Monday, April 2, 2012

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for April on TCM

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 (Criss 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 alongside the roles of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy and later Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces and Adm. Halsey in The Gallant Hours, 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 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, and 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.

Doris sings the Oscar-nominated I'll Never Stop Loving You

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.


  1. A really entertaining film here. I felt really bad for both Etting and the Gimp. As for Day getting overlooked, I think her natural acting abilities made people think she wasn't working too hard. This is a shame.

  2. One of my most favorite Cagney & Day movies - they are both dynamite. My heary breaks for Jimmy (even though he is a meanie) and Doris is just superlative. They had a great chemistry together. This is a movie for April and every other month of the year.

  3. KimW, isn't it always the way that the performers who go out of their way to hide the "work" get no respect?

    FlickChick, "Love Me or Leave Me" is a perfect vehicle for Cagney and Day. While I would have loved to see them re-teamed after this movie, could they have found an equal property?

  4. I'm a big fan of Ruth Etting; I enjoy her rare moments captured on film in "Hips, Hips, Hooray" and musical shorts. Therefore, it might come as a surprise that I have never watched "Love Me Or Leave Me" with Doris Day and James Cagney. I have been a bit concerned about Ms. Day's ability to match the drama of Ruth's life and her singing style. Your excellent review has convinced me I need to give this film a try. Fortunately, TCM/US has dedicate the next week to Doris Day's films. Thanks for the hint and the reminder (wonderful news, it just began to rain).

  5. I can understand your holding back on the movie, Whistling Gypsy. It is rare when a "pretender" lives up to the real thing. Doris, of course, sings like Doris Day, but all of the songs are put over with great arrangements and feeling. The movie truly is a highlight in the careers of both Cagney and Day.

    (I hope some rain is saved up for Friday to go with the torch songs.)

  6. Doris Day has always seemed such a "natural" onscreen, whether the role was dramatic or comedic, and I imagine she's been underrated as an actress because of it. And maybe, too, because of her enormous onscreen charisma. She doesn't "heat up the screen" like some, but I can't think of anyone who projects as much sheer warmth.

    I happened to hear an interview with her on NPR this morning. She's still sharp and going strong at nearly 88 and she talked at length about her love of making movies.

    Your choice for April is one of her best - in her own opinion, her best. It's so fitting that TCM is honoring her this month. I hope she's kicking back with her beloved dogs and cats and enjoying every second of the affection and attention coming her way.

  7. "She doesn't "heat up the screen" like some, but I can't think of anyone who projects as much sheer warmth." Well said. Doris' wonderful positive attitude comes through in all she says and does. She's a special lady.

  8. I'm so glad that you picked a Doris Day movie for this months spotlight. This is a very dramatic musical, it makes you wonder what Day's career might have been like if she stayed with Metro.

    Although, I also loved many of the fluffy films she did at Warner Bros. Nobody could sing a ballad like Doris.

  9. Doris had a unique and outstanding career, but you can't help but wonder what it would have been like with more films such as "Love Me or Leave Me".

  10. CW, I frankly never expected Doris Day could pull off such a role, but she did well. I will never forget the scene where Cagney decides Doris has used him and put him off long enough -- it was chilling. I liked the way the story was told fairly. Yes, the Gimp was a rough customer, but Ruth totally took advantage of him in building up her career. Both had good and bad sides, and Cagney and Day did a spectacular job. Loved your post about this favorite film! And hey, I see you have an option to subscribe to comments now! So does FlickChick. Hooray!

  11. Yes, Becky, it is a rare biography for the era that didn't put its subject on a pedestal.

    "And hey, I see you have an option to subscribe to comments now! So does FlickChick. Hooray!"

    Gee, it must be an instant upgrade. I've been on blogspot for four years now and I feel like Frank Morgan in the balloon in "The Wizard of Oz" - "I don't know how it works!"

  12. So you didn't do it, the wonderful Wizard of Blogger did it. I laughed so hard I snorted (not ladylike) at a sudden image of Frank Morgan in a caftan saying "I don't know how it works!" I think even Blogger doesn't know what it's doing!

  13. "Cagney considered Doris Day to be an actress on a par with theatrical legends Pauline Lord and Laurette Taylor."

    I didn't know this (delighted), but Cagney was such a craftsman, he knew his stuff. It's a very good movie with terrific performances by both of them. Great post, as always.

  14. Thanks, JT.

    Such esteem from a co-star must be very special for Doris Day.

  15. Oh I do remember seeing this many MANY years ago. Your review makes me want to see it again though. Even if I am not Jimmy Cagney's biggest fan.

    Years ago there seemed to be several movies about songstresses and their rocky love lives. I guess nowadays nobody cares about that sort of thing any more. :)

  16. Yvette, I know you're the kind of girl who re-watches movies. Don't pass it up the next time it's in your sphere.

  17. CW,
    Very interesting!
    I had no idea that Love Me or Leave Me was loosely based on the life, career of Ruth Etting and Snyder. I'll certainly look at the film with new eyes the next time it airs.

    I have to take Doris Day in small doses. During the TCM birthday week I chose Please Don't Eat the Daisies to watch again. I wish I had known about the backstory of this one.

    Thanks for giving me a new reason to watch it. Wonderfully written. We all love a good backstory. OH, did people actually call Snyder 'gimp' to his face?

  18. I really enjoyed your post! I watched Love Me or Leave Me the other night -- it's always been a much-loved favorite. I love Day's singing and acting here, and of course Cagney delivered, as always. I totally agree that it's a shame Doris Day wasn't recognized for her dramatic work in this film - she really was outstanding.

  19. Page, I don't know that anyone would call the hot-tempered Snyder "Gimp" to his face. He was very pleased to be portrayed by James Cagney.

    Karen, thanks for the kind words. Doris really pulled out all the stops for the role, didn't she?



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