THE GREAT BREENING BLOGATHON: “Mean to Me:” Ruth Etting’s Story in 1939 by Tiffany and Rebekah Brannan

This article was written by Tiffany and Rebekah Brannan, the founders of the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society.

Ruth Etting

Ruth Etting was a very popular singer in the 1920s and 30s. In 1938, her career had declined, and she had officially retired by moving to Colorado, but her name was still well-known because of the dramatic court case involving her future ex-husband’s shooting of her new sweetheart, her pianist. Naturally, Hollywood could not resist turning the romantic, dramatic story into a movie. However, when it was made in 1955, time had lessened the fame and significance of the real story. In fact, Love Me Or Leave Me bore little resemblance to the real Ruth Etting story by the time it reached the screen.

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We think that Ruth Etting’s life should have been made into a movie which depicted her life more accurately and really strove to capture her image as “America’s Sweetheart.” It would have been very timely in the late 1930s, when the story was still fresh. In this article, which is in the second category of our first blogathon, “The Great Breening Blogathon,” we are going to describe a movie which could have been made, Mean to Me. We are imagining that Warner Bros. made it in 1939 with Mae Clarke as Ruth Etting, John Barrymore as Mo “the Gimp” Snyder, and James Cagney as Myrl “Aldy” Alderman. Continue reading for the synopsis, production notes, and casting notes.

The story begins in Chicago in 1919. A twenty-two year old girl named Ruth Etting applies for a job as a costume designer at the Marigold Gardens. The proprietor, Fred Johnson, hires her as the assistant to the costume designer, Mrs. O’Donell. Since the salary of this job is meager, and one of the chorus girls just quit, he also hires her as a chorus girl. She is glad to get the job, but she is late to the first rehearsal. The rehearsal pianist and choreographer is Myrl Alderman, who likes to be called Aldy. Ruth quickly proves herself to be a terrible dancer and a tardy chorus girl, since she is too interested in her other job as a costume designer to get to rehearsals on time. During the third rehearsal, Aldy is ready to fire her and says, “I bet you can’t even sing.” When he makes her sing the song alone, he is shocked by how well she sings. He lets her keep her job; as he helps her with her dancing, they get to be good friends. He helps her develop her singing style and tries to cut her dancing to a minimum.

A few months later, the club’s male soloist gets the flu. Aldy tells Mr. Johnson that Ruth is the only one who can really sing, but Mr. Johnson is skeptical because the parts are too low for a girl. Aldy convinces him to give her a chance, then he helps Ruth in the brief time she has to prepare for the show. Singing the low parts makes Ruth adapt her style; as a result, her voice changes from a small, shrill voice into one with the depth and color which would make her famous. She sings “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” Everyone likes her, but Mr. Johnson still has a contract with the other singer, so Ruth must return to the chorus.

One night, the owner of the Marigold Garden’s laundry service, Martin Snyder or Mo the Gimp, stops by the Gardens to strong-arm Mr. Johnson into using his laundry for washing table cloths as well as napkins. Afterwords, he watches the show and notices Ruth because of her bad dancing, recognizing her as the girl who filled in for the male soloist a few weeks before. He sends a note for her to come to his table. She agrees and speaks amiably with the menacing, middle-aged gangster. He tells her that he could get singing jobs for her, but she says that she doesn’t want jobs gotten dishonestly when she realizes that he means crooked business. She goes backstage, and Aldy, who saw her talking with Mo, warns her that Mr. Snyder is extremely possessive and dangerous. He is unscrupulous and taken to drinking, which makes him violent, but he is insecure and sore at the world because he was born with a clubbed left foot and has a weak heart.

