Wednesday, April 10, 2013


The musical biopic, as a genre, is one grown so homogeneous and formulaic over the years, even films I’m seeing for the first time have a sense of déjà vu about them. Irrespective of the subject or its title - The Helen Morgan Story, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Funny Girl, Star!, or Lady Sings The Blues - these films hew so closely to a standard Hollywood rags-to-riches soap opera blueprint that their basis in biographical fact matters, at most, only tangentially. 
Doris Day as Ruth Etting
James Cagney as Martin (Moe the Gimp) Snyder
Cameron Mitchell as Johnny Alderman
For a public never tiring of being fed endless variations on the same Horatio Alger myth, celebrities and their alternately sordid/glamorous life stories have long been a wellspring of source material for Hollywood's dream machine. Hollywood and the old studio system has always trafficked in the wholesale packaging and commodification of reassuring fantasies designed to both titillate and tranquilize. And as such, movie biographies, musical or otherwise, have never really been about the actual lives of their chosen subjects so much as they were middle-class cautionary tales detailing the perils of pursuing the very sort of fame, glamour and wealth that make going to the movies so alluring in the first place. These interchangeable tales of sin and sequins always start out advocating the virtues of hard work, talent, and ambition; only to pull a moralistic about-face in the last reel, revealing the brass ring of success to be only nickel plate.

America’s perverse love/hate relationship with celebrity demands that our glorification of wealth and notoriety never be rewarded with stories about famous people who are actually happy. In the end, it always seems as if our innate puritanism gets the better of us, allowing only for the depiction of stardom as a fundamentally empty, joyless kind of ambition. A goal fraught with heartache and awash with tears behind the tinsel.
Love Me or Leave Me follows a similar course, but distinguishes itself by making the road it takes toward its anticipated comforting conclusion one of the bitterest and bumpiest I've ever encountered in an MGM musical.
The biographical musical's claim to being "Life-inspired," "Told as it really happened," or "Based on a true story," is less an assertion of verisimilitude so much as a marketing ploy allowing for the recycling of "showbiz melodrama" tropes dating back as far as 1929's Broadway Melody.

If queried about its track record of making biographical films that bear little to no resemblance to the actual lives of their subjects, Hollywood’s response would most likely be along the lines of: “If you want facts, go see a documentary!” And indeed, dramatic interest and entertainment value always trumps truth in movie bios. And so it goes with Love Me or Leave Me, the reasonably accurate (read: mostly made-up ) story of Ruth Etting, popular jazz singing star of the '20s and '30s.
During the 1920s and '30s, Ruth Etting gained fame as "America's Radio Sweetheart" and  "America's Sweetheart of Song."

When we first meet Ruth Etting (Doris Day), it’s the 1920s and she’s working as a taxi dancer in a seedy Chicago dime-a-dance dive that’s being squeezed by small-time racketeer Marty Snyder (James Cagney). Recognizing an opportunity for exploitation when he sees one, Snyder attempts to put a squeeze of another sort on the spunky, well-put-together Etting after she's sacked for defending herself against the physical advances of an over-ardent customer. In a romantic song-and-dance as old as Herod and as topical as an episode of Judge Judy; Snyder hopes to curry the favor of Etting through the gracious bestowing of a lot of strings-attached assistance. Although initially apprehensive, Ruth, a woman not unfamiliar with bread and knowing upon which side hers is buttered, soon finds herself the begrudging recipient of the diminutive mobster’s largesse. (That sentence reads smuttier than perhaps intended.)
As Martin Snyder, Cagney adds another memorable character to his Rogues Gallery of cinema bad guys. My favorite character touch: Snyder's inability to remember Ruth Etting's last name (he calls her "Ettling" for the longest time!)

In spite of an awareness of Snyder's increasingly possessive actions on her behalf being motivated by a romantic interest she cannot return, Etting—the nakedly opportunistic possessor of both a burning ambition to be a singer and a moral compass desperately in need of adjustment—nevertheless permits the gangster to bankroll and promote her career while she strings him along. Not exactly a problem until continued success incites in the songstress a longing for independence that increases in direct proportion to Snyder’s obsessive need to control her every waking moment. Further fanning the flames of discontent is the ongoing flirtation between Etting and onetime on-the-Snyder-payroll pianist, Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell). Yes, for a brief period, both Etting and Alderman are being paid by Snyder while making goo-goo eyes at one another behind his back. A mobster, an opportunist, and a double-crosser: what a lovable cast of characters!
Although Love Me or Leave Me was made with the compensated consent of then-living Martin Snyder, Ruth Etting, and Myrl Alderman (changed to "Johnny" for the film), upon the film's release Etting is said to have dismissed the film as "Half fairy tale." 

That I even enjoyed spending time in the company of three such largely unsympathetic and self-interested individuals is a testament to the irreproachable charm of both Doris Day and James Cagney; the tuneful score of period standards made famous by Etting; and the obfuscating dexterity of Daniel Fuchs Oscar-winning story and Isobel Lennart’s (Funny Girl) Oscar-nominated screenplay.

If the above statement gives the impression that I’m less than thrilled by Love Me or Leave Me’s somewhat flinty cast of characters, let me clarify that nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, the hard-bitten characterizations and refreshingly cynical tone of Love Me or Leave Me place it far beyond the pale of your typical, sentimental, MGM musical fare. And by me, that is just fine. I truly love movie musicals, but a rarely-discussed downside to this pop-cultural predilection of mine is how frequently I'm forced to endure the most cloyingly false and saccharine plotlines just to get to the singing and dancing. Love Me or Leave Me is such an atypically dark depiction of ambition and obsessive love that one immediately senses that there is no way a film this sordid would ever be green-lighted were it not purportedly based on true events.
Doris Day has had just about enough of your shit.

Succeeding where Martin Scorsese’s not-dissimilar New York, New York failed, Love Me or Leave Me finds the humanity behind its hard-boiled characters and delivers a solid musical drama that takes an unflinching look at the kind of relationship that is doubtless more common in show business than we're usually shown. It all makes for a remarkably gripping viewing experience as anticipated romantic clinches and cliches are dashed left and right by characters with scarcely a sentimental bone in their bodies. Chiefly due to the powerhouse performances of Doris Day & James Cagney, what might otherwise be abhorrently unpleasant material becomes truly compelling human drama. Marred only by the occasional lapse into perhaps Production Code-mandated, tacked-on morality.
Although the film's production values are all top notch, one has to keep reminding oneself that Love Me or Leave Me is set in the 1920s. The musical and visual tone is decidedly '50s. Doris Day's big musical number,"Shaking the Blues Away," owes more to Judy Garland's "Get Happy" number in Summer Stock (1950) than The Ziegfeld Follies.

If you’re a fan of the extensive catalog of mobsters, hoods, and mugs that made James Cagney one of the biggest stars at Warner Bros. in the '30s & '40s, then his performance in Love Me or Leave Me might feel like a late-career “best of” reprisal of the kind of roles he near-copyrighted in his heyday (Cagney was 55 at the time). Fair enough. For Cagney doesn't do a lot here that he hasn't done before. But whether his pugnacious, poignantly lovesick Moe the Gimp is your first or fiftieth exposure to James Cagney onscreen, there’s no getting past the fact that the man kicks serious ass. Looking very much throughout the film like a fist with eyes, Cagney—whether combative, funny, wounded, or monstrous—is such a magnetic, menacing, and dynamic a presence, you literally can’t take your eyes off of him.
I never fail to marvel at Cagney's ability to create sympathetic monsters. As versatile an actor as they come, Cagney could have you rooting for a character in one scene and booing him in the next. Pictured here with character actor Harry Bellaver, Cagney gives one of those looks you really wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of.

I’m a Doris Day fan from way back. But unlike most, my least favorite films of hers are those so-called sophisticated sex comedies she made with that interchangeably bland lineup of lantern-jawed stiffs: Rock Hudson, Rod Taylor, and James Garner. I know I’m alone in this, but I've always felt Doris Day—an actress of untapped versatility and an effortless appeal that made her considerable talent all too easy to dismiss—was sabotaged throughout her career by always being paired with handsome-but-dull leading men. Doris had a lot more danger and sex behind that million-dollar smile than she was ever able (or willing) to take advantage of, but in Love Me or Leave Me, she more than rises to the occasion.

She delivers what is to me the best performance of her career and meets Cagney’s intensity head to head. She drinks, she's tough, she fires off her hard-bitten dialogue as if to the manner born, and she's one helluva crier (her sobs are so body-wracking they break your heart). There’s no way to look at her work here and not wish she had ventured into more dramatic roles in her career. (Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but if it’s true Doris Day was offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduatebased on her performance here, more's the pity she didn't accept it.)
In this particularly harrowing scene, Doris Day is nothing short of phenomenal. How she failed to receive an Oscar nomination for her performance is a mystery (of the film's 6 Oscar nods, Cagney's was the only nomination in the acting categories). The scenes these two share crackle with a vibrancy and tension thoroughly absent from Day's scenes with Cameron Mitchell. Day and Cagney had previously appeared together in the 1950 musical, The West Point Story.

Lest one begin to think Love Me or Leave Me is nothing but a lot of sturm und drang, rest assured that things are enlivened considerably by a passel of songs Doris Day gets to sing and dance to (quite marvelously, I might add). Although the songs are period-perfect, the arrangements are strictly 1950s, and Ms. Day sounds absolutely nothing like Ruth Etting, which is all to the better since she looks nothing like her either. Day is in fine voice and for once her spectacular figure is shown off to full a series of sexy, form-fitting gowns totally wrong for the 1920s, but who's complaining?
A staple of show-biz biographies is the played for laughs "starting at the bottom" scene where the neophyte star "amusingly" ruins a musical number by not knowing the steps. In Funny Girl it was "Roller Skate Rag," in Star! it was "Oh! What a Lovely War." In Love Me or Leave Me, Doris flubs the dance steps to "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" Curious how in all of these scenes the least experienced dancer is always placed front and center.

Tossing aside any need for Love Me or Leave Me to actually be a historically/narratively accurate biography of Ruth Etting (If you must, you can see and hear her on YouTube, and read her considerably seamier story online), I have to say that I have nothing but praise for this film. In fact, I admire it a great deal and consider it to be one of the best of the overworked musical biopic genre. It isn't often that a mere musical offers up so gloomy a portrait of obsession, or showcases characters of such ambiguously complex motives and attachments.
Love Me or Leave Me's old-school, MGM gloss is considerable, but there's a maturity to the whole enterprise which more than makes up for the film's occasional adherence to by-the-numbers movie bio plotting. In a way that feels very contemporary now but must have been jarring in 1955, Love Me or Leave Me maneuvers its tricky shifts in tone expertly. The songs never bring the story to a halt and the drama always feels honest (sometimes brutally so) to the characters.

