It all started a few weeks ago with a viewing of 1955's Love Me or Leave Me on Netflix's streaming video. I really, really feel like I shouldn't like it, much less obsess over it. First of all, it's a biopic from the fifties--seldom a good combo. After all, Man of a Thousand Faces, starring Cagney as the otherworldly, magnificent Lon Chaney, came out in the fifties, and BOY did that stink. I saw that a few years ago and pretty much ignored Cagney for awhile. Plus, Love Me or Leave Me has Doris Day as Ruth Etting, and even in one of her typical roles, I am not a Day fan. And this is not a typical role for her. First of all, she's nothing like the original Ruth Etting--I looked that twenties crooner up on YouTube afterward, and that gal was as adorable, sexy, and bluesy as you could want a little white girl back then to be. For all that everybody sings Day's praises in this film, claiming she really shows off her dramatic acting chops, I still maintain she was the weakest link. Watch it and see if you can really determine what her character's motives were, what kind of person she really was. If you can't, I don't think it's because the filmmakers decided to make her deliberately ambiguous. It might just be a result of poor Doris not knowing herself which way to go with the role.
....Fifties Film Ruthie
To quote Allie Brosh at Hyperbole and a Half, "INCONGRUITY DETECTED"
So, like I said, Love Me or Leave Me has quite a few strikes against it in my book. The big, shiny production values and the endless numbers with Day standing there singing in sparkly dresses just seems too cheery post-WWII compared to the wackadellic, naughty flapper vibe I wish they had gone for instead. In fact, I'm pretty sure I would have actively disliked Love Me or Leave Me if it weren't for Cagney. He's like somebody threw a bunch of pop rocks into flat soda. He plays Ruth's husband Marty "The Gimp" Snyder, called thus because of a mysterious limp in his leg and because people were super sensitive back then. Of course, according to the movie, he more than made up for that label by becoming a badass Chicago gangster. This is apparently a bit of a stretch to the actual story, since the real Snyder, though a hoodlum, probably didn't demand quite the local respect Cagney's Snyder does. But then again, it's Cagney, so I can understand why the filmmakers took this liberty, at least.
Cagney does a remarkable job. It's one of those performances that lacks subtlety of any kind, yet still works, probably because of the lack of subtlety. The movie needs this blatant kick in its face to come alive. Or to put it more accurately, maybe certain facets of his performace are subtle, but his subtlety is so subtle we don't even know it's there (I'm being cryptic, not incoherent! Shut up!). His bluster, his violence, his vicious outbursts and tyrannical hold on both Ruth's career and her life, all of it covers up a reaaaaalllly insecure, unsophisticated guy who's in awe of his talented wife and desperately wants to please her, but doesn't quite know how. You can tell because there's sadness and worship in his eyes as he watches her perform, along with a little fear; no smug satisfaction you'd expect from someone in total control like he pretends. As Ruth's career skyrockets, he's frantic that his lack of smooth gentility will make him look like an ass in fronta all dem hoity-toity thee-ay-ter types. Rather than affect the sort of suavity these theater folk do, he goes all-out in playing up his gangster status, hustling anyone he thinks is hurting Ruth's career, causing a brawl backstage at the Ziegfeld Follies.
You may cringe when you watch this scene, not because it's poorly done, but because it captures an embarrassing truth about Marty and gangsters like him if put in situations like this. Very few films portray how out of place a tough guy is when you pluck him down into a foreign environment without his sycophantic, like-minded entourage around him, and you place him instead where everyone conforms to a strange, semi-pretentious, "yes, dahlink, you were maaahvelous" code of behavior behind velvet curtains. Day's stunned but quietly mortified reactions to his outbursts are her finest moments in the film, because, I hate to say, they might hit a little too close to home for her (Day's own husband, I understand, was abusive and managed many of her business affairs in crappy fashion).
Then again, it could just be because Cagney's energy is infectious. He even makes Day (whom he recommended for the role why oh why Jimmy) rise to the occasion every once in a while. He doesn't let her off the hook. Apparently when he socks her at one crucial point, Day wasn't expecting it, though there is speculation that the filmmakers claimed that only for publicity. There was apparently a brutal rape scene cut from the final print. Cagney doesn't let the producers tone down his character's many hideous qualities, or make him a flat-out villain, either. Not for the sake of Doris Day's flowery image or for the allegedly delicate sensibilities of fifties movie audiences. Yet somehow, somehow, despite all the logical reasons to hate and be repulsed by this vile little turd of a man, Marty is pathetically sympathetic. That's Cagney's real genius. Snyder's decision to scream harder and louder than everyone, to make up for the more refined environment he finds himself in, is a nice parallel to Cagney's actual situation in the movie: Cody Jarrett from White Heat falls down the rabbit hole into a technicolor musical wonderland. How do you expect him to behave? Even though Cagney himself was a hoofer from way-back, the scenes I've seen of him dancing come across just as dangerous and snarky as his smashing-grapefruit-in-Mae-Clarke's-kisser persona. His whole body just vibrates with pent-up...if not rage, then pent-up....something. He's just very, very alive. Doris and the movie are glittery and soft; Cagney and Snyder are coarse and primitive. And in the end, I found both far more engaging and likable than anything or anyone else in the movie. Both character and actor know there's no way they can ever truly staunch their vitality, and that if they try they will fail, making their imminent explosions of temper all the more terrible and jarring. This realization kills Marty a little, especially since he knows deep down it's that inability to control himself keeping his beloved wife from loving him in return, and also making her miserable. And once or twice in the movie we see that in his dull eyes as he watches her.
Marty isn't one-dimensional. Neither is Cagney. And that's why we're getting married in Aruba someday.
As a cool cat way to usher in 2011, here's a music video made by Felaffle showcasing clips from his movies set to Lady Gaga's "Monster." Yes, it's true. This much awesome does exist.