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Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

1-love-me-or-leave-me-poster-art-doris-everettWhat do you get when you combine the sunny Doris Day with gangster James Cagney? Love Me or Leave Me, a sensational grangster/drama/musical and one of my favorite films of all time.

Love Me or Leave Me is a loose biopic of singer Ruth Etting, who was famous in the 1920s, but whose career in Hollywood was ended when her gangster husband, Moe Snyder, shot her lover in the mid-1930s (the lover survived and they were later wed). The film explores not only her career, but her relationship with her husband.

Ruth Etting (Doris Day) is a would-be singer working at a dance hall, until she gets fired for kicking an over-familiar customer. This catches the eye of Marty “The Gimp” Snyder, a Chicago gangster (James Cagney) with a limp. He tries a pick-up line, but she rebuffs him, until he offers to help get her another job. This starts a whole cat-and mouse process, with Marty trying to get her obligated to him and Ruth trying to hold out, but still take advantage of his help at the same time. She’s ambitious, but Marty initially thinks if he can just humor her, eventually she’ll be satisfied and go away with him.

But pianist Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell) is also interested in Ruth, but wants to help her career honestly, without using any of the questionable methods of Marty. But Ruth is ambitious. Because she’s played by Doris Day, it is easy to overlook just how ambitious she is, but she is leaving nothing to chance and wants to use Marty to help her career and she’s not ignorant of his strong-arm methods for doing so. But as Johnny warns Ruth, she’s playing with fire and she can’t just use Marty and then leave him. She doesn’t listen and winds up in an abusive marriage with Marty.

Doris Day and James Cagney are magnificent in this film. They are two dynamic, incredible actors and the screen lights up whenever they share it. Doris Day is never overwhelmed by him, but actually is his match in both presence and personality as the two of them battle back and forth. Both actors admired each other; Cagney thought Day was an instinctive actor like himself and even lobbied to have her cast in the film and be given top billing (remarkable generosity). Nothing, I believe, demonstrates her abilities better than this film and how she manages to hold her own with James Cagney. I’m not sure I can think of an actress who does it better.

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Cagney and Day

Doris Day is still seemingly herself, but with an edge. By the second half of the film, after she has achieved stardom, she is bitter and deeply unhappy, but still with that Doris Day resilience and willingness to bounce back, though perhaps not quite with the same enthusiasm that Ruth had when her career was first beginning.

Love Me or Leave Me also has one of my favorite James Cagney performances (along with White Heat and Yankee Doodle Dandy). He’s baffled and angry, full of lust and lovelorn at the same time, but he never lets you forget that he’s capable of dangerous violence.

And initially he doesn’t have a clue what he has in her, singing-wise. When he packs the club with people to hear her sing, he’s looking around nervously while the audience sits rapt during her song. There is another wonderful moment when Ruth makes her Ziegfeld debut. You can see it on his face: wonderment, anxiety, as he realizes how far she’s come and that she technically no longer needs his help, but also like he’s finally comprehending the full extent of her talent.

The more I see the film, the more sorry I feel for him (up to a point) in the first half, until he wipes away all sympathy by his actions. By the second half, Ruth becomes primarily a victim, but initially she is just as complicit as Marty and even strings him along, trying to have all the benefits of being a mistress without having to pay the price. I’m no longer sure  how much she is genuinely standing up for herself and how much is manipulation. When she is angry that he expects sex in return for getting her a job, does she really intend to walk out or is she hoping that he’ll give in? Maybe both.

I used to wonder how on earth she could have married Marty after he (it’s implied) finally gets fed up and rapes her. I finally concluded that the problem is that she both has too many scruples and not enough. She doesn’t have enough to prevent her from trying to use Marty, but too much in that she feels so guilty about it that she stays in an abusive situation because she feels like she owes him. And because she knows how crazy he is about her.

love_me_or_leave_meThat is what makes the film so powerful, in my opinion, the nuance the actors bring. Marty is primarily an abusive hood (and largely unsympathetic), but he has human emotions and is nuts about Ruth, so much so that he hardly understands it. Ruth, on the other hand, is not merely a victim, but consciously working her way to the top and is willing to roll over (or have Marty roll over) quite a few people to get where she wants (including discarding the man she loves and who loves her).