Of course, what brings me back to Love Me or Leave Me time and time again are the performances of Doris Day and James Cagney. Who would ever guess that Doris Day could be so rivetingly sexy playing sullen and cynical? And as for Cagney...well, they don't make 'em like him any more. A polished diamond in the rough if there ever was one.

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. Ken, what a great review and wonderful array of colour stills. I love your point about how so many biopics are at heart "middle-class cautionary tales detailing the perils of pursuing the very sort of fame, glamour and wealth that make going to the movies so alluring in the first place." There are also many fictional rags-to-riches movies (including 'A Star Is Born' in all its various guises) which have their cake and eat it in this same way. Cagney did actually get an Oscar nomination for his role in this, but I agree Doris Day should have had one too - and, although I do like her sophisticated comedies, it is great to see her opposite an actor like Cagney. I also love seeing her with Sinatra in 'Young at Heart'. Anyway, great stuff, Ken!

    1. Thanks,Judy!
      As a populist entertainment, I suppose Hollywood movies felt it their duty to at least make a showing of support for basic family values, etc. I guess it wouldn't do to send all those folks home dissatisfied with their humble lot and jealously coveting the lives of the rich and famous. That's what movie magazines were for. :-)
      Thanks for pointing out that Cagney was nominated. It really would have been criminal...if I may use that word...had he not been. He was amazing.
      I too liked Doris opposite Sinatra. She was at her best with Gable and Grant as well. (Hell, I even liked her opposite Richard Harris in "Caprice"!)Thanks so much for reading, Judy!

  2. Terrific post! I happen to love this film, chiefly for the great chemistry between Cagney and Doris Day. There is an electricity between them and sets the story on its ear. The story says she is repelled by him, but their chemistry says she is repelled by the fact that she needs him. Very adult undercurrents in a sanitized biopic.

    1. Thank you, FlickChick
      Indeed, Cagney and Day together are quite the incendiary pair. I'm afraid "Love Me or Leave Me" would be just another programmer without them. By the way, love your observation about their chemistry. I think you're spot on!

  3. A film the participants can point to with pride.

    There's a bit in the movie that always leaves me shaking my head with how much it shows that times never change. Johnny asks Marty if he wants to know if Ruth can sing and Marty says you put a pretty girl on stage and tell the public she can sing, then she's a singer. That's about it.

    Interesting trivia: Alderman was the musical arranger on the Cagney picture "Something to Sing About".

    1. The cynical eye "Love Me or Leave Me" casts on show business (or at least Snyder's clear-eyed idea of it) is one of the more refreshing things about this atypical 50s musical. Yes, that line you reference could be repeated at the start of every episode of "The Voice" and "American Idol."
      Love that you found a Six Degrees of separation...Cagney style...for Meryl Alderman!

  4. Terrific review,thank you. Great performances from Cagney and Doris Day.
    As you say, no real attempt to convey 1920s musical arrangements.
    And I do agree Doris 's success in the Day/Hudson comedies took her away from drama apart from Midnight Lace.

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood

    1. Thanks, Vienna!
      Everyone seems to agree that Cagney and Day are splendid here. Perhaps, in Day's case, providing too strong a reminder of what she was capable of and how seldom she ever reached these heights in her choice of movie roles.
      From what I've read, Day had more than her share of real-life "Marty Snyders" behind the scenes navigating her career choices.

  5. Couldn't agree with you more about Doris Day being at her best before Rock Hudson.
    She was a terrific actress in "Love Me or Leave Me," sexy as hell in "The Pajama Game," and riveting in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (she is quite amazing in the scene in which Stewart drugs her before dropping the bomb about their son being kidnapped).
    I even prefer the frothy but charming "It Happened to Jane" to her subsequent 1960s sex(less) farces. She and Jack Lemmon make a nice couple in that forgotten Frank Capra-esque comedy. Day has a very appealing, Jean Arthur-style down-to-earth quality in the film, too.
    She was incredibly popular in the 1960s but I think her real "acting" days were behind her at that point.

    1. Hi Joe
      Thanks for bringing up that scene in "The Man Who Knew Too Much." It's a standout scene for Doris, and in that instant, millions of women around the world want to strangle the patronizing James Stewart. She is marvelous in the roles you mentioned, and it has always surprised me how much success she found (boxoffice-wise and with the public) in the years after Ross Hunter turned her into a lacquered "professional virgin" (not sure who that quote is credited to, but I'll guess Oscar Levant).
      Oh, and nobody ever seems to bring up how great Doris is in "The Pajama Game" as hell! Thanks for that!

  6. You make just some truly sharp and pertinent observations on Hollywood musical bios and how their cliches reflect our society -- particularly your points on our love/hate celebrity obsessions. I find myself wishing this musical could have been made NOT to look so glossy and clean -- that it could have been done in black-and-white, with noir lighting, and shabby furniture (the pre-Code era might have got it right). I've always felt that Day was an underrated actress; even when she's in absurdist swill like "Julie," she brings a believable toughness to the silly proceedings. And I admire Cagney's performance here, how he really pushes the limits of audience sympathy but lets you see the aching human beneath the nastiness. What an actor! As usual, a great post, fun and interesting to read.

    1. Hello GOM!
      I think your idea of "Love Me or Leave Me" as a gritter black and white film is a doozy! just perfect both for the sense the very realistic performances of Cagney and Day are pitted against the impossibly pristine, widescreen sets. The more I think about the idea, the more I like it!
      And yes, Cagney is a pretty terrifying bully at times in this film, but he really makes you feel for his character each time he finds his efforts to win Etting over coming to naught. Such n expressive actor.