At a rehearsal three weeks later, Aldy impersonally tells Ruth that she will be the soloist from now on. She is pleased, despite her concern that this may interfere with her costume designing, but she can’t understand Aldy’s unfriendly attitude toward her. He will hardly talk to her. When she is about to begin the show that night, Ruth demands that Aldy tell her why he is treating her this way. He finally says that he thought that she was a nice girl who would never accept an arrangement with a man like Martin Snyder. In shock, she demands to know what he means. Aldy says that he knows Mo bribed the singer to quit and strong-armed Mr. Johnson into making her the new soloist. Ruth is horrified. She quickly assures Aldy that she didn’t know Mr. Snyder did that; she hasn’t even seen him since that one night at his table. Aldy apologizes but says that it is never a good thing to be indebted to the Gimp for anything, even if you didn’t ask for it. However, she has to go on tonight. She is a huge success; many people come backstage to congratulate her. Among them is Mo, who tells her that she proved herself to be all that he knew she was. He says that, with his help, she can become the biggest singer in Chicago. He is cool and menacing yet strangely sincere as he tells her that he loves her. She says that she doesn’t want that kind of love or that kind of success. As he turns to leave, he says, “Whether you want it or not, you are going to get it. Success is going to be around every corner you turn, and I will be right behind it.”

During the next few months, Ruth gets several new singing jobs. She has realized that she loves singing and the notoriety which has effortlessly come with it. Each new job has fallen right into her lap, and she has accepted it eagerly. Every time she has a new job, she sees Mo in the audience; he always stares at her unsmilingly, pulls a red rose out of his buttonhole, kisses it, and tosses it toward the stage before disappearing. However, he has never approached her or spoken to her since that night in her dressing room. In her dressing room every night, there is a huge bouquet of red roses, which is accompanied by a gift on each opening night. Ruth is certain that the flowers, jewelry, and furs are from Mr. Snyder; although he hasn’t encountered her personally in months, she feels his presence lurking around her.

It is now 1922. Ruth is a very famous singer in Chicago. She has just opened at the swellest night club yet. When she returns to her dressing room, she finds a huge black Ruth Etting ringonyx ring on her vanity. She exclaims in surprise, and Mo steps out of his hiding place in the shadowy corner. He says that he has gotten her to this position, and now he wants something in return. She is startled but says that she didn’t ask for this. He replies that he has spent a small fortune on her, whether she asked for it or not. She angrily opens a closet which is full of his presents to her. “Here, I don’t want your dirty bribes,” she says. “You can take them all back. I won’t be bought that way. I’m not for sale.” He limps quickly toward her and grasps her arm with a thin, fierce hand. She recoils in horror at his touch, but he holds her tightly. “I love you, Ruth,” he says. “I’ve never loved anything before in my life, but I love you. I love your voice, your face, your form, even your hatred of me. Yes, I love that, too. All my life, people have tormented me, mocked me, and finally feared me, but nobody ever just hated me for myself. They were too afraid. I’m not much anymore, but I used to be terribly handsome. I hated my good looks and my great profile because I wasn’t all there. I would have given anything to have been a healthy, whole man, even if an ugly one. My face, which was called charming, seemed like an added insult of a cruel fate. But now I have you. You will keep me company and forget that I am a cripple. You’ll love me, even if you’re only acting. I can give you so Image result for John Barrymoremuch, and you’ll love that. You’ll love fame, and money, and jewels. They’re wonderful. And besides that, you’ll have a manager who will never let you be alone. I’ll take care of you for the rest of my life. You’ll never leave me. I must have you. If I can have every part of you except your heart, I’ll be satisfied. You’ll never find a man who will love you more than I do. You don’t have to marry me now; let me show you first how good I can be to you. Keep this picture.” With that, he pulls an earlier photograph of himself out of his coat and places it on the vanity. “Each night, look at it next to that ring, surrounded by all the things I’ve done for you. You will have to marry me.” Then, he turns and limps out.

A succession of shots and clips shows time passing. Ruth is singing all around town, and Mo is always with her. She sings while he threatens, cajoles, bribes, and fights her career farther up the ladder of success. She will be heard singing her famous songs from the early 1920s.

