a publicity stunt? It’s interesting that a Time Magazine photographer was on hand for the filming and the photographs soon made their way into the magazine.
Love Me or Leave Me was the first film undertaken by Doris Day in 1955 after her departure from Warner Brothers. She was now free to make her own choice of films and she was very intrigued with the idea of playing the role of Ruth Etting. Not only that but she had an outstanding producer, director and a very literate script. However, it was the idea of playing opposite Jimmy Cagney that finally convinced her to tackle the role. The film also had a great musical score that also attracted her. One of her biggest pleasures was working with the great musical department at MGM.
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.”
She obtained 112 sides of songs that Miss Etting originally waxed when she was the toast of Broadway, and it was from that group of songs that the songs for the film were ultimately selected.
Since she was playing something entirely different from her roles at Warner’s, she was worried that many of her fans would not believe her as Ruth Etting. She had to drink, wear sexy costumes, and also play a woman whose motives were not always the best. But while at MGM she was given the star treatment and even used the dressing room once used by Lana Turner. For the film, she had a $40,000 wardrobe designed by Academy Award Winner Helen Rose. That was expensive back in 1955.
And, she knew as the filming progressed that there was something special about the movie. Most film critics consider it her very best role. She certainly should have at least been nominated for an Academy Award. But there is something strange about Academy voters. A person in a singing role is rarely taken seriously. Few musical stars have ever been nominated for an Oscar. She worked very hard on her role. During the first seven weeks of shooting, she had only one half day off!
James Cagney said of Doris:
As an actress, she perfectly illustrates my definition of good acting; just plant yourself, look the other actor in the eye, and tell him the truth. That’s what she does, all right.” He considered this film one of his top five pictures.”
And the picture turned out to be a smash. It was nominated for six Academy Awards. Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Song, Best Original Story. It makes you wonder what Doris’s film career would have been like if she had been at MGM from the very beginning of her career. – Derald Hendry
Love Me or Leave Me was a huge critical and commercial success. The soundtrack album spent 17 weeks at Number 1, made millions at the box office, and generated six Academy Award nominations. It won for Best Story, and was also nominated for Best Actor (Cagney), Best Screenplay (Isobel Lennart, Daniel Fuchs), Best Score, Best Song (I’ll Never Stop Loving You) and Best Sound.
Rising to fame in the twenties and early thirties, Ruth Etting was renowned for her great beauty, her gorgeous voice and her tragic life. She starred on Broadway, made movies in Hollywood, married a mobster, had numerous hit-records, fell in love and was known as America’s Sweetheart of Song.
Ruth Etting made her first record in 1926 and her last in 1937. Completely lacking in the performer’s ego, she called her early recordings corny and kept none of her original 78s. In 1955, her story was made into a movie, ultimately nominated for six Academy Awards and winning the Award for Best Story. Love Me or Leave Me starred Doris Day and James Cagney as the Gimp. Ruth Etting died on September 24, 1978, in Colorado Springs.