As I’ve mentioned (probably too frequently), the ’50s aren’t really my time. I’m a pre-War guy, a lover of screwball comedies and proto-noir movies. But I also love the music: the crooners, the assorted sister acts, and the sometimes-generously-referred-to-as-“jazz” music. So here we have a movie from ’55 with that quintessentially ’50s movie star, Doris Day—but it’s about Ruth Etting who, along with Annette Hanshaw and Ethel Waters, was one of my favorite chanteuses of the time. So how could I miss?
Well, one way is to use music I wasn’t super familiar with. I was shocked that I only knew about half of the 20 or so songs. (I guess I’m not such a fan after all.) Another way is to “jazz it up” but not in the ’30s sense of jazz but in the ’50s sense of super-slick sound and styling, which I generally don’t like.
But these are quibbles because this movie turned out to be much more interesting and complex than I expected. (If still doubtless far less nuanced than the truth.) Very loosely based on a few startlingly real events, this is the story of Etting (Day) who climbs her way to the top with the help of a lame Jewish gangster Martin “Moe” Snyder, played by James Cagney. Etting is shown as a savvy girl but a little too confident she can manipulate Moe into helping her without a quid pro quo. He does, but ultimately browbeats her into marriage. (There’s little-to-no-line here between browbeating and actual beating.)
There are however some subtle differences between being a gangster and being an entertainment manager, and Moe’s abrasive style and insecurities result in Ruth losing out on a dream job at the Follies, resulting in some heavy drinking and lamenting her lost (potential) lover, Alderman (Cameron Mitchell, once again looking smooth), who had been her accompanist in the early days. Things come to a head when she winds up in Hollywood shooting a film and meets up with said accompanist, which brings Moe’s jealousy to the surface. Then, shots are fired.
Parts of this are true: Moe did get her kicked out of the Follies and he did shoot her accompanist with whom she was romantically involved. (In real life, she was long separated from Moe when he shot Alderman, and she and Alderman had almost 30 happy and relatively peaceful years together.)
Even though this is Day’s double-feature (with Calamity Jane), this movie (which won a screenplay Oscar) is absolutely stolen by Cagney. He is a gangster, no doubt, but he’s also desperately in love with Etting and completely unable to work her. Indeed, part of his fascination has to be that he doesn’t really get what makes her tick. He knows she’s better than he is: She’s able to make it in society without beating the tar out of people. And he’s at turns defiant, piggish, brutal and heartbreakingly pathetic. Cagney would get an Oscar nom for this and would lose alongside Sinatra, Dean and Tracy to Ernest Borgnine’s Marty. (Another heartbreaking performance about a palooka, come to think of it.)
He’s so, so good. And the movie has a kind of classic, dark ’50s ending. Justice is served but Moe still has his day. I think we all agreed it was “better” than Calamity Jane, but it was also much heavier. I would definitely recommend it, but not for the reasons I went to see it: It’s worth it for Cagney alone.