Finally, it is around ten o’clock on the night of July 16, 1922. Ruth is in her dressing room, taking off her jewelry. She sighs as she sees the onyx ring hanging on a cord around Mo’s picture. Then, the door is violently thrown open; in her mirror, Ruth can see Mo standing in the doorway, staring at her as the door bangs against the wall. She greets him, and he staggers over to her, obviously drunk. He doesn’t say a word as he methodically removes the cord from the picture frame and the ring from the cord. He silently places the ring on Ruth’s finger. He tells her that they are going to be married tonight. Ruth looks horrified and says that she never agreed to marry him. Menacingly, he says, “But you wouldn’t agree to not get married, would you? I don’t just want to be an audience member. I want to take you in my arms and kiss you. I want to know that you really belong to me.” For the first time, Ruth seems to be genuinely frightened by Mo. He grabs her wrist and says, “We’re going to be married – tonight! My darling.” She looks down at his iron-gripped hand on her wrist then back at his face in terror. Fade out.

The next thing you see is a justice of the peace proclaiming Mr. Snyder and Miss Etting to be man and wife. He forcefully kisses her, and she weakly submits. He leads her out of the simple parlor by the arm and whispers that he told her that Crown Point, Indiana, was the perfect place to get married. “I believe you, Marty. You can make all our decisions. You know best.” She sighs and tries to smile, but there are tears in her eyes.

It is now February of 1926. Mo is standing outside a recording studio, bragging to uncomfortable employees about how he got Ruth this recording contract with Columbia. The camera goes into the studio, where Ruth is making her first Columbia recording, “Let’s Talk About My Sweetie.” When she has finished, she exits the studio. As she makes her way to the lobby where Mo is waiting for her, someone calls out to her. She turns and sees Aldy standing there. She is very glad to see him, and he is shocked. He congratulates her on her success, but they are obviously avoiding some subject. Just as she is attempting to leave, Aldy says, “Ruth, why did you do it? Why did you marry him? You didn’t have to. You could have stayed at the Marigold Gardens. You would have become a star eventually. Maybe not as quickly, but it would have happened. You didn’t need him. Why did you marry him, Ruth?” Very quietly, Ruth says, “Aldy, I married him nine tenths out of fear and one tenth out of pity. He wouldn’t take no for an answer; I was afraid. To tell you the truth, I still am. But I’ve got to stay with him. It’s not that I need him; he needs me. If I leave him, he’ll kill me. Besides, I made a serious promise four years ago. I promised to stick by him until death do us part. I’ve got to keep that promise, Aldy. I hope you can understand that.” With that, she turns and walks out to meet Mo as Aldy looks on.

The next sequence shows Mr. and Mrs. Snyder arriving in New York City the next year for Ruth to appear in the Ziegfield Follies. Ruth and Mo enter the theater where she is going to sing for Mr. Ziegfield. She is very nervous about singing for him, but Mo is tipsy and disagreeable. He says that he’d better hire her, with or without Irving Berlin’s recommendation; if he doesn’t, he’ll let him have it. This threat makes Ruth even more nervous. When she goes into Mr. Ziegfield’s office, he tells her to walk across the room and says that she is hired. When she acts surprised, he says that he wanted to see her ankles; he knew she could sing. In the Follies, she is going to sing “Shaking the Blues Away” and do a tap dance. In horror, Ruth realizes that she still can’t dance. Thankfully, in the final rehearsal, Mr. Ziegfield takes her aside and tells her to just leave the stage after she has finished singing. She is a huge Broadway success, and her career continues.

She appears in many hit shows on Broadway in the next couple of years. Numbers from the shows are shown, and some of her hit songs are heard. When she sings “Love Me Or Leave Me” in Ziegfield’s “Simple Simon,” Vitaphone offers her a contract to do short films. Her film career consists of little besides singing and delivering a few lines in each picture. Myrl Alderman is also working in Hollywood; he is a rehearsal pianist for many movies. Sometimes he sees Ruth; he even plays the piano for her a few times, but Ruth hardly ever talks to him for fear of making her husband jealous. Meanwhile, she continues making recordings. As the years pass, though, Mo starts drinking and fighting more. By 1934, hardly any establishments will hire her because of her husband’s disagreeable, belligerent behavior.

