Looking and sounding about as much like the legendary torch singer Ruth Etting (1896-1978) as I do didn’t keep Doris Day from tackling her in this 1955 biopic. Day’s great desire to prove herself more of an actress, to stretch herself as a performer—not to mention the chance of starring opposite an actor the caliber of James Cagney—made it a natural choice for Day. Of course, Love Me or Leave Me—which recounts Etting’s life from her early days through her years with small-time mobster Martin “The Gimp” Snyder (Cagney)—is no more accurate than most such films of its era. That means it has the basic facts more or less right and … it has the basic facts more or less right. It’s not just that Day doesn’t look or sound like the subject; it’s that no one who looked or sounded like Etting would have been a star in the 1950s when tastes were quite different.
So Etting becomes a figure tailored to 1950s tastes, as does the film and its sound. The orchestrations, costumes and production numbers are all pure 1955, even though they’re supposed to be circa 1920-‘37. Does that keep the film from being entertaining? No, but the unschooled viewer should be wary of the movie’s virtually nonexistent authenticity. (If you want a taste of the real Etting, check out her singing “No More Love” in the 1933 Eddie Cantor film Roman Scandals.) As a highly colored biopic, Love Me or Leave Me is an enjoyable mix of Day putting her stamp on Etting’s best known songs and the contrasting acting styles of Day and Cagney. Cagney chews the scenery like there’s no tomorrow, while Day underplays her role at every turn. (Whether hers is a deliberate choice or merely all the dramaturgy she could muster is open to question. Considering she buries her face every time she’s called on to cry, makes one suspect the latter.) Oddly, the divergent styles complement each other, resulting in a memorable teaming.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke