At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (Warner Archives) 1955

By • Oct 18th, 2016 •

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BluRay review by Roy Frumkes

I’m sure I am not the first one to notice that two of the most dangerous, sociopathic women-abusers in film history, both based on real life characters, are named Snyder (spelling different, pronunciation the same). There’s STAR 80, in which low-life hustler Paul Snider offs his Playboy Playmate wife/meal-ticket when he starts to lose control of her. The true story of Dorothy Stratten, her degrading murder still rings tragic today via Bob Fosse’s film despite lukewarm casting, though Eric Roberts is quite effective as the simmering sociopath.

Then there’s James Cagney in a relentlessly unnerving portrayal of mobster Martin Snyder (‘Moe the Gimp’ to his friends, referencing a bum leg), who latches on to a good thing when he manages budding singer Ruth Etting’s career as well as her life. It seems a miracle, watching the Archive print of LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, that Etting’s time on Earth didn’t have the same wretched trajectory as Stratten’s. But what it most definitely has is the buildup, bubbling and simmering throughout the film’s over 2 hours, supported by beautifully chosen songs that mirror Etting’s depression and melancholy stardom, songs which she was known for during her career – ‘Ten Cents a Dance,’ ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You (meant I assume for the man she loved but left in the movie [played by Cameron Mitchell], in exchange for Snyder’s dangerous management), ‘Mean to Me,’ and the concluding title song, which was number two on the charts in 1928.

Doris Day, as Etting, is perfect. It’s not a comedy, it’s not light-hearted, and she adapts to the grim tone with ease. Cagney is even better, but only because his part is better. His last shot in the film, as she sings on stage and he acknowledges her talent, is profound – one of those last shots we utterly cherish, like Chaplin’s in CITY LIGHTS, Orson Welles’ (near-last) in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, Julianne Moore’s in FAR FROM HEAVEN, Joel McCrea’s in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, Cagney’s (again) in WHITE HEAT, Gloria Swanson’s in SUNSET BOULEVARD, Edward G. Robinson’s (vanishing in long shot, his back to us) in SCARLET STREET, etc. Snyder, incidentally, is said not to have liked the way he was portrayed. Watching Cagney luxuriate in the gangster’s supremely ignorant, paranoid and disruptive personality, we have to assume that the actor probably got it right. So many of the key incidents in the film are based, incredibly, on real dramatic episodes in Etting/Snyder’s relationship that if we don’t get all the facts as they occurred, we do feel that we are getting the ‘truth’ of the story, unlike what we get in so many biopics.

Not mentioned in any of the Film Noir tomes, I think LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is a legitimate noir musical. It has a cringe-inducing undercurrent of dread, obsession is its key theme, there’s plenty of moody lighting, and it doesn’t really end well – the filmmakers merely managed to find a brief, lucky moment where Snyder isn’t going ballistic. Being a 1955 CinemaScope musical, it can’t take the leap into noir expressionism, with all the low-key lighting, shadows and odd angles, nor does it immerse us in the world of crime (quite the opposite, it stays in close and personal, not supported by a cast of underworld characters.) But Cagney’s performance sells the seedy, volcanic violence of a near-psychotic individual who’s out of his depth and compensates by continually lashing out, and Doris Day gamely and impressively captures the ambiguity of a woman yearning so desperately to be successful that she knowingly sells her soul to the devil. Noir musicals are rare. Check out the Fred Astaire/Vincent Minnelli noir parody in THE BANDWAGON, and Herbert Ross’ 1981 version of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.

Charles Vidor’s direction, which is quite good, and his absence of style, which is endemic to Hollywood ‘A’ films of the time, takes a back seat to the star power of the two leads. But the art department is able to rack up some of the points Vidor lets slide, inundating us with lush, vulgar splashes of color (effective despite the ugly Eastman color MGM used at the time), and sets long enough to place Cagney and Day at opposite sides of the anamorphic frame, the negative space accentuating their incompatibility.

The screenplay is good also, conforming to the clichés of the times periodically, but never selling out. It won the Best Written American Musical award from the Writers Guild of America.

Included are two shorts from the ‘30s featuring Ms. Etting. In A MODERN CINDERELLA, another actress refers derisively to a man of obvious Italian descent as a ‘spaghetti hound.’ Brian Donlevy makes an early, almost unrecognizable appearance as an inebriate. Etting has a pleasant but undistinguished persona, and does two numbers, one of them appropriately melancholy. In ROSELAND she sings again. It’s certainly gratifying to get a glimpse of her real self. And in a little doc entitled A SALUTE TO THE THEATERS, we can see what LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME looked like before the Warner Archives restoration team got their hands on it. Not only did they slave over the resolution and color density of the image, they also worked on the soundtrack so that the musical numbers are now crystal clear and clean.

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