In 1936, she thinks it would be a good idea to go to England, since American jobs are scarce. She is hopeful that this will improve their situation. The day after they arrive in London, Mo goes out to walk around town. In the street, he rudely demands that a young man remove his cart from his path. The boy impishly denies, calling him gimpy, and Mo punches him. Within a few minutes, a brawl has blocked the whole street. He manages to duck into an alley when the police arrive, and he lies to Ruth about his injuries when he returns to the hotel. The next day, however, the fight is all over the headlines, along with his name, because someone recognized him. There are several references to his marriage to Miss Etting. Ruth is furious. For the first time in their marriage, she speaks angrily to him. “Why do you have to get into fights everywhere we go? My only joy in life is singing, and now I can’t even do that. It’s a good thing that I’ve saved my money all these years, because I may not have a career any more. Do you think that because you made my career you can destroy it? What do you want me to do now, Mo? I’ve stayed with you all these years. I’ve performed in every job you got me. I’ve worn every costume, I’ve sung every song, and I’ve never complained. But it’s never been enough for you. Even having me hasn’t made you content. You’re angry at the world, Mo. You’re even angry at me. Why are you angry at me? It isn’t my fault that you’re a cripple!” That makes him very angry, and he tries to slap her. She steps back, though, and he stumbles as he misses her. Tears start streaming down her face, and she says, “No, you’re not going to do that to me anymore!” as she runs out crying.

The next day Ruth takes a boat back to America. Mo takes a different boat to America a few days later. When she has arrived, she starts divorce proceedings against him. He does not contest the divorce, but his drunkenness becomes more severe and almost constant. One evening, Ruth is sitting alone in her house, listening to a record of herself singing “Mean to Me.” There is a knock at the door, and Aldy bursts in when Ruth opens it. He has read about the divorce in the papers, and he had to come and see her now that she is free. She looks at him sadly and says, “I’m not free, Aldy. Not spiritually. Yes, I’m no longer legally Mrs. Snyder; I couldn’t take him anymore. He was so mean to me. But I’ll never feel like I’m legally free as long as he’s alive. I’m still his wife. If I had anything to do with another man, I’d feel unfaithful to him. Whatever you do, keep thinking of me as Mrs. Snyder.” He leaves looking very disturbed.

Next, it is New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1937. Ruth is stirring a pot of soup on the stove when she hears the doorbell ring.  Aldy is standing outside, holding a bouquet of flowers. He says that he had no one with whom to spend New Year’s Eve and asks to come in for a few minutes. She reluctantly lets him in. However, as she goes to the kitchen to get them some soup, it is obvious that she is glad that he is here. He starts to play “Something to Sing About” on the piano in her living room. She asks him what that is, and he says that it is a song he wrote for a picture that year. He adds, “You should have seen it; it was a swell picture.” He sings the song, and she joins in a little at the end.

After they have eaten, he asks her to sing a song for him. He starts playing “I Still Keep Dreaming of You.” When she finishes, he says, “Oh, Ruth, you know that’s how I feel about you. I guess I never realized it back in Chicago at the Marigold Gardens. You were just a girl then. Maybe I needed to lose you to realize how much I love you. Oh, Ruth, you can’t live in the past all your life. Please, Ruth. I love you. Won’t you marry me?” Ruth sadly replies that she can never get remarried as long as Mo is alive. Crushed, Aldy leaves.

A few weeks into the new year, Mo calls Ruth and tells her that she has not paid him the full settlement decided with their divorce. She protests that she did and that he knows it. He then says that he knows she’s been seeing Myrl Alderman. She says that she hasn’t; she’s still faithful to him even though they are divorced. She says that he must be drunk, and he hangs up. During the next few weeks, he calls her several times. Finally, he threatens to come to California and kill her. She gets police protection after that, but he never shows up. Ruth sends Aldy a letter warning him never to come near her for fear of Mo’s jealousy.