The music is also sensational (one of my favorite soundtracks). Most of the songs were popularized and associated with Ruth Etting, such as “Love Me or Leave Me” (Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn) and “Ten Cents a Dance” (Rodgers and Hart). A few songs, like “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” were written for the movie.

Doris Day doesn’t sound a thing like Ruth Etting and she’s still more fifties than twenties – in fact the entire more looks more like a twenties flavored fifties film, but that’s not a complaint. I’m not sure the twenties look would have flattered Day nearly as well as the fifties, anyway. Ruth Etting actually wanted Jane Powell to portray her in the film, but Cagney lobbied for Day, for which I am extremely grateful. Doris Day’s incandescent talent (nothing against Powell) makes her success and Marty’s surprise at her success all the more potent, because she really is stunning. How could she not become a star?

Here is Doris Day’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me.”

And Ruth Ettings rendition, recorded in 1929. Ruth Etting always claimed that her voice was deeper than it sounded on recordings.

“Ten Cents a Dance,” sung by Doris Day.

And Ruth Etting’s version of “Ten Cents a Dance.”

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2016 in Movies

 

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Gilda (1946)

3505-1946-gilda-usa-6074169550I might have to re-watch Gilda, because when I watched it last week I was so busy trying to figure it out that I didn’t give myself any space to enjoy it. But it was so different from what I was expecting; it’s like two movies blended together.

Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a scrappy gambler, drifting in Argentina during WWII (the fact that he isn’t at war says something about his character already – practically every American male of his age was in uniform at the time). He is nearly mugged, but is rescued by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a wealthy and mysterious man who runs a casino. After Johnny visits the casino and gets caught out in a little cheating, he convinces Ballin to hire him and works his way up to become Ballin’s right-hand man.

Johnny thinks he’s got a good thing going and is extraordinarily loyal to Ballin, but his world is upset when Ballin returns from a trip with a wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth). Johnny and Gilda used to know each other very well and she immediately sets out to torment Johnny and make him jealous. To make things worse, Ballin has a few things up his sleeve that he is not telling Johnny, like certain dealings with ex-Nazis (WWII is now over). There is also a policeman (Joseph Calleia), who is watching Ballin.

In relation to Gilda, I had most often heard that it was about the intensely heated love-hate relationship between Johnny and Gilda. As Gilda tells Johnny at one point, “I hate you so much; I think I’m going to die from it.” Johnny likewise is always telling her and Ballin that he hates her. Why? This isn’t clear. Evidently they had an affair, but he abandoned her. It made my sister think of the story in the Bible (2 Samuel 13) where Amnon rapes his half-sister, Tamar, and than hates her for it. But it’s clear that Gilda is still crazy about Johnny.

George Macready. Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford

George Macready. Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford

But this isn’t what the first half of the movie is about. This is dealt with in the second half. In the first half, Johnny seems to have a huge hero-worship/crush on Ballin. He even has a key to Ballin’s house, which he returns when Ballin unexpectedly marries. He thinks Ballin tells him everything and seems just as hurt that Ballin married as he does that Gilda is trying to make him jealous. He never questions Ballin’s highly questionable ethics and goes out of his way to spare Ballin any concern over Gilda, who is definitely not being faithful to him. He even admires Ballin’s pseudo-fascist purpose of ruling the world and does everything to protect him from the police and others.

I think Johnny’s trying to be Ballin. After Ballin supposedly dies (he fakes his death), Johnny takes over the business, including the business with the ex-Nazis. The thing is, he’s really in over his head and he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t have Ballin’s sagacity or knowledge or education. He’s just a scrappy guy who knows how to get by in life. It’s not even clear he fully understands what kind of a man Ballin is; what the consequences really would be if Ballin succeeds in his (somewhat fuzzy) goals. For a while, I thought the film was going to be about how Johnny tries be like Ballin and discovers how far short he comes.