  7. Ken, as usual a witty and insightful post on one of Cagney's last major films. Your discussion of the biopic genre was exceptionally well thought-out. I liked your point about them being "middle-class cautionary tales" about the loneliness of life at the top to titillate middle-class audiences while reassuring them that their lives aren't so bad after all. This kind of movie does seem to follow an almost universal arc: hard work, talent, and luck to claw your way to the top, problems (usually romantic ones) once you reach it, then the lesson that money and fame aren't everything. Any movie that breathes life into this formula is to be admired, and this is one of those that overcome the limitations of their formula. It's funny, but I didn't think of this as an MGM movie until you pointed it out, but of course it shows in the elaborate production values of the great stills you chose. I liked your point about movies like this showing little real feeling for period detail. To me they always look like products of their time--especially the films of the 50s and early 60s--and as you pointed out, here the musical arrangements don't show much period sensitivity either.

    Cagney is the subject of the blogathon, and you did a wonderful job discussing his acting in this film. I especially liked your observation about him being able to make a viewer hate him one minute and like him the next. But I'm glad you gave so much attention to Doris Day. Cagney was such a forceful screen presence that he tended to overwhelm his costars, and here he gets to interact with a female costar in a way he hadn't often done, and not for many years. She's an actress I've just recently started to admire a lot. I've just seen her again in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "The Pajama Game" and she was wonderful in both. I've always liked her in "Calamity Jane" and I noticed you alluded to "Teacher's Pet" in one of your replies, a movie I thought she was very good in, in a serious-comedic role. Anyway, a great post and a most welcome offering for the Cagney Blogathon.

    1. Thank you very much, R.D.
      I really had a ball revisiting this film. You used the word "admire" to describe your feelings about Doris Day, and in a very real way, that's such an apt word for the professionalism she brings to every role. She allowed herself to be neutered and desexed into this smiling, sunshine Barbie Doll later in her career, but even then her talent and commitment came through (despite the odds).
      Very much appreciate your considered observations about my post and i extend my deepest thanks to you for allowing me to contribute to this well-deserved tribute to Cagney.

  8. Nice post. I am intrigued by this film. I have never seen it but really like Cagney and Doris Day and Musicals! Not sure why I've never heard of it. It also looks like a nice cinemascope picture. I will have to track it down.

    1. Thanks, Jon
      If you like Cagney and Day, there's really no way this film can disappoint. They are just THAT good. The rather rudimentary treatment of the material kind of lets them down (but the color photography and widescreen presentation is a delight), there there is no shortage of fireworks when they're onscreen together. Hope you enjoy it!

  9. You are so right about this showcasing Day's acting ability. As you said, it is a shame she didn't get (or take) more parts like Ruth. And, I couldn't agree with you more about this being an a-typical MGM musical. The first time I saw it I was shocked--both by the story and Day & Cagney's characters. The one downer for me was Cameron Mitchell as Johnny--I just didn't like him in this. Great write-up!

    1. Hi Kim
      I have to agree with you about Cameron Mitchell. He was not a favorite of mine, neither the actor or the character. Kind of annoying how he is set up as the voice of Etting's conscience, yet he initially tries to snare her with a line not unlike that used by Snyder ("Let me help you with your career" stuff). But Cagney and Day are aces and provide two rather startlingly non-romantic leads for a major movie musical. Thanks!
      Thanks very much for

  10. There is no question that Doris Day was never better in this film, and in a strange way, Cagney played against type. Yes he was a gangster, but he completely buried the charisma that made him an antihero in so many films. He's pitiable and disgusting at the same time. I really love this film, given over to the woman's point of view in that peculiarly 1950s way. I'm with you - it's not the 20s, but so what. Wonderful showcasing of a wonderful film. Thank you!

    1. Hi Marilyn
      Very interesting couple of points you make. Yes, Cagney is somewhat against type here. As I remember, there's only one moment where his trademark charm is on display (the scene where he teases Ruth about her cutthroat ambition and playfully invites her to join the mob with him). Also, thanks for mentioning this film's female perspective. In a strange way (as you say, peculiarly 50s) Etting is wielding the only power women were allotted at this time. She plays the male's sexist game (men are always offering to help her because she's pretty, not much caring a whit if she has talent) to her own advantage. Thank you very much for your keen insights!

  11. Ken, Your observation that though the film is set in the '20s, it looks purely '50s brings to mind something that's always been curious to me about period films until the late '60s/early '70s (I'm thinking of "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Godfather," except for Diane Keaton's hair). Most made little effort - beyond the glaringly obvious - toward period detail or tone.

    You make excellent points about musical biopics and I agree with you completely about the performances of Cagney and Doris Day. Your comment that Day "...drinks, she's tough, she fires off her hard-bitten dialog as if to the manner born" put a smile on my face that is still there. Great stuff, as always, Ken.

    1. Hi Eve
      That period detail thing has marred many an otherwise excellent film. As much as i love Julie Christie, her frosted lipstick, bangs, and bumped up hairstyle in "Doctor Zhivago" is always so distracting (gorgeous, but distracting). The one galvanizing element of "Love Me or Leave Me" are the performances of the leads. When they're on, you scarcely mind a thing. Thanks again for your kind words!

  12. "Looking very much throughout the film like a fist with eyes,"

    Ken, that is an absolutely sensational sentence, one I wish I had written. It's been years since I've seen this one, but this was such a potent post I'm going to check this one out again. I was really impressed by your writing here. I've bookmarked your site for future viewings.

    1. Hi Kevin
      What a very flattering comment. Thank you! I'm pleased that you enjoyed the post and happy that it might inspire you (a man who has the enviable record of seeing all but one of Cagney's films) to revisit both "Love Me or Leave Me" and this blog. I know after reading your essay on Cagney's first two pairings with Edmund O'Brien, I intend to return the favor. Much appreciated!

  13. A very interesting post and a fair assessment of LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME. It's not a personal favorite, but I do admire its cynicism and the performances. I think of it as more of a Doris Day film than a Cagney one (has she ever sounded better or looked more stunning?). But Cagney gives the film a much needed edge and it's certainly the better for it.

    1. Yes, "Love Me or Leave Me" is a Cagney rarity in his giving up so much screen time to a female character, and a rarity for Doris Day in having a co-star who requires her to step-up her game. They seem to bring out something special in each other through their collaboration. Thanks, Rick!

  14. As someone who generally dislikes '50s musicals and who isn't much of a Doris Day fan, yet thoroughly enjoyed this movie, thank you so much for arming me with ammunition to argue why this is all so! I remember watching this thinking, sure looks like Doris Day, but is this really a Doris Day movie? Was surprised when I saw this at how nasty Cagney was at this late date as well. Actually I'm not sure if I can ever recall him playing a bigger creep! Thanks for the entertaining review and look at movie musicals and biopics in general.

    1. Thanks, Cliff!
      I think you're onto something here..."Love Me or Leave Me" being a great film for non-Doris Day fans! And yes, Cagney plays quite a reprehensible gey n Martin Snyder. Had an actor with less charisma than Cagney been given the role, I'm not sure the film would have worked. I'm glad to hear you find the movie enjoyable. It definitely has its charms.

  15. Actually, you're not alone on your thoughts about Doris and her career. James Cagney felt the same way! In his autobiography, Mr. Cagney says this: "After "Love Me or Leave Me," Doris went into the "Pillow Talk" things, and I for one have always considered that one hell of a waste."

    I DO love "Pillow Talk" and "Send Me No Flowers" (they're my 2 fave of Doris's films), but I also really love "Love Me or Leave Me." Doris really showed that she had dramatic abilities here.

    While Cagney's character is a creep, Doris's is not much better, and I have little sympathy for her. She was a user.

    Incidentally, I will be reviewing this film at my blog later this month, as I am focusing on Doris this month, and this is one of her dramatic films I want to showcase.

    1. Hi Patti
      Ha! I just love that Cagney quote! Not just because we share a similar point of view on the subject, but because I can totally hear him saying it in his tough-guy voice.
      And as far as "Send Me No Flowers," i'm not fond of the film, but I do love the theme song. Doris Day singing Bacharach is heaven.
      I so look forward to reading you posts on Doris Day. I happen to like two of her least popular films (Caprice, With Six You Get Eggroll) and find that even in substandard films, she is never less than terrific!

  16. I enjoyed your take on Cagney's performance. Regardless of whether he'd done variations of this before, he is so good that you can't stop watching him. And while I do love "Pillow Talk" and "Send Me No Flowers" like Patti does above, I think the rest of her light romantic comedies are cookie cutter with bland leading men, when she should have been chasing more dramatic fare like this. What a career she had, but consider what it could have been.

    1. I love the line, "What a career she had, but consider what it could have been." It sums up exactly what I think of Doris Day when I see her in this. An yes, Cagney is just the most charismatic actor there ever was. He's fun to watch in anything. Thanks for commenting!

  17. Great essay, Ken!I enjoy biopics in general, and another musical biopic that comes to my mind is The Great Caruso.
    One Brazilian press correspondent in Old Hollywood recalls the filming of this movie, and also that she came to know and chat with James Cagney. It made me a little jealous...
    Don't forget to WATCH my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Hello,
      I "saw" your blogathon contribution several days ago (my praise is hidden amongst the many you received on the 12th) and had nothing but admiration for your uniquely visual method of paying tribute to Cagney. Your fondness for him is infectious! Thanks for reading my post, and indeed, I'd be a bit jealous of anyone who got an opportunity to chat with Cagney face-to-face!

  18. I stumbled across this blog looking up a song sung by Etting, and I'm glad I did, as I have enjoyed this review and the comments on MGM biopics. I recall a local film presenter here in the 1980s pointing out that also in contrast to the typical MGM biopic, Etting's character was far less sympathetic than she was in real life. I do not claim to know much about Etting, though it would appear in later life she was someone's much loved aunt, which suggests some truth to the presenter's claim.

    Obviously a more sympathetic character wouldn't have made for a good story, or provided such a vehicle for Doris Day, but I suspect it also didn't suit 1950s' MGM ideas of womanly virtues to make her so.

    1. He Lesfrwil
      I'm glad you enjoyed this post! You are on the right track in commenting on the 1950s and MGM's ideas of "womanly virtue" as having an impact on how Etting was portrayed.
      The movie production code at the time made it clear that no film could appear to condone or promote amorality or crime of any kind. Any movie alluding to Etting in real life going on to have a "Happy Ending" would be tacitly condoning her mobster ties and questionable association with Alderman. I think 50s movie morality had to depict Etting as a bad girl (compare it to the Lillian Roth bio "I'll Cry Tomorrow" or "The Helen Morgan Story"...the ultimate tragedy of the women's lives was the penance they had to pay, and so the movies based on their lives could afford to paint them in a more sympathetic light).
      A very good point you brought up about a rare depiction of a female protagonist in film, not only for the 50s, but for MGM in particular.

