Ruth Etting was a very popular vocalist in the 1920s and 1930s with hit records and Broadway and movie appearances. Scandal sent her career off the rails when her gangster ex-husband Martin Snyder shot and wounded her younger lover, pianist and arranger Johnny Alderman. Martin would serve a brief stint in jail and Ruthie would marry Johnny in a happy union which lasted 28 years until his death. It sounds like the stuff of the movies, doesn't it? Hollywood has always loved a good show business biography and Ruth gave the rights to her story and told them to go ahead "warts and all", as did Alderman and Snyder. Later Ms. Etting would sentimentally decry the fact that the happiness of her post show business career wasn't the "stuff of movies".
Ruth Etting, Martin "The Gimp" Snyder
MGM produced the Ruth Etting story as a Technicolor blockbuster titled Love Me or Leave Me, the title of a popular Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn torch song. The screenplay which won the Oscar for Best Motion Picture Story is by Caftan Woman favourite Isobel Lennert (Holiday Affair, The Sundowners, East Side, West Side) and Daniel Fuchs (Cross Cross, Storm Warning). Charles Vidor directed with his usual sure hand that guided such films as Gilda, Ladies in Retirement and Blind Alley.
Doris Day, James Cagney
Who to star? Adding another of his real-life portrayals to his resume (George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy and later Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces) and returning to the gangster role, but one quite different from his early psychos, was Oscar winner James Cagney. Cagney was thrilled to have such a strong role and to work with Vidor whom he described as "a nice version of Michael Curtiz". The leading lady? It would have to be someone special. Someone who audiences would root for. Someone who could carry off all of the great songs that Ruth sang. Of course, Doris Day! Away from her home studio of Warner Brothers, Day was given the role of a lifetime.
The story of the ambitious Ruth and the businessman of the rough and tumble methods plays out against the backdrop of Chicago in the roaring twenties and the Great White Way of Ziegfeld. James Cagney and Doris Day had worked together previously in the Warner's musical The West Point Story. Cagney related to biographer John McCabe for 1997s Cagney that when rehearsals began for Love Me or Leave Me he saw that there was much more than just another talented pretty girl in Doris Day. Cagney considered Doris Day to be an actress on a par with theatrical legends Pauline Lord and Laurette Taylor. Their intense screen personalities and acting styles of delving into the souls of the characters were perfectly matched, leading to one of the screen's more interesting combinations and surely one of Cagney's most intriguing leading ladies.
The crucial role of musician Johnny Alderman was played by Cameron Mitchell (Death of a Salesman, All Mine to Give, TVs The High Chaparral). Caught up in the whirlwind of the obsessive relationship between Ruthie and "The Gimp" (as Snyder was called due to a limp resulting from childhood polio), Mitchell's portrayal is of a man full of heart and understanding. An interesting bit of trivia is that Johnny Alderman was an arranger on the delightful 1937 James Cagney musical Something to Sing About.
A scene in the movie that makes me chuckle about how little the world has changed is when Alderman, who is playing piano in a Snyder run club, is asked by The Gimp to work with Ruth on her singing. After listening to her Alderman assumes his boss will want to know if the girl can sing or not. Cagney/Snyder responds that it doesn't matter. You put a pretty girl up on stage and tell folks she's a singer - that makes her a singer. As the saying goes, no one ever went broke underestimating the public. In this case Ruth and her public were on the right track. The woman could sing and her popularity was well-deserved.
If all you were looking for in the biography of a singer as popular as Ruth Etting was great songs, this movie is filled with them, including You Made Me Love You, Ten Cents a Dance, Mean to Me, Shakin' the Blues Away, At Sundown, I Cried for You and more, plus an original song I'll Never Stop Loving You by Nicholas Brodszky and Sammy Cahn that was nominated for a Best Song Oscar. The winner was Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's theme for Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.
James Cagney would receive his third and final Oscar nomination for the role of Snyder. The winner that year was Ernest Borgnine for Marty. Doris Day was overlooked at award time and would receive her only nomination a few years later for Pillow Talk. As a fan I am pleased that her comic abilities were acknowledged, but also as a fan I am surprised that her sterling dramatic turn as Ruth Etting was overlooked.
In addition to the wonderful standards, beautifully sung by Doris Day and released as a top selling album, this is the dramatic story of three people, their loves and their intertwining fates. Love Me or Leave Me is entertaining and unforgettable. TCM is screening the film as part of their month long salute to Doris Day on Friday, April 7th at 8:00 pm.