Ruth Etting was more than Chicago’s sweetheart, she was an accomplished singer and super star of her era. The film, Love me or Leave Me (1955) is the biographical account of Ruth’s rise to stardom. Sadly the man who was largely responsible for her success was also responsible for her heartbreak.
Doris Day stars as Ruth Etting, a departure from her upbeat roles, she brings gumption and ruthlessness to the screen. Originally her part was to be played by Ava Gardner but her co-star, James Cagney, suggested Doris for the part, and the result, available as an MOD through Warner Archives Collection, is one of the best performances of her career.
An arrangement of not only opportunity, but of blackmail and deceit, stands between Ruth and the life she hopes to lead. Cagney is Martin Snyder, a mobster who helps kickstart Ruth’s career in hopes of romantic compensation. Martin is shocked to find Ruth demands more than a spot as a dancer in one of his clubs and begins to give her a shot as a singer in hopes she repays him — and soon! Cagney’s Snyder (referred to as “the gimp” due to his limp) is full of terror, played with heartbreaking fury and passion. Slowly he falls for Ruth — more than just a sexual arrangement, he tries to win her affection. Obsessively pushing for her stardom, he first becomes her manager and then her husband.
Ruth becomes the center of attention, singing for packed houses and then, as her star grows, heads off to New York to the Ziegfeld Follies. But Ruth also gets the attention of her piano player, Johnny Alderman (played by Cameron Mitchell). He’s the angel on her shoulder, offering her a life that doesn’t come at a price. Johnny stays by her side throughout her career, the two falling in love between songs.
Love Me or Leave Me is a colorful account of a love triangle that became the backbone of Ruth Etting’s real life career. Doris Day fills out every inch of the screen, as a woman who realizes how much actual business goes into show business.
A major highlight of the film (other than the acting) are the musical numbers. Most of the songs are original Ruth Etting hits, of which Doris Day does justice. The larger than life musical numbers grow even more beautiful as Ruth herself flourishes in the business.
Directed by Charles Vidor, Love Me or Leave Me was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning Best Original Screenplay. Cagney was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Ernest Borgnine for Marty.
You can really sink your teeth into the true story that is Love Me or Leave Me. In reality, Snyder shot Alderman who made a recovery and married Etting as Snyder faced prosecution. The juicy tale made for the perfect screenplay.
Ruth Etting was a star who reached the sky by standing on the shoulders of a bad man. But slowly she stood on her own, proving that her talent would outweigh any scandal she would face.
Love me or Leave Me does Ruth Etting’s story justice. The film, now available from the Warner Archive Collection, is a feminist tale for the ages. Ruth Etting made the most out of a bad situation, using her charm as a key to unlock a stunning career.