"All that you need is a ticket, come on, big boy, 10 cents a dance."
- Doris Day "Love Me or Leave Me" (1955)
"Doris Day 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." - Michael Hadley
Written by Michael Hadley Sept 2010
"Love Me or Leave Me" - A turning point for Doris Day
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 Synder. 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 Martin ("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.
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 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 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." - Michael Hadley
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.
"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." - Michael Hadley
Assault on a (Movie) Queen: Cagney socks Day
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 writes below, "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 TIME Magazine photographer was on hand for the filming and the photographs soon made their way into the magazine, see more of them below.
Watch LIFE Magazine's photo coverage of the event.
Of course it wasn't all drama, being the stars of a lavish MGM film...
Bosley Crowther May 27, 1955
Ballad of Ruth Etting and The Gimp: "Love Me or Leave Me" Opens, Doris Day and Cagney Play Lead Roles
IN the Thirties it was common knowledge along Broadway that the popular singer Ruth Etting was something of a brow-beaten slave of her husband an ex-Chicago mobster named Martin Snyder, better known as The Gimp. Miss Etting's friends finally helped her to get a divorce, after which The Gimp expressed his sentiments by dispatching a couple of bullets into the man who later married her. Needless to say, the pretty details of this little show-world idyl found their way into any number of gangster movies. But real names were never used, and finally the story of Miss Etting and The Gimp went out of fashion and out of mind.
Now, in "Love Me or Leave Me," which came to the Music Hall yesterday, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is remembering this none-too-delectable affair. It is doing so, appropriately, with music. And, what's more, it is using real names. But, best of all for everybody, it has Doris Day to play the role of the blonde and bewitching. Miss Etting and it has James Cagney to play The Gimp.
We would say that the latter advantage is by far the most propitious to the film, for it is Mr. Cagney's verve and virtuosity that make the character sufferable. It is his skill at giving the hard-boiled "muscler" a certain vividness and gutter gallantry that make it possible not only to stand him but to like him a little bit for nigh two hours.
To be sure, Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart have painted this lily a mite in writing a script that puts the story into a slightly romantic frame. They have made The Gimp a shakedown merchant who befriends a dance-hall girl whose ambition is as stubborn as her virtue. He apparently receives no quid pro quo until he has brought her up as a singer through night clubs to the "Ziegfeld Follies" and fame. Then, in a fit of passion, he—well, he marries her. This is all highly flattering to the honor and the patience of The Gimp.
The character of the singer is also dusted a bit for Miss Day. Her willingness to abandon a true lover for her ambition is neatly turned. And when it comes to singing at the opening of The Gimp's new night club even after he has plugged her true lover, all for old-time's sweet sake—well, that is just a wee bit sticky, as it is done for the climax of this film.
But one must admit that Mr. Cagney and Miss Day do their jobs extremely well and make an uncommonly interesting and dramatic couple for a musical film. The proof is that, when Mr. Cagney finally slaps Miss Day in the face, the audience reacts to the shameful violence with genuine and audible gasps. It's as real as when the old "Public Enemy" squashed a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face.
And, of course, it is hard to think of anyone better qualified to do the job of singing Miss Etting's old numbers than the lovely and lyrical Miss Day. All of ten or a dozen song numbers, only two of which are new, are neatly and nostalgically delivered. The most effective for our money is "Mean to Me," with "Ten Cents a Dance," "You Made Me Love You" and the title number next in line. Miss Day has the voice and the feeling to do justice to the sentiments in this film.
To say that the Metro production, in color and Cinema-Scope, is expensive and atmospheric of the era of night clubs and booze is simply acknowledging the dependable, and to say that Charles Vidor's directing is perceptive of the values in the story is to note what's expected of him.
Cameron Mitchell as Miss Etting's pianist, who is the stubborn young man she really loves; Robert Keith as an honorable agent, and Harry Bellaver as the flunky of The Gimp lend considerable personality and color to a stinging but entertaining film.
On the stage at the Music Hall are Grace Thomas and Peter Hamilton, dance team; the Ghezzi Brothers, comedians; Bryan Williams, baritone, and the Glee Club, Corps de Ballet and Rockettes.
Doris Day sings "Everybody Loves My Baby" and "Mean To Me"
Doris Day sings "It All Depends On You"
Doris Day and James Cagney Sizzle in "Love Me or Leave Me"
Paul Brogan October 18, 2000
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 it's principal characters. Etting and Snyder often used one another for their own personal gain and, for a change, the film doe not 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 ever 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!
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