I mentioned the other day, while discussing Susan Hayward, Hollywood’s brief foray into a sub-genre that I think of as “musical melodramas.” These films are all post-war items–the era brought with it a frankness about human frailty, compulsions and violence that wasn’t earlier considered appropriate for mass entertainment–and used period settings and songs to tell semi-factual stories, usually revolving around show-biz and gangsters. The musical numbers are strictly used in source settings–i.e. characters perform the songs in nightclubs rather than bursting into song at the drop of a hat because they just can’t contain themselves. “I’ll Cry Tomorrow”, the story of singer Lillian Roth’s downfall, certainly qualifies as one of these films. So, too, does the disappointing but still worth seeing “Young Man With A Horn”, starring Kirk Douglas as a self-destructive trumpet player (based on a novel which was hazily inspired by the life of jazz great Bix Beiderbecke). Jack Webb’s “Pete Kelly’s Blues”, though not factual, fits the bill as well. (For more on this unfairly forgotten film–Webb’s best work as a filmmaker–see my 9/24/07 post. Oy, that was a long time ago). Another film that qualifies is Nicholas Ray’s last studio film, 1958’s “Party Girl”, with Cyd Charisse and Robert Taylor.
The best of all of these “musi-mellers”, for my money, is “Love Me Or Leave Me”, starring Doris Day and James Cagney in the semi-factual story of 1920’s chanteuse Ruth Etting and her complicated and violent relationship with the gangster who helped make her a star, Martin “Moe The Gimp” Snyder. The film was directed by my favorite utterly forgotten and critically ignored director, Charles Vidor, and is a splendid example of plush big-studio trappings (it was made by MGM) for once working in service of, rather than against, a dark tale of obsessional love that doesn’t really end all that happily.
The tale itself is simple: Etting, a hugely ambitious young singer, married a gangster, Moe Snyder, who helped her rise in the world of nightclubs and, eventually, records, radio and movies. Snyder, who by all accounts was quite taken with his young discovery, was appalled to discover that Ruth was…using him. A gangster with blinders on his heart? Who’d a thunk? When she fell in love with her pianist–played in the movie by Cameron Mitchell but in real life was a man named Myrl Alderman–Snyder did what any self-respecting gangster would do; he shot him. Alderman didn’t die and he and Etting actually got married once Snyder and Etting got divorced. (Is it possible to live happily ever after with a woman who’s gotten you shot? I wonder).
For Doris Day, LMOLM represented the first real opportunity she had to act–previously she had been the buck-toothed bandsinger chick who charmed audiences in execrable Warner Brothers fare from the late forties and early fifties like “Romance On The High Seas” and “On Moonlight Bay”. I have no idea if Day’s immense popularity at the time, both as a movie star and recording artist, permitted her the opportunity to choose to make “Love Me Or Leave Me”–if she initiated the project, that is, or if somebody else did and chose her for it. Her performance in the movie, though, is certainly the best of her career–much better than her Oscar winning (!) turn in “Pillow Talk” or her other “serious” role in the 1960 “Midnight Lace”. (She’s also quite good in HItchcock’s “Man Who Knew Too Much”). Oddly, the Academy didn’t even nominate her for her work in LMOLM–and it’s not because they snubbed the movie in general–the writers, Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart, were nominated in a category that no longer exists, “Best Story”. (Odd, given that they didn’t make it up). And Cagney was nominated for best actor. Oh well, trying to figure out the good old AMPAS is a thankless and hopeless pursuit this late in the game (this being the year the pretentiously awful “No Country For Old Men” seems destined to…oh, why get started?)
Charles Vidor, who I’ve written about before, directed three movies that stand the test of time–“Cover Girl” and “Gilda” being the other two. Yet who knows anything about him? Clearly more of a lucky pro than a frustrated visionary, Vidor nevertheless had a fine feel for the sweep of a movie, as well as for pacing and for enhancing dramatic moments with smart and evocative staging techniques. He was precisely the kind of director who needed a studio system to function under–not an independent thinker yet someone who could simultaneously follow orders and find self-expression in the product that he was assigned to. The below clip is a beautifully staged and shot showpiece, “Shaking The Blues Away” which Vidor appears to have directed himself and not fobbed off on some second unit hack.
Doris Day is alive and well. She disappeared from show-biz after the death of her husband Martin Melcher (a sordid story involving money mismanagement was attached to his death but why bring it up here?) and currently heads a wildlife preservation society and runs a hotel in Carmel, California with her son, Terry Melcher. Recently she was asked by director Peter Bogdanovich if she’d be interviewed. She graciously declined, saying that she admired his work but considered everything about her previous life of no further interest to her. How is that possible? And yet there’s something terribly admirable in those few giants who, once it’s over, truly throw in the towel. Cagney was like that too…until Milos Forman offered him “Ragtime”…