Even though she neither looks nor sounds anything like Ruth Etting, Doris Day gives an incredible performance in this biopic of the famous 1920s singer. Ruth started out in a dance hall, as described in one of her most famous songs "Ten Cents a Dance" before she was discovered by powerful mobster Marty Snyder, played in the film by James Cagney. I've seen this film many times, and while I had one impression of it at first, I've since learned to appreciate the other levels of the story and performances. The first time I watched it, my heart went out to my beloved James Cagney, and I started crying every time Doris Day would reject his advances and hurt his feelings. As I got older and watched it again and again, I absorbed the complex and cunning relationship between the two main characters-but it still makes me cry!
Doris plays a conniving wannabe star, stringing Jimmy along with empty promises of her affections just so he'll help her career. I didn't pick up on her intentional meanness the first time through; I thought she was just being an idiot by not falling for him. Every word out of her mouth is intentional, and she knows the power she holds over him. Doris is so fantastic in this untrustworthy role that if you've never seen one of her movies, I wouldn't recommend watching this one first. You might forever after see her as a bad girl and never trust her again!
On the other hand, Jimmy Cagney's character isn't as golden as I once thought he was. He notices Doris's body in her skintight dress and nothing more. He promises her stardom, but when she holds out her end of the bargain, his attraction grows. Although at first he's only interested in a one-night stand, Doris becomes his obsession and his reason to live, and he gives an incredibly heartbreaking performance. James Cagney's performance in Love Me or Leave Me is one of the greats I often reference in my disillusionment with the Academy Awards. He, Frank Sinatra, James Dean, and an un-nominated Robert Mitchum were all passed over in favor of Ernest Borgnine in Marty, one of the most ridiculous awards in Oscar history. When you watch Love Me or Leave Me and you finish drying your tears, you'll probably lose respect for the Oscars, too.
Cameron Mitchell is supposed to play the antithesis of James Cagney's character: kind-hearted, honest, and easy to love. I don't think he's any of those qualities, so his scenes with Doris were easily the weakest in my opinion. I am admittedly biased; I don't know if anyone would have been easier to love than James Cagney in this film. On the upside, Robert Keith and Harry Bellaver are very likable and sweet in their supporting roles, so it's relatively easy to drown Cameron out and pretend he's not in the movie.
Love Me or Leave Me is a fantastic movie, an essential for James Cagney, Doris Day, or musical fans. You'll probably want to familiarize yourself with their other films first, though. To make sure you can appreciate Doris's new dramatic talent, watch Pillow Talk or Romance on the High Seas first, and to make sure you're on James Cagney's side, watch Angels with Dirty Faces and The Strawberry Blonde first.