Months pass. On October 15, Aldy is playing the piano for a radio program. Afterwords, he exits the building. As he walks around the corner, Mo comes behind him and sticks a gun into his back. Terrified, Aldy looks behind him and says, “What do you want, Mr. Snyder?” “Take me to Ruth,” Mo growls. When they get to the door, her recording of “Shine on Harvest Moon” can be heard from inside. The door isn’t locked, so Mo calmly opens it and walks in behind Aldy, who cannot escape because of the gun. Ruth, who is sitting on the couch sketching, gasps when she sees Mo. “Mo, what are you doing?” she exclaims in horror. “Stand here together and don’t talk,” he says sottishly. They stand in front of him in horror. “Since you two are such sincere, romantic sweethearts, I thought you would want to die here together. Ruth belongs to me. She wouldn’t be mine anymore, so now she won’t be anyone’s. It’s something like that popular song you sang, Ruth. I’d rather be lonely than let you be happy with somebody else. I’m going to kill you both now. Don’t speak. Goodbye, my darling.” As he raises the gun, Aldy says, “No, you can’t kill her,” and rushes toward him. Mo shoots him, and he falls to the ground. Turning to Ruth, Mo says, “I’ve had my revenge, so you can call the police.” She has rushed over to Aldy’s motionless body; she looks up in horror at Mo, who is breathing hard and pressing his hand to his heart. Fade out.

The next morning, Ruth is pacing around in her living room. The telephone rings, and she answers anxiously. The voice on the other end tells her that Aldy’s wound was just a minor flesh wound in the shoulder and that he is recovering well. She sighs relief, but the newspaper on the table which reports the previous night’s scandal reminds her that her troubles have not yet ended.

A few days later, Ruth is sleeping. She is awakened by the telephone ringing. When she answers, a reporter on the other end asks her what her feelings are about her ex-husband’s death. In disbelief, she asks him to repeat what he said. He says that Martin Snyder died in prison at three o’clock that morning of a massive heart attack. She absentmindedly hangs up, rushes to open the front door, and picks up the morning newspaper. Across the front page is the headline “Martin ‘the Gimp’ Snyder dies in prison!” She gasps, and the camera focuses on her face as tears of confusion and relief begin to roll down her cheeks.

Ruth’s front door is seen from an unseen person’s point of view; Ruth’s voice singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” with sparse piano accompaniment can be heard through the door. The unseen person knocks. When there is no answer, he opens the door and walks into the living room. We can now see Ruth sitting at the piano in a black house dress with her hair loose. She is still singing and playing. Suddenly, she seems to sense the person’s presence. She stops playing, and she turns to look at the camera. We cut to her point of view, and we see that Aldy is the guest. His left arm is in a sling, and he looks solemn but hopeful. “Aldy,” Ruth sobs, looking at him with tender longing and sincere affection. “Are you free now, Ruth?” he asks timidly. “Yes, I’m free for the rest of my life, Aldy, unless you have something else in mind,” she responds. “Yeah, I do,” he says, sitting down on the bench next to her. He starts playing the introduction to “On A Little Dream Ranch.” He says, “I was born in a little town called Colorado Springs. There’s a lot of beautiful land up there.” Ruth starts to help him with the left hand part, since he can’t play much with that hand because of his injury. “We could go up there and start a new life for ourselves, together. Do you remember a song you recorded last year that went something like this?” He begins to play the melody to the song. She nods and smiles. “Will you sing it for me, Ruth?” She begins to sing the song, the lyrics to which are very appropriate. After she sings through it once, they smile at each other fondly, and the scene fades to them riding horses side by side on a ranch as the song plays instrumentally in the background. They dismount at their ranch house, and he puts his hands on her arms. She sings the last phrase of the song. As the music swells, they kiss. THE END. WARNER BROS. PICTURES, INC.