  19. My very favorite Doris Day film...she was robbed of an Oscar nomination for this one. I love Doris, but the only films of hers I really like are this one, Julie and The Man Who Knew Too Much. (Maybe Midnight Lace too.) I find her sunny, funny, sexless sex comedies a bit dull and can never get all the way through them. I love Doris like I love Elvis--I can't watch any of his movies, either, except the concert films.

    Doris proved herself a great actress in Love Me Or Leave Me, and her chemistry with Cagney is intense! I wish she had done more meaty roles like this one.

    1. Hi 66
      I really have to hand it to you...I'm very flattered that you have read so many of my posts in one sitting! Give that man a prize- or an aspirin!
      I love the same Doris Day films you do, and pretty much for the same reasons. She has an intensity so well-suited to thrillers or drama, it's too bad she did so few, but at least the few she did are rather good ("Midnight Lace" is a guilty pleasure of mine) I love the comparison to Elvis (whose films are indeed unwatchable -except "Viva Las Vegas"- but that's because he's upstaged by Ann-Margeret). Very apt.

  20. I got a bit carried away and I guess I'm going to have to post this in parts.

    Wonderful synopsis, the accompanying photos and comments make sharp points too. I love your description of Cagney's face as a fist with eyes, funny but so accurate.

    This is without question Doris' strongest onscreen work and her lack of Academy recognition another black mark on that group's very variable record. This film is one of my top five favorites of hers, I have to admit I enjoy the fluffy comedies more than you seem to, but I have a special soft spot for her second film My Dream is Yours with Eve Arden.

    My favorite scene of this film is in the dressing room right after she has performed Ten Cents a Dance. Their marriage has become a prison for both and the bitterness seeps through the screen, her reactions and line readings tell you everything about what their life together has become, tortured and torturer: but which is which? Cagney was one of the strongest actors she ever went up against and she was able to go toe to toe with him without blinking. It's true there was a similarity to the men cast opposite her in lighter fare but I don't think they were all bland, it requires a certain lightness of touch for that kind of material that Hudson proved quite expert at, the others lesser so but many (Taylor, Garner etc.) were cast exactly because of their resemblance to the Rock. In her earlier films there was a limited pool of actors at Warners who could sing and were the appropriate match for her, and they tried them all! Of those I'd say Gordon MacRae was the best fit, Sinatra strangely the worst.

    In a total aside Gordon MacRae was another talent ill used by his studio, not that he was the best actor but with his dreamy looks and that voice Warners should have been able to find better vehicles to spotlight him than junk like The West Point Story and About Face, it wasn't until his release from that studio that he had his two best roles Oklahoma! and especially Carousel but by then the musical cycle was grinding to a halt.

    Your right about the unoriginality of bio films but there are only so many ways a life can be presented and the linear approach will always be the most popular because it is the most relatable to the general masses. So it becomes reliant on performance and at least some adherence to the subject's actual life for the picture to stand out from the crowd. So an I'll Cry Tomorrow, which has the best poster blurb ever "Filmed on location...Inside a Woman's Soul!!" and a strong central performance, is preferable to say the almost total fabrication of Marilyn Miller's life in Look for the Silver Lining....

  21. One of the commentors mentioned they'd wished the film had been in black & white with a gritter edge which would have been interesting but I'm glad it is in color for a couple of reasons. One the sunny brightness belies the ugliness of the situation and the darkness of the main couple's souls, let's face it even though Ruth Etting certainly didn't deserve the savage treatment she received at the Gimp's hands she was a wantonly opportunistic climber who knowingly used him for her own purposes and tried to throw him away when she was done. It IS surprising that any studio in 50's Hollywood would approve this let along that cotton candy factory MGM. The part was originally planned for and offered to Ava Gardner, who said no, so the darkness is somewhat more understandable but it is without a doubt as vicious a portrait of ambition on both ends as you'll find. The second reason is that color films from the golden age stand a better chance of being viewed impartially by modern viewers than black & white ones do, its foolish but it's true.

    Doris stated in her bio that she found these types of roles emotionally exhausting, almost crippling, since she was an instinctual actress without the technique to separate her emotional responses into work and real life and after the workout of Midnight Lace, a hysterical thriller in more ways than one but as satisfying as a box of bon-bons, she determined to only do light roles. That was one reason she refused The Graduate as well as feeling that she couldn't really relate to the material. Had she been game I think she would have been a very interesting Mrs. Robinson with a reborn movie career.

    One last thing, no matter how contemptible her character is, as Cagney says the girl can sing about that he never was wrong. And boy does she give ample proof of it in the film, Vidor is wise to use several of the songs to add resonance to his scenes, Mean to Me, I'll Never Stop Loving You and Never Look Back working best but then blows the impact of the title tune by filming it in long shot. None of it changes the fact that she was a wonderfully intuitive singer, as most of the best actors who sang were, and the film provides fascinating glances into both recording and filming techniques of the mid-century.

    Sorry to run on so but the points you presented inspired me. I've really taken pleasure in working my way through your blog and reading your opinions on different films I've enjoyed.

    1. Hi Joel
      I'm flattered that this post inspired so many interesting thoughts on this post you wanted to share. i won't take up space responding to all of your very well-taken observations and insights, just suffice it to say that it's a pleasure to hear from a person so obviously passionate about film and so knowledgeable, to boot. I always say the same thing, but I enjoy your comments and thank you for taking the time to relay them so articulately.

