So much of the joy of Love Me or Leave Me is in the luxurious MGM-style polish of the production. There's the beautiful sets, the too gorgeous to be real costumes and the beauty of the luscious color photography. This glossy fictionalization of the rise of chanteuse Ruth Etting and her relationships with the gangster Martin "Mo" Snyder and pianist Harry Alderman, starring Doris Day, James Cagney and Cameron Mitchell respectively, is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
Doris Day is a curious choice to play Etting, as the pair have vastly different personas. Day is the wholesome, determined daffodil, while Etting was a sexy, slinky chanteuse. Despite the longing and sadness in so many of her torch songs, there's always a bit of laughter in Etting's eyes. Her appeal is in seeming strong enough to stand up for herself while still exuding inviting warmth. These qualities are in evidence in the shorts A Modern Cinderella (1932) and Roseland (1930), which feature the singer and are available as special features on the disc.
While Day is also a candy-coated woman of steel, she doesn't quite capture these aspects of Etting's personality in her portrayal. For one, she takes the toughness too far, coming off like a glum Doris instead of tough but tantalizing Ruth. Day's also not the kind of actress to disappear into a character. Though she was able to play comedy, drama and musical moments with satisfying success, her persona and sense of self was always too powerful for her to be anyone but that side of herself she had crafted for public view.
Though footage of Mo Snyder is not as readily available as that of Etting, it is likely fair to assume that Cagney's persona was just as dominant in his portrayal of the mobster who launched and promoted the singer's career. Photos of Snyder show the face of a tough man who could get incredibly unpleasant if pushed. While Cagney has plenty of moments where he is just that kind of overbearing bully, his take on Snyder is ultimately that of a pathetic, if powerful man with plenty of sadness hidden within him.
You begin to feel sorry for Snyder as Etting takes full advantage of his generosity, pushing him to do things even he finds morally repugnant, while offering nothing in return. He is too rough and controlling to deserve her love, but as portrayed here, the singer often doesn't show respect or even gratitude for what he does to help her. She sees him as a means to an end, and he can never do enough. However, she does offer a much-needed challenge to his overbearing ways: he thinks he is buying himself a malleable lover, but is humbled when she proves to be more than his match.
Day and Cagney are an effective team, because both actors are effective listeners. They're not meant to have chemistry and they manage to portray the friction between the two well. It isn't nearly as messy as it was in real life, but they capture the jarring effects of a toxic relationship, where there is always a thin grime of ugliness weighing them down.
It is difficult to accept Cameron Mitchell as Etting's irresistible piano playing lover. He may be nicer than Cagney, but he's not nearly as interesting. I found myself looking around for a third option to please this lovelorn songbird.
Day sings several of Etting's hits in her own distinctive style. While she doesn't sound at all like the cooing torch singer, her interpretation of her catalog is pleasing in its own way. The tunes are presented in simple, but visually-appealing production numbers which rightfully keep the focus on the songs.
While the MGM take on Etting's story has its own slick delights, I can't help but pine for a pre-code version of this story. Of course the timeline of her life would make such a thing impossible, but imagine Jean Harlow playing Ruth and a young Cagney still in the role of Snyder. Maybe Robert Montgomery as the piano player? Perhaps it wouldn't be a much more accurate take on the tale, but the spirit of the age would serve the story well.
As that scenario is impossible; I'll take Doris and Jimmy, who always deliver, even when they don't hit the bullseye.
In addition to the Ruth Etting musical shorts A Modern Cinderella and Roseland, special features on the disc include the star-studded MGM promo A Salute to the Theatres which highlights upcoming features also produced the year of Love Me or Leave Me's release, and a theatrical trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.