If you don’t like old pop standards (I do, and found myself humming “The Man I Love” constantly for about a day after I watched this movie), then you’d better like “women’s pictures,” because that’s what this is. (I’ve seen The Man I Love called a film noir, but it’s not. Half the movie takes place in nightclubs, and there’s a hint of criminal malice every now and then, but that alone does not a noir make.)
The most prominent tune is the one that gives the film its title, George and Ira Gershwin’s sublime “The Man I Love” — both as a smoky nightclub number and as a constant refrain in Max Steiner’s lissome score — but there are plenty of other great songs, like Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Why Was I Born?” and James P. Johnson and Henry Creamer’s “If I Could Be With You.” There are also tunes just tinkled out on the piano, like George Gershwin’s “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” and Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” suffusing the film with a nostalgic languor that’s a nice counterpoint to all the melodrama.
When New York nightclub singer Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) packs her bags for Los Angeles to visit her siblings, she’ll find love, lose love, flirt with danger, and leave things a little better off than she found them. The poster for The Man I Love features the following tagline: “There should be a law against knowing the things I found out about men!” This is a bit of an overstatement, since most of what Petey finds out about men in this picture is what most clear-eyed women already know; most of them are rotten, some are crazy, some are sweet but naive and dim-witted, and the few you fall for are probably in love with another dame who they’ll never get over.
Petey’s sister Sally Otis (Andrea King) has a young son and a husband, Roy Otis (John Ridgely), who’s languishing in a ward for shell-shocked soldiers. Sally lives with the youngest Brown sister, Ginny (Martha Vickers), who’s 18 and should be enjoying life, but instead spends most of her time caring for the infant twins of their across-the-hall neighbors, Johnny and Gloria O’Connor (Don McGuire and Dolores Moran). Joe Brown (Warren Douglas) — the girls’ brother — is hip-deep in trouble. He’s working for a slimy nightclub owner named Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) and seems destined for a one-way trip to the big house.
There are a few potentially interesting stories that never really go anywhere, such as Ginny’s attraction to Johnny, whose wife is two-timing him, and Sally’s relationship with her mentally ill husband. For better and for worse, Lupino is the star of The Man I Love, and her dangerous dealings with Nicky Toresca and her doomed romance with a pianist named San Thomas (Bruce Bennett) who’s given up on life dominate the running time of the picture.
The actors are all fine, and the stories are involving, but it’s the music that elevates this picture. Ida Lupino expertly lip synchs her numbers, which were sung by Peg La Centra (who can be seen in the flesh in the 1946 film Humoresque, singing and playing the piano in two scenes in a dive bar).
There’s also at least one allusion to a popular song in the dialogue. When Petey sees the twins and asks “Who hit the daily double?” Gloria responds gloomily, “Everything happens to me,” which is the title of a Matt Dennis and Tom Adair song first made popular by Frank Sinatra when he was singing for Tommy Dorsey’s band. There are probably other little in-jokes like that sprinkled throughout, but that was the only one I caught.