But the film never develops any of this. Instead, it turns to the relationship between Johnny and Gilda. After Ballin supposedly dies, Johnny marries Gilda. It’s clear she always loved him and thinks their going to be happy now, but Johnny rather cruelly marries her just so he can control her. He stays completely away from her and uses his power and men to prevent her from going out with other men (her main means of getting back at people), even having her followed everywhere. He puts a picture of Ballin in their house, which she considers in bad taste (not “decent,” is the word she uses, which he uses to mock her with, since she is not “decent”).

So, why is he doing this? Supposedly because he was driven crazy by her infidelities. He’s certainly obsessed with the fact that she’s a tramp. But Johnny says (in a voice-over) that he’s doing it to make her faithful to Ballin in death, even if she couldn’t be faithful to him when he was alive. Before Ballin’s supposed death, Ballin saw Johnny and Gilda making out, so perhaps Johnny feels like he betrayed Ballin, too.

looking far happier than they ever do in the film

looking far happier than they ever do in the film

Unfortunately, I thought the ending of the film was kind of a fizzle. Johnny has gotten himself in so deep, trying to run Ballin’s business, and goes too far in his persecution of Gilda. And he gets of scot-free. He never seems to have to face up to the enormity of what he’s done, what kind of a man Ballin really is, or how cruelly he’s used Gilda. She even tries to leave him and get a divorce, only to have him use another man to trick her into coming back, where he refuses her the divorce. She’s on her knees begging him to let her go and I almost hated him. But instead, the policeman fixes everything and Johnny faces no consequences and the policeman even manages to fix up Johnny’s love life with Gilda so that they can be together. It even turns out that Gilda was never really cheating on him or Ballin at all – that was just an act to make him jealous.

It seemed to take all the steam out of the story. The script turns Ballin into a slightly deranged, jealous husband at the end, instead of the cool and calculating man he always was before. Ballin is an interesting character. He tells Johnny that he’s “mad about” Gilda, but it’s hard to see that he really is. He seems to go out of his way to make Johnny and Gilda spend time together, even though he knows instantly that the two of them have a past. He even makes Gilda his heir and Johnny the executor of his will, ensuring they will continue to spent time together. He’s like a puppet-master, always watching them. He also seems to frequently be shot in shadows or be off screen entirely (in one shot, his head is cut off by the camera), though we hear his voice. The camera will be fixed on Johnny or Gilda, but we hear his cold voice interrogating them, like a god who’s slightly amused by the doings of the little people.

By far the most sympathetic person in the story is Gilda. I’ve heard her role described as that of a femme fatale, but most of the time she’s being controlled or abused by the men in the story. I don’t think she makes a very convincing hardcore femme fatale anyway (like in Blood and Sand, she just doesn’t have the steel her soul like Barbara Stanwyck and others), but she does vulnerable and broken extremely well and as Gilda, she had all my sympathy. Even the famously sexy dance, “Put the Blame on Mame,” where she does the tantalizing strip tease while removing only one glove, is still a performance filled with pathos, because she wants to hurt Johnny so much that she’s willing to expose herself as a tramp to do it.

tumblr_mdaih2KMet1r0rezxo1_1280She seems to be looking for a man she can trust. After she flees Johnny, she finds another man who purports to love her and says he can help her get a divorce and will take care of her. The relief on her face as she talks about how she thought she could never trust a man again is so sad, because we know the man is employed by Johnny. At this point I was rooting so hard for Johnny and Gilda not to get back together at the end. I was hoping that Johnny would get taken down and be revealed as “the peasant” that the janitor, Uncle Pio (Steven Geray) always said he was. Incidentally, Uncle Pio seems to be the only person Gilda can act normally with. She smiles, thanks him and generally seems relaxed, like she’s not putting on the act she is always playing for Ballin and Johnny.

It’s a sensational performance by Rita Hayworth, one of the best I’ve seen her give. But because of the ending, I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

Below is a clip of Hayworth performing “Put the Blame on Mame,” though that is not her singing.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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