  22. LOVE every word on this post. Love Me or Leave Me is one of my fave films, for all the reasons mentioned. However, I am distracted outta my mind by the costumes and hair. As an avid fan of silent films and the 30's, plus fashion photos of those eras, I cannot justify dressing Doris Day as MGM chose. Esp when performing. I'm not that crazy about her hair, either.

    I simply cannot understand why MGM, which excelled in costume drama, comedies and yes, musicals, insisted on dressing Ms Day in such contemporary fashions. They must have known that period costumes often inspire current fashion designers to base their collections on recently released films. They must have had a huge library to research. Completely baffles me why they dressed her as they did. No logic, nothing makes sense, no justification.

    As Ken Anderson stated at the top, she had a spectacular figure.

    As for the "Johnny" character, I can't find fault with Cameron Mitchell. I bet Ruthie was relieved to find a man who was not into all the drama and obsessive manipulation of Snyder. Plus they shared musical ambitions. He wasn't a mobster, just a piano player who also arranged music. A nice, steady guy. The camera and audience can't take their eyes off the great Jimmy Cagney and astounding Doris Day. Who needs another dynamic character?

    Of course they had to include songs, not just to add resonance. She was a MAJOR singer of her day. She either introduced or re-introduced beloved songs, later many covered by others. But 10 Cents a Dance will always be hers. It's a song linked to a certain era, when she was a star.

    I love the mention of other 50's bios, I'll Cry Tomorrow. I recently re-read Lillian Roth's autobio, having read it many decades ago when I was in high school or college, and first saw the film. She certainly led a tragic life. Her last husband betrayed her and left her penniless. The Helen Morgan story: was there one word of truth in it? How about Jeanne Eagles. Now those two were farces. I don't know how IMDB can keep a straight face and write "loosely based on the life of stage star Jeanne Eagles." Or TCM stating "Kim Novak stars in the true story of famed actress Jeanne Eagels (1957) who fought drug addiction to build a career and find …" Not one word of her affair with Libby Holman or other women.
    Hers was a juicy story, but way too racy for Hollywood of the 50s. Now we can be overt about drugs and sexuality, but who cares about Eagels?

    Beyond that, it's ALWAYS mystified me why must Hollywood invent story lines? I am a widely published punk rock photographer. I always tell people old movie books inspired me. I couldn't see the films while growing up (pre-cassette, DVD, etc). I could recognize an old movie photo better than a rock photo. A film based on someone I knew threw out real people and events. I realized the director's ego got off making up scenes vs what really happened. We discussed a scene in which I was going to be portrayed very negatively. He made up another scene and was so excited about it on the phone. He liked it better than the real story. I was relieved that original scene deleted, but appalled he loved making it up.

    Then I saw the film. I was surprised, appalled and mostly saddened he changed the personality and looks of most of the characters. I even supplied my photos, but he preferred inaccurate clothing. The costumers told me he wouldn't use authentic period clothes. They LOVED my pix and were sad they were not allowed to replicate my detailed photos, which also would have set his film in a more accurate time frame, mid to late 1970's. Hmm … hooray for Hollywood.

    Most Hollywood bios are fabricated in no small part due to writer's and director's egos. And as for fashions … well, someone decided tis better to give Doris Day 1950's clothes than more authentic lines. Let's give her a belted waist and big full skirts! Go figure.

    1. Hello Jenny
      Thank you very for contributing such a marvelously heartfelt and amusing comment about the post and this terrific movie! I have to agree with you about Ms. Day's hair here. Never have been fond of that cut on her...always made her look butch.
      You make so many good observations on the whole anachronistic fashion thing that happens in movies. In fact, you personal experience was rather eye opening. It's a puzzlement and something filmgoers have long since gotten used to (like commonly hearing ancient Romans speaking in British accents) .
      That doesn't of course easily explain the very willful juggling of events when adapting true stories to film. Dramatizing is one thing, but full-on fabrication is another. By the way (off topic) I love your photographs! Just an amazingly diverse record of the punk scene.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this film. Your passion for film comes through and it was a great pleasure to read. Hope you stop by again!

  23. A word about what people are saying about the costumes...I think they were by Helen Rose, who in my opinion was not very creative. But to people going to this movie in the 1950's, I'm almost certain these did not look like the clothes of their own era. To us, yes, they have a '50's feel to them. But if you look at the picture of Doris Day with the choker and long string of beads - that's a trademark '20's fashion look. Cagney is wearing a tux with a wing collar. They made a comeback in the '80's, but in the '50's, no one wore wing collars with tuxes. That look said 1920's or early-1930's to anyone seeing this when it came out.

    In the top photo, Doris's whole look, with the feather, the gown with rhinestone straps, the's all supposed to evoke the earlier era and for folks in the '50's, it must have. It's not 100% accurate, like most of the costumes in Singin' In The Rain.

    But I think in dramas there was an effort not to duplicate the fashions of earlier eras too closely because contemporary audiences would have found them funny. The filmmakers created modified versions that downplayed some of the more old fashioned (to audiences then) features of the styles. It's the equivalent of a movie drama made today but set 25-30 years ago. The more outrageous styles (to us) would be toned down because the subject is "serious." If it were a comedy, they'd probably be played up.

    Just my take on it, I've thought about this a lot, having seen so many of these films!

    Another thing I wanted to say that's a change of subject: I read a while ago (I've forgotten where) that the scene where Marty shoves Ruth down on the bed was originally longer and more violent, a clear rape scene. It had to be cut. I haven't seen the film for a while, but I remember something seems off right after that scene. Whatever comes next (they get married? I can't remember) seems to be there to placate the censors. It results in a watered down feeling, anyhow.

    I'm really glad you reviewed this film. It deserves rediscovery and your piece was excellent! I came here after seeing your review of Angel, Angel, Down We Go, yesterday. That was awesome. I hope I can comment on that one another time.

    1. Sorry to have to publish as "Anonymous" btw - my name's Dave.

    2. Hi Dave
      Yes, from all i've ever read about costume designers (particular those trained in the days of the studio system) the objective in designing "period" clothing has always been: flattering to contemporary tastes first, faithful to period detail second.
      Most films bear this out. Only when you see real period clothing a film like Ken Russell's "Women in Love" (with its baggy, sack-like dresses, thick stockings, and clunky shoes) does one realize how jarring authentic period clothes can be to contemporary eyes.
      Everyone who sees "Bonnie and Clyde" today see 60s fashion, not Depression Era. It's one of those things moviegoers have accepted, but only really are bothered by when (as I feel is the case with this film) the fashions look SO contemporary to the time they are made, the film takes on a kind of limbo effect; the clothes appearing schizophrenically 20s and 30 almost simultaneously.
      And yes, I'd read too that the rape scene was toned down in editing. I'd read that it was not only a censorship concern, but that it would have rendered Cagney irredeemably unsympathetic
      Thanks for you very thoughtful and well-observed comments. I'm happy you happened upon these pages and welcome hearing from you again.
      And I fully understand about the "Anonymous" thing...Google registration or something makes it difficult to be otherwise. Thanks Dave!.

  24. Every time this comes on TCM (which is pretty often) I find myself watching it, and without fail after having watched it, I re-read this post.

    You are absolutely right, how did Day not receive an Oscar nomination? Films such as Love Me or Leave Me, Midnight Lace and The Man Who Knew Too Much make me sad she didn't pursue more dramatic roles (although I'm thankful she passed on The Graduate; I just can't picture Day in that role at all)

    Thank you for this post, Ken. I know that I'll be returning to it again some day :)

    1. What a very kind and flattering comment, Mitchell. Music to the ears of anyone who likes writing about film. Thank you!
      Doris Day is 100% destined to be one of those stars who, once she passes, film historians, critics, and fans alike, will be devoting countless hours and endless reams of paper (are books still printed on paper?) to what an underappreciated talent she was.
      For once it won't be a nostalgia-laced lie. Even when some of her films are unwatchably banal, Day has radiance to spare.
      I don't recall who was nominated this year, but Day deserved a nomination for sure.
      I giggled to myself at your comment about being grateful Day passed on "The Graduate's" Mrs. Robinson...I think it's one of those things that could have been a triumph (like Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People" or a disaster (like Mae West in "Myra Breckinridge").
      Your comment made my day Mitchell! Thanks for returning!

  25. Great analysis of an awesome movie. It's certainly one of the better, more entertaining and substantial biopics of the 1950s. God knows one can stomach it better than The Buster Keaton Story. I'm not much for MGM musicals or Doris Day, but I do love me some James Cagney. I was surprised by how much I liked the picture; wonderfully cynical and biting.

    1. Thank you very much! And you're so of "Love Me or Leave Me"s saving graces is that it it does have a more persuasively cynical streak than most 50s films. I've never seen "The Buster Keaton Story) (Ann Blythe in that?) but so many old biopics are pure hokum.
      Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  26. Hi Ken - I really enjoyed your piece on one of my favorite Doris Day films. She was so wonderful in this role, certainly holding her own against the great Cagney. As you and others have mentioned, she was robbed of an Oscar nod, instead having to wait and be nominated for the fluff of Pillow Talk - though I see you have an aversion to this group of her films, I adore it! Another favorite of this type is The Glass Bottom Boat, which does give her a chance to show off her wonderful comedic skills, including some fun physical comedy. Plus, she puts her still-dynamite body on display several times. She sure could wear clothes...I have read that designers loved to dress her.

    I wanted to mention another atypical Doris Day role as that of Ginger Roger's sister in the film, Storm Warning, an early 50's noir about KKK brewings in a small town. The film, while flawed and creaky, is an interesting nugget and Doris' performance, her first non-singing role, captured Alfred Hitchcock's attention who of course cast her in The Man Who Knew Too Much! Storm Warning also features Ronald Reagan and humpy Steve Cochran as Doris' thuggish husband. You should check it out, if you haven't seen it...Thanks again! Jeff

    1. Hello, Jeff
      I like that you appreciate Doris heavy and Doris lite! She is wonderful in dramatic roles. Even when they're underwritten (someone in an earlier post mentioned "Julie") she is never less than fascinating to watch.
      Although I don't much enjoy the latter 60s Doris output much, I do enjoy "The Glass Bottom Boat"- maybe becuase it has nothing to do with domestic hijinks or protecting her virginity.
      Although I've heard about ai and seen small bits of it, I've never seen "Storm Warning", less having to do with Doris Day than my resistance to the absurd image of Ronald Reagan in an anti-KKK film.
      One thing I hadn't known was that it was the film that caught Hitchcock's attention. It's a shame she never got her much-deserved Oscar for one of these films, and I read somewhere that she was just never interested in showing up for an honorary one. In any event, she's so fondly remembered, and it's great that she left a legacy of so many memorable performances. Like this one. Thank you, Jeff, for reading this and commenting!