This is a wonderful film with Doris Day and James Cagney giving memorable performances. Both were surefire bets for Academy Award nominations. But, when the list was released, Miss Day's was not among the five women nominated that year. Cagney was recognised for his work, while Doris Day was hailed by critics from around the world and the picture was a huge success.
Tour de force for Cagney and Day...
During her seven-year contract to Warner Brothers, Doris Day made 17 pictures. She was a star in her first film, "Romance on the High Seas" and she was still a star after she made the last, "Young at Heart".
Free from the complications of taking orders from Jack Warner, who forced Miss Day to make films she sharply disapproved of, like "Lucky Me", the star was embarking on unknown territory. An interesting offer came to her from MGM, a studio which had watched her progress at Warner's for years, but could not avail themselves of her services because she was guarded like the US Mint. After all, she had been a gold mine for the studio and it's saving grace since the departure of Warner Queen, Miss Bette Davis.
On the recommendation of former Warner star, James Cagney, Doris Day was offered the coveted lead in the Ruth Etting story. Miss Etting had been a top singing star of the 1930s whose career had spanned the speakeasies of Chicago, nightclubs, recordings, radio, the Ziegfeld Follies and Hollywood films. Superstar, Ava Gardner, desperately wanted to play Etting, but MGM, influenced by the already-cast Cagney, who felt that Doris Day had the depth and talent as an actress and singer to bring life to this highly dramatic role, offered the part to her. She was such a huge star in 1955, that she would become the first actress to receive billing over James Cagney in 30 years.
Ruth Etting introduced, or made famous, countless songs now considered standards. Miss Day, in 1955 was the top female recording star in the United States and had many hits of her own. It was not necessary for her to imitate Miss Etting's style of singing, but to interpret the songs with the same conviction for which the chanteuse was famous. The story was the core of this film and the acting would be central here. The music was important, but the highly emotional Isobel Lennart-Daniel Fuchs script was strong adult material and necessitated actors who could deliver dramatically.
Ruth Etting, Martin "the Gimp" Snyder and Johnny Alderman were all living and were consulted during the preparation for the film. This is highly unusual, for most biographies are produced after the principals are deceased. Their firsthand remembrances enhanced the realistic depiction presented in the movie.
Shot in colour and spectacular CinemaScope, every element of the period was carefully researched. Thirties' cars, decor, costumes and peripherals were strenuously adhered to, but strangely, the music style and sound was updated to the standards of the day. Two new songs were added, "Never Look Back" and the Oscar-nominated, "I'll Never Stop Loving You", which were beautifully sung by Day.
What is important to note here is the care and respect that MGM gave to Doris Day, the former Warner Brothers Queen, by casting her in a picture that would never have been offered to her at her old studio. Here, she was presented with a first-rate production, a top salary (for the time) and a choice role that was not offered to any of the MGM legends.
Ruth Etting was a naïve young singer, working in a ten cents-a-dance joint when Martin "the Gimp" Snyder spotted her and offered to "help her" get into show business. Etting needed work; she'd just gotten fired from her job after complaining about a customer's wandering hands while they danced. Ending up in a dance line, Ruth implored Snyder that she didn't want to be a dancer, but that she wanted to sing. His idea, of course, was to obligate her to him, so he could get from her what he really wanted, sex. Unbeknownst to Snyder, he would be Ruth's stepping stone to fame and fortune.
Realising that Ruth was not his usual pick-up; Snyder accidentally gives Etting the break she needs. Warned by young piano/arranger, Johnny Alderman, that she was making a mistake by getting involved with a known gangster, Ruth, frustrated by unfulfilled promises by past relations, ignored his portention and literally turned her career over to the brash Mr. Snyder. Marty, using strong-armed tactics, bullied nightclub owners into allowing Ruth to sing. Because she did possess talent, audiences took to her and she became quite popular on the Chicago circuit.
Marty managed to get Etting on the radio starring in her own show. By this time, he had thrown his every waking hour into her career, still hoping that his efforts would yield what Ruth has been avoiding: an intimate relationship with him. By the end of her radio contract, Marty was obsessed with making Ruth a star. He arranged for her to leave Chicago and her show to star in the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. A tremendous success, the engagement was hampered by Marty's impatience and reluctance to allow the professionals to transform Ruth into a sophisticated headliner. Afraid of losing control of Ruth, Marty explodes and pulls her out of the Follies. When Ruth balks, he brutally rapes her. Defeated emotionally, Ruth marries Marty and embarks on an unbelievable climb to stardom.
After conquering radio, recordings, Broadway and nightclubs, Snyder negotiates for Ruth to make a film in Hollywood. Surprisingly, Johnny Alderman, the pianist who tried to help her when she first involved herself with "the Gimp", was now a musical director at the studio and would be working with Ruth on the picture, much to Marty's disapproval. Johnny has been in love with Ruth for years and she, secretly feels the same about him. At this point in her life, she is completely dominated by Marty who watches her every move. Desperate to "do something on his own", Marty buys a nightclub in order to get his name in lights: "Martin Snyder presents Ruth Etting".
After a bitter argument, Marty physically attacks Ruth who decides that she has had enough and asks for a divorce. Snyder becomes suspicious of Ruth's feelings for Alderman, and shoots him in a jealous rage and is subsequently arrested. He is bailed out by his trusted buddy, Georgie (Harry Bellaver) who takes Marty to the opening of his new club. When he sees the marquee hailing Ruth Etting's name, he vows to "throw her out". Informed of Snyder's release from jail, throngs of reporters are awaiting his arrival. Robert Keith as Bernard Loomis, long-time friend to both Ruth and Marty reasons with him and convinces him to allow Ruth to "pay him back" for all that he has done for her.
This is a wonderful film with Doris Day and James Cagney giving memorable performances. Both were surefire bets for Academy Award nominations. But, when the list was released, Miss Day's was not among the five women nominated that year. Cagney was recognised for his work, while Doris Day was hailed by critics from around the world and the picture was a huge success with Day enjoying yet another hit record with "I'll Never Stop Loving You" which remained on the charts for many weeks. Day handled all of the musical numbers with aplomb and her beautiful voice has never been used to better advantage. Not only did she look spectacular; she played a true adult woman with guts and feeling. It was truly a personal triumph.
The CinemaScope photography, colour, costumes and script were all first rate. Many of Ruth Etting's songs were expertly sung by Doris Day, including "Sam, the Old Accordion Man", "At Sundown", "It All Depends on You", "Mean to Me", "Shaking the Blues Away", "Ten Cents a Dance", "Everybody Loves My Baby" and "Love Me or Leave Me". Supporting the two stars were a group of seasoned professionals. Veda Ann Borg was great in a small part in the beginning of the film as a hostess, Cameron Mitchell, as Alderman was appropriately warm as the man she loves, with Robert Keith, Tom Tully and Peter Leeds, all good in their roles. Producer, Joseph Pasternak took great care with the production and director, Charles Vidor, with dedication and conviction, delivered an historic film.
Ralph McKnight, New York, February 2001
Playing the role of Ruth Etting...
“Love Me or Leave Me” was the first film undertaken by Doris Day in 1955 after her 'liberation' 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 Warners, she was worrried 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 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!
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.
"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.
The real Ruth Etting and Marty Snyder.