In 1955, Doris Day was already a well-established actress and music entertainer. She was making films since 1948 (Romance on the High Seas) and had quickly conquered our hearts with her enchanting voice, her smile and her sense of fun. In 1955, she also delivered what is considered to be one of the best performances of her career, the portrayal of Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me (Charles Vidor). She was paired alongside a rough and tough James Cagney (what you basically need to play a gangster) and a dashing Cameron Mitchell. I had only seen Love Me or Leave Me once and that was a long time ago but I thought it would be interesting to re-visit it and write about it for Michaela’s 3rd Doris Day Blogathon that she is hosting on her blog Love Letters to Old Hollywood. This amazing event was created to honour Doris on her 97th birthday, which is today, April 3, the same day as mine! Aries are the best. We’re happy that this wonderful lady is still with us and as I’m writing this (we’re March 14 now) I’m really impatient to see what photo of her will be published on the D-Day because those are always so adorable!
Love Me or Leave Me is a musical drama telling the real-life story of Ruth Etting (Day), who became a successful singer and actress in the 20s and 30s. She was known as “America’s sweetheart of song”. The film particularly focuses on her clashing relationship with gangster and manager Martin “Moe the Gimp” Snyder (Cagney) who became her first husband and with pianist Myrl Alderman (Mitchell) who eventually became her second husband. The real-life story is, of course, romanced, but then, that’s Hollywood.
Love Me or Leave Me was an important step in Doris Day’s career as the dramatic part allowed her to develop her range as an actress. She was then not only seen as a singing starlet but also as a serious actress who could pretty much do anything entertainment business could ask for (act, sing, dance!). The film also was an important commercial success, the biggest one for Doris Day so far. She also received top-billing thanks to James Cagney who judged better to be second billing as Day’s character was more central to the story (IMDB). Way to go Jimmy! Something that can be surprising to many people, especially Doris Day’s fans, is the fact that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her performance. Yes, Ruth Etting thought her portrayal of her wasn’t on point, but that’s not the question. Doris had to act a certain way according to the script that was given to her and she managed to take our breath away. Producer Joe Pasternak was “stunned that Doris did not get an Oscar nomination” and we can’t help agreeing with him. The role was a challenging one as it involved a lot of quick change of emotion (Snyder often not being a very easy person to tolerate) and a lot of situations where we wonder where all this is going on. Day portrays a strong woman who isn’t afraid to say what she thinks and who has enormous ambition and I love her character for that. From the moment we see her, she stands out from the rest of the crowds and she doesn’t have to do much for that. She sparkles by her own the presence. Her teamwork with James Cagney is absolutely interesting as it involves both an envious chemistry in some situations and an impressive opposition in some other (ok, in most of them). And, of course, she and Cameron Mitchell absolutely make us sigh.
Doris Day initially hesitated before accepting the role. Smoking, drinking, and wearing sexy clothes didn’t exactly made the type of ‘innocent’ character Doris Day was used to play. We know that she was trying to keep a “clean” image of her (ex: she refused the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate). She eventually accepted the role as the producer convinced her that she would give some dignity to it. Both bad and good come from it. Sadly, so-called “fans” sent her letters attacking her on the type of “vulgar woman” she was playing but she responded to all of them explaining that it was important to distinguish a role from reality and that she, after all, had to make her role as realistic as possible. But the best that come out from this role, is that Doris Day considers it to be her best performance. So, I guess she didn’t regret accepting it in the end. (IMDB)
And her singing voice is absolutely magical in that. Doris Day had a powerful voice and Love Me or Leave Me particularly proves it. Her singing and stage presence give us energy and make us want to go sing with her!
Among my favourite ones, there is Sam, the Old Accordion Man. I absolutely love the men back vocals! It’s so vintage and adorable.
Shaking the Blues Away. Seriously, I know this song by heart.
And the title song, Love Me or Leave Me that she sings at the end of the film. Her voice here is absolutely at her BEST!
Love Me or Leave Me was James Cagney last role as a gangster (which was among his specialties). He could have tap dance with Doris as he was great at it, but that’s not what he was hired for. I absolutely love James Cagney and I think he was among the very best actors of classic Hollywood (objectively: maybe he was THE best after all). He was versatile and always made acting look very easy and natural. However, I must confess that his performance in Love Me or Leave Me is far from being my favourite one. As a matter of fact, the fact that he was nominated for an Oscar and not Doris quite amazes me (not in a good way). I think his acting here is a bit too over the top and caricatural. Interestingly, Cagney judged it to be among his top five performances, which is totally ok (maybe I’m just not “catching” the genius of it) but, for me, it doesn’t work perfectly. I don’t say he’s bad, but he just wants to do too much. But really, this is the only time (so far) that I didn’t really like one of his performances. I think he does his best acting job at the end when he leads towards a more “natural” type of acting and when his character has “calmed down” a little. But of course, this is just my opinion and if you like his performance in that, it’s totally fine!
Movie director Charles Vidor was also known for having directed the iconic Gilda and, a huge favourite of mine; The Swan. I think Love Me or Leave Me kind of shares element from both films (even if The Swan was made after) which gives a certain signature to Vidor. It has the musical entertainment of Gilda. Rita Hayworth and Doris Day singing made some scenes of the respective films iconic; the clashing male/female relationship (Rita Hayworth vs. Glenn Ford/Doris Day vs. James Cagney); and the colourful and stunning cinematography that we could also find in The Swan.
The cinematography made by Arthur Arling makes Doris sparkles more than she already does. It adds a certain touch of happiness to a rather dark story and has an important role to play in the staging of the musical numbers.
Helen Rose’s costumes also play an important part. I love some of the gowns she created for Doris Day. And she sure is wearing them with class! Mrs. Rose also created the costumes of Vidor’s The Swan the following year and she always knew how to put actresses at the top of their elegance.
I believe that Love Me or Leave Me is a good musical for people who usually don’t like this film genre. As it is a backstage musical, the songs have a reason to be (I know some people don’t like musicals as the character suddenly start singing out of nowhere, which is, yes, not very realistic). But Love Me or Leave Me is about the career of a singer, so the songs you hear are put in a performance context. Also, they are great, and there aren’t too many of them, just enough to entertain you, but not too much to bore you. I personally love musicals but I thought it would be relevant to point that out for those who are less keen on them. The story has an interesting and complex development and I don’t think any of the musical numbers interfere with it. As a matter of fact, they are all strategically well-placed and deliver their own subtle message. And, I mean, what would be a Doris Day film without a few songs?! It’s not necessarily as good as some backstage musicals of the 30s, the golden age of backstage musicals (42nd Street, The Broadway Melody, Gold Diggers of 1933) but it remains a great entertainment and it’s worth seeing for Doris Day’s performance alone.
No, it’s not my favourite Doris Day film but I quite like it and, for the reasons I’ve stated in this article, I hope you’ll watch it soon if you haven’t. The following year, Doris Day starred in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and delivered another excellent dramatic performance and sang her most well-known song: Que Sera Sera.
Moral of the story: Doris Day is simply amazing!
Many thanks to Michaela for once again hosting this fun event. Please make sure to read the other entries by clicking here.
Happy birthday Doris!