Love Me or Leave Me (1955, Charles Vidor)
It make take a lot of persuasion, and a few drinks, for the average 2014 movie watcher to be convinced that a 1950s musical period biopic starring Doris Day is relevant to their lives or has anything to say to them about much else, culturally or personally. Such shocks to the system are what makes project like this blog worth doing; you wouldn’t expect Love Me or Leave Me, this bone-chillingly prescient near-masterpiece, to teach you anything about the lives of young women and the complicated web of obligations, ambitions and compromises into which they are dragged. Its subject might be fame, fortune, gangsters and the put-on-a-show decadence of the wealthy during the ’20s, but what it’s honestly about is people struggling, especially with relationships that are ripped to shreds by jealousy, control and resentment but kept just barely strung together by misguided faith and societal pressure. Not only is it meaningful to anybody who’s subsisted within a crumbling relationship, it’s meaningful to anybody who’s witnessed one. It approaches this nightmare with profound, laudable compassion.
There’s a yearning, a tragedy here — in the acting, in the sweep of lost years, in the real-life application as noted. The film is, to simplify it all too much, a straight biography of Ruth Etting, the hitmaking singer and stage actress beloved in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties and the Depression. It concentrates heavily on documenting her sham marriage to an insecure gangster, Martin Snyder (a frightening, complex James Cagney) — who’d spotted her and controlled her career for years but swallowed them both up in his gambling debts and eventually went on to threaten her with violence and attempt to murder Myrl Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), her accompanist and lover, in a lurid confrontation.
It could be tabloid cheese, but thanks to the sophisticated and deeply wounded performances of Doris Day and James Cagney, it’s something quite special. The music is great, of course, incorporating over a dozen Etting hits sung beautifully by Day, but there aren’t that many full-on numbers. Much of the time is taken by a quite troubling portrait of an abusive relationship, and one that isn’t necessarily one-dimensional — it expects us to be appalled by Moe the Gimp’s behavior, but it does humanize him, which makes his boorish entitlement all the more chilling. We will recognize it as all too familiar, as all too plausible.
Day, not often remembered today as the luminous and sophisticated actress she was quite capable of being, is magnificent as she embodies complete independence then, with utter perfection, the moment of giving it up and sinking into apathy. It’s not that her expression of loss or resignation is merely heartbreaking as she realizes the trap that her husband has set for her, it’s that we can look at her and see that she is dead inside — but that breaking out would be too much to bear. Wherever Day was pulling this stuff from, it’s haunting. Cagney should not be placed as a more crucial presence, but his is indeed one of the truly great performances — he understood this man but he also understood what was wrong with him, and his intuitive grasp of the pain at the core of Moe and the brutish hatred that was the only language he really understood is palpable in every moment, enough that we can see into his soul and comprehend him more than such a man likely deserves, which is among the most powerful compliments a film’s characterization can receive.
The only serious flaws are that Cameron Mitchell is a dead weight as Etting’s real love interest, and the conclusion — in which Moe finds a brief, reluctant redemption thanks to excessive enabling from his former wife — is too pat. But in an emotional powerhouse like this, such indulgences are easy to forgive. The entire film, despite its resourceful conquering of the limitations of early Cinemascope (director Charles Vidor beautifully occupies three-dimensional space which gives relief to all the lengthy, static scenes he’s stuck with), is truly at its core about the eyes of the two lead actors, which communicate every aspect of that relationship: depression, dread, impatience, superiority, loneliness, total hopelessness, everything except love. There are no big scenes of drunken showiness and no outrageous confrontation except one (involving a gun) that really happened — these are real people, and their harrowing dissolution is enough to make your heart sink. The film does not flinch before privileged male cruelty, spousal violence, ruthless and uncaring misogyny; it’s a despairing, dispiriting experience to watch, yet it feels so necessary and, in its rough-going but empathetic manner, beautiful.