“There’ll be no one unless that someone is you…”
If you’d told me a month ago that a Doris Day biopic that’s coated in shaky period décor would still be pulling at my thoughts weeks later, I’d have called you a fruitcake, but Charles Vidor’s Love Me or Leave Me is a ridiculously potent movie. On the surface it looks like just another one of MGM’s flossy fifties songfests, but it’s less a musical than a drama with a lot of singing in it, and has less in common with Annie Get Your Gun than the troubled relationship movies of Rossellini and Cassavetes. It’s a knowing and surprisingly grounded look at two people who’ve sunk their hooks into each other for all the wrong reasons.
Love Me or Leave Me follows the upwardly-mobile path that the singing star Ruth Etting ascended in the Twenties and Thirties, thanks in no small part to her husband and manager Martin “The Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago laundry owner who ran an extortion racket on the side. Marty meets Ruth just as she’s being fired from her job as a taxi-dancer and, hearing that she wants to sing, he takes what he thinks will be the shortest route to laying her, baiting his hook with the promise of a singing job. The movie is about the way the two parties baldly use each other: Ruth accepts Marty’s help but has to work overtime to hold his appetites in check, while Marty shepherds her out of the two-bit nightclubs to New York and Hollywood, waiting in vain for her to yield to him. Not even his belated recognition of her talent—eying her audience’s response one night, he says wonderingly, “This is legit. I don’t have to stack the joint no more”—can make him see her as anything more than the focus of his desire. (The nonsense-free script is by Daniel Fuchs, who also wrote Criss Cross, and Isobel Lennart.)
Ruth’s songs, even when delivered by Day in some truly loving close-ups, exist less to entertain us than to take the characters’ emotional temperature. At one point Vidor picks her up already in mid-song, but the focus is on Marty, seated at his front-row table and raptly studying her frame. And “frame” is the operative word here: Vidor shoots Ruth literally from neck to thigh, reducing her to a shimmying torso in a blue sequined dress. (The movie’s most noticeable lapse comes during Day’s rendition of Etting’s heartbreaking hit “Ten Cents a Dance”. Already on the nose for this scenario, Day’s delivery is two-dimensional at a moment when we’re aching for Ruth; it’s the one spot where her acting chops fail her.)
Love Me or Leave Me finds Jimmy Cagney deep into the middle-age of his career. He became a star by crossing gleeful energy with the Devil’s own self-possession, but in time he grew just as adept at projecting vulnerability and quietude. Near the end of Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, Cagney, as a former racketeer now on the skids, shares a tired out tête-à-tête in a sleazy bar with an old friend (Gladys George), mooning over the strait-laced girl he’s loved for years but who never loved him back. It’s a gorgeously written scene, casting about in as many directions as Eddie Bartlett’s drink-besotted mind:
Panama: I’m sick of watching you try to put out that torch you carry for her with a lot of cheap hooch. Who does the kid look like?
Eddie: Like her.
Panama: And they got a nice house.
Eddie: Yeah, it’s a nice house if you like that kind of a house, but for me, I’ll take a hotel anytime. You know that.
Panama: Me, too. Ain’t it funny how our tastes have always run the same? Ever since the first time we met. I can just picture you living in the suburbs, working in a garden, raising flowers and kids. Wouldn’t that be a laugh?
Eddie: Yeah, wouldn’t I look cute?
His face sagging and his gaze unfocused, Cagney delivers these lines in a funereal, rue-laden whisper that’s the aural equivalent of smoke. The Roaring Twenties’ heart and soul lie less in its gunfights than in this scattered, heartsick conversation, and in the dying-with-a-dying-fall parabola that the mortally wounded Eddie will trace in the church steps’ snow like a dancer running out of steam. By the time of White Heat two years later, a new Cagney had completely deposed the dapper barracuda of The Public Enemy. He’d become blunter, squared off, granitic, unyielding. By now he was capable of expressing a mood, or the shape of an entire relationship, with the simplest gesture, such as the minimalist hand-roll urging his wheel-man to give it the gas, or the appalling moment when, having gunned down Steve Cochran, he points at the corpse in dry triumph.
In Love Me or Leave Me every part of his body is capable of eloquent speech, and Vidor’s camera wisely stands back from Marty, simply taking him in, beginning with the moment that Cagney’s hustling, lopsided shadow precedes him into the dingy dancehall where Ruth works. Marty spends the movie sprinting on his bum leg from one appointment to the next, and yet his limp may be the least played up physical handicap in cinema—it’s simply another given in the movie’s scheme of things, leaving it up to us to suss out what part it may have played in making him the biggest asshole in Chicago. (His mini-Capone act is just an embarrassment when he tries it out in New York.) When all’s said and done, the film’s greatest virtue is its refusal to break faith with Marty Snyder. Never once, not even in his earliest scenes, is he made a cute Damon Runyon hood who talks in dese’s and dose’s, or whose bark is worse than his bite, and we’re never expected to sympathize with him just because he’s Jimmy Cagney. (A quick look at City for Conquest or Yankee Doodle Dandy shows that even Cagney could stoop to an almost Robin Williams level of pathos.) In fact, it’s just at the moments that we think cute little Doris Day is about to soften him that Marty behaves most viciously towards her. Most of all, Marty Snyder is a living monument to the concept of Not Getting It, and near the movie’s halfway point his emotional myopia causes him to rape Ruth, and not in a swoony Rhett Butler way. Tired of her stalls he simply takes her, as if it’s his share of a contractual obligation—a phrase he’ll give resonant life to later on.
The last two minutes of Love Me or Leave Me are chilling in their perfection, with Ruth and Marty revealing surprising new sides of themselves to the very end, and it’s here that Cagney does his most dazzling work, bringing light to practically every color in the emotional spectrum, even with his back turned to the camera. In its relentless, close-up view of male possessiveness Love Me or Leave Me might bring to mind Star ’80 or Raging Bull, but Love Me, with its prehensile understanding of its players’ moves and countermoves, is a richer, less shrill and monotonous film. And while Meet Me in St. Louis or It’s Always Fair Weather might flirt with their characters’ darker currents, in their last-minute fixes both movies scurry back to their comfort zones. The most that Vidor ever promises us is the hope that someday we’ll be able to live with ourselves. For the Marty Snyders of this world that’s no laughing matter.
Tags: James Cagney