|My Sister Eileen (1942)
Run time: Approved | 96 min | Comedy
Director: Alexander Hall
Writers: Joseph Fields, Jerome Chodorov
Stars: Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, Janet Blair
When two sisters from small-town Ohio arrive in New York to pursue their careers, and take a slipshod Greenwhich Village flat, the fun begins. This sparkling comedy has laughs galore and it’s all Roz.<email@example.com>
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'My Sister Eileen' is based on true incidents. Ruth and Eileen McKenney were sisters from a small town in Ohio who came to New York City: Ruth intending to become an author, Eileen hoping to be an actress. Although Ruth McKenney sold a few magazine pieces, her most successful work was her series of fictionalised articles about the misadventures of her younger sister Eileen. The stories themselves have been out of print for many years, but they provided the basis for a popular play, 'My Sister Eileen' (NOT written by Ruth McKenney), which was a long-running Broadway hit and which has remained in print ever since. Ruth McKenney ironically gained fame and wealth from a play written by two other people, based on her stories.
The real Eileen McKenney ended badly. A pretty actress with more looks than talent, she married the overrated screenwriter Nathanael West and she died alongside him in West's fatal car accident.
The 1942 film 'My Sister Eileen' is a faithful (and funny) version of the Broadway hit, although it bears only slight resemblance to the real-life exploits of sisters Ruth and Eileen McKenney (here renamed Sherwood). Rather unusually, this movie was made at Columbia Studios *during* the play's Broadway run. Two of the best performances here are given by actors repeating their stage roles: Gordon Jones as an obsessive football player named 'The Wreck', and Richard Quine as nice young man Frank Lippincott, who fancies Eileen.
Small-town sisters Ruth and Eileen come to the big city. Ruth (Rosalind Russell) is smart, cynical, and doesn't need a man. Eileen (Janet Blair) is naive and pretty and attracts all the lads. Because the sisters haven't got much money, the only place they can afford is a basement flat in Greenwich Village, owned by a crooked landlord named Appopolous (George Tobias, not up to his usual high standard here). The flat is directly above a subway tunnel, where construction workers are blasting with dynamite: at regular intervals, the whole building shakes. Worse luck, the previous tenant was a young lady who (ahem!) rented by the hour, and so Ruth and Eileen are constantly plagued with male visitors who assume that their apartment is still, erm, open for business. Ruth and Eileen have no end of misadventures while trying to start their careers as, respectively, a journalist and an actress.
BIG SPOILER STARTING NOW. The last gag in this movie is absolutely hilarious. All through the film, we hear the sounds of the subway navvies directly under Ruth's and Eