My Very Favorite Doris Day Film, Bar None
As a performer, Doris Day had it all from the start. Beautiful, sexy, and gifted with one of the loveliest voices ever to grace the silver screen, she also had an enormous gift for light comedy that made her a superstar at Warner Bros in a series of lighter-than-air musicals as good as anything MGM and the Freed unit ever produced. And later on, her talent for comedy would make her a legend in three unforgettable, hilarious films co-starring her pal Rock Hudson; the first of these, PILLOW TALK, would garner Day her only Oscar nomination.
Now a talent for comedy is not to be despised; in fact, any actor will tell you that in many ways comedy is harder to do than drama. But it seemed to come so easily to Day that when she made the 1955 biopic of 1920's singer Ruth Etting, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, some of her fans were shocked. For while LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME has plenty of music in it, sung only as Day could sing, it was a far cry from the lightweight stuff people associated with her.
LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME is a slightly fictionalized biography of Ruth Etting, who was quite a big singing star in the 1920s and who actually made a couple of film appearances in the early sound era. And it marked a huge departure for Day, playing a broad on the make with questionable morals who gets mixed up with Chicago gangster Martin "The Gimp" Snyder, played with his customary intensity by the legendary James Cagney.
Day does not pull any punches in this film. Etting is no innocent girl from the country. She is an ambitious singer who wants to go places and is not too scrupulous about allowing Snyder to help her career along. That he does so because he is smitten with her she is fully aware of but she tries to pretend she doesn't notice. But Snyder, though a thug, is not a fool, and he is most definitely not accustomed to being denied what he wants. So when Ruth finally gets her big break in the Ziegfeld Follies, and Marty is barred from backstage, he throws a huge fit, breaks her contract with Ziegfeld, and rapes Ruth in a shockingly obvious scene for a 1950s film. Next thing we know, she has married him.
Ruth is a woman who is great on the stage but cannot stop making bad choices in life. Marrying Snyder out of a sense of obligation, she does not love him and it isn't long before she is in utter misery, particularly when she goes to Hollywood and reunites with old flame Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), who she still carries a torch for but does not dare to get close to for fear of what her insanely jealous husband will do.
This is by far the hardest-hitting film Doris Day ever made, and pitted against the immortal Cagney, she reveals a set of acting chops as sharp and as hungry as his. She matches him scene for scene and moment for moment, and their scenes together grow in intensity until the final confrontation when she demands a divorce, which devastates her husband and drives him to seek revenge.
It would be unfair to reveal too much more. This is without a doubt my very favorite of all of Doris Day's movies, an unflinching look at a woman who isn't always sympathetic, and Day has no problems showing Etting's true nature, warts and all. And when she is working with Cagney the screen threatens to catch fire.
Brilliant, intense, disturbing, and with gorgeous music. What a package.
Never mess with a middle-aged, Bipolar queen with AIDS and an attitude problem!