Friday 11 November 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare retrieves Doris Day in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME

Doris Day as Ruth Etting hitting the high notes for Ziegfeld in Irving Berlin's Shaking the Blues Away.  (click on the image to expand it.) The screen comes from a dazzling new Warner Archive Blu-ray of the 1955 biopic, Love Me or Leave Me. In place of the thousand miles of curtains that festooned Ann Miller's stunning 1948 version in the Chuck Walters' Easter Parade from the Freed Unit, Charles Vidor and producer Joe Pasternak substitute a thousand chorus boys as appropriate emblems of both the Ziegfeld hugeness and the relatively new Scope frame. Doris' delivery is stunning because of or despite this, and anyway the staging takes the Scope screen even further with a final track out into the audience for the number's climax.
All through the picture in fact Vidor resolutely ignore the ongoing Scope Mumps arising from the old Bausch and Lomb lenses and cheerfully does whip pans, skating diagonal tracks and fast moving crane shots with blithe insouciance. And the picture is so much the better for it. Doris's arragements (Some from Percy Faith) and performances are without exception peak, in fact her delivery later in the picture of Larry Hart's "Ten Cents a Dance" is so good the Lady Ella herself also sang it virtually identically for her big Verve Hart album from the same year.
But in narrative terms the movie is a near total mashup. The gross bowdlerization of Etting's actual life story and the mutual dependecy/use she and her mobster partner and manager husband made of each other is very nearly lost in terms of meaning. It's left instead to the two incredibly different performers to do what only the movies can do. And that's to approach the material from their own performance styles making the real life conflict one of formal approaches. Cagney's is a great old fashioned reading that plays the gamut of emotional, physical and vocal possibilities of an obsessed and ultimately sympathetic bad guy. Doris plays Etting with the single minded determination of a woman who knows exactly what' she's worth, and that aint chopped liver. This could have been one of Doris' textbook pre feminist archetypes, but with all the moral ambiguities the character might have been allowed to display more clearly, if only the text had not been so curtailed by censorship.
A major Doris Day in premium format. I kept wondering how different the approach might have been if Curtiz who mentored Doris' movie career from the beginning (in 1949 with the fantastically good Romance on the High Seas) had helmed, But it has to be acknowledged VIdor manages the essentials with diligence. Long takes, two shots and reverses are all managed with dexterity and expressively underline the two leads' divergences and their all too rare emotional convergences. There's only so much mise en scene you can execute expressively with a completely botched screenplay. The numbers are expertly rendered especially given their existence as entirely diegetic within the framework of a Pasternak produced musical, in sharp contrast to the earlier "freedom" of the Freed Unit's beloved style. The new era of movie musicals was ending and would basically disappear not long after with the Broadway behemoths overtaking the 60s screen. If only for the numbers Love me or Leave me is a major must have.

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