Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Ruth Etting was never given much chance as an actress, her career being comprised mostly of short films. Of the four feature films she appeared in, Etting portrayed herself in three of them. The fourth, Roman Scandals, gave her two lines and a song. Nevertheless, she received second billing after Eddie Cantor, such was her popularity at the time. It would not last. A scandal of her own involving two of her suitors motivated an early retirement. It did however provide perfect fodder for a biopic.
Chicago in the roaring twenties was just the perfect setting for an ambitious dance hall girl to get involved with a mobster. After Etting accepts Snyder’s help in securing a job as a chorus girl, she sets her sights higher, taking centre stage when the club’s headline act fortuitously can’t perform due to outstanding gambling debts. Much to Snyder’s surprise, Etting actually has talent. He takes control of her career, managing her bookings and organising contracts with radio, stage and film. “[She] just sings” he barks at a producer. “I’m the one who does the talking”. Despite the warnings of her steadfast pianist, Etting continues to ignore the fact that the payment for Snyder’s support is due anytime.
After seven years at Warner Brothers, during which she was required to do little more than present a sunny disposition, Doris Day takes full advantage of the opportunity to portray a more hard-edged character, albeit one with a feigned sense of naivety. Performing ten of Etting’s hits plus two original songs, Day successfully negotiates the dramatic demands of a role that requires her to be both conniving and sympathetic. She is provided with solid support from James Cagney in one of his last gangster roles. Enjoying himself immeasurably, Cagney gives Martin ‘The Gimp’ Snyder an almost comical slant. Yet the danger he poses is always apparent, ready to surface at the slightest provocation.
Day followed up this biopic with Hitchcock’s remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much and the film-noir Julie, before turning to the lightweight comedies she is best remembered for today. Her only Oscar nomination came for her performance opposite Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk.
as Ruth Etting
as Myrl 'Johnny' Alderman
Etting and Snyder were married in 1922, five years before she made her Broadway debut in the ‘Ziegfeld Follies of 1927’.
"I never at any time was a dancehall girl. It was just a means of working in 'Ten Cents a Dance'. They took a lot of liberties with my life but I guess they usually do that kind of thing."
Though biopic does spend some time in Hollywood, it features no scene recreations. There is a depiction of Etting being filmed atop a swing singing ‘At Sundown’, a song she never performed on screen.