We hope that Warner Bros. would have been able to persuade Ruth Etting to overdub all her singing for this movie and to act as a technical advisor. Unlike Love Me Or Leave Me, this picture is at least trying to be accurate to her life story. The theme song, Mean to Me, will first be introduced in 1929. Ruth is preparing to sing at a night club engagement which Mo arranged, as usual. He is sitting in her dressing room, holding a glass of whisky, obviously very drunk. She is getting ready behind a dressing screen. She gasps, and he asks what the problem is. She comes out with her robe draped over her shoulders. She says that she is shocked by how revealing the costume is. We will make it as revealing as we can within the limits of good taste. He says that it looks good, but she says that it embarrasses her. He grows angry and says that she doesn’t think that he knows what is best for her. He slaps her across the face. She turns away, and he storms out. Then, he sits in the audience as she comes onto the stage and sings “Mean to Me” for the first time. Throughout the whole song, she looks right at him with a sadness in her eyes which is so deep that it is almost accusing. He can hardly bear to look at her, but her gaze never leaves his face. As she repeats, a single tear rolls down her cheek. Throughout the movie,  the song will be played any time that Mo mistreats Ruth.

 

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We think that Mae Clarke would have been grand as Ruth Etting because, to quote Rebekah, “she acted the parts that Ruth Etting sang.” Her career was largely on the decline by 1939, which is really a shame, since she wasn’t yet thirty and still had lots of talent. She was just unlucky. Maybe, since we are just hypothesizing, this movie could revive her career! She was excellent in roles of mistreated women. As an added bonus, she looked rather like Miss Etting.

When we saw John Barrymore as Nikolai in Maytime, we realized that he could have played Mo Snyder well. He would have been very brooding and menacing. Although his career, his health, and his mental facilities were failing by 1939, he still could act. He would have been extremely convincing in this role. He would have been somewhat pathetic, but there wouldn’t have been the strong sympathy angle that there was with James Cagney as Mr. Snyder. Mr. Barrymore didn’t look too much like Mr. Snyder, but they aren’t terribly different.

James Cagney would be an excellent other man in the story. He could play the piano, he could sing, and we all know that he could do dance demonstrations. Plus, he had an interesting background with Mae Clarke. Despite the violent scenes in their two pre-Code films, they had swell on-screen chemistry. It might take a lot of persuasion, but I think we will have to convince Jack Warner to avoid a grapefruit joke in this picture. We don’t want to cheapen it. Besides, we need one box office draw in this picture, since Mae Clarke and John Barrymore were hasbeens by 1939. Mr. Cagney didn’t look at all like the real Myrl Alderman, but that doesn’t matter.

The main breening that had to be done to the true story was the elimination of Mr. Snyder’s first wife, Mr. Alderman’s first two wives, and Mr. Snyder himself at the end. The important thing is also to show that Ruth won’t marry Aldy as long as Mo is alive. However, we wouldn’t want anyone to think that we just killed Mr. Snyder so that Ruth and Aldy could get together in the end. To make his death seem convincing, he should display a bad heart throughout the picture. Whenever he gets angry, he should put his hand to his heart and breathe heavily to show its weakness.

We hope that you enjoyed reading our ideas for a movie about Ruth Etting which could have been made under Joseph Breen’s direction of the Production Code Administration. We would love to hear your thoughts on this film idea, Love Me Or Leave Me, and Ruth Etting’s story in general. Thank you for reading this entry in “The Great Breening Blogathon.” Be sure to read the other marvelous articles which will be submitted to the Breenathon over the weekend. “Can’t you see what it means to me?”

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2 thoughts on “THE GREAT BREENING BLOGATHON: “Mean to Me:” Ruth Etting’s Story in 1939 by Tiffany and Rebekah Brannan

  1. Pingback: EXTRA: “The Great Breening Blogathon!” | pure entertainment preservation society

  2. Pingback: THE GREAT BREENING BLOGATHON: DAY 1! | pure entertainment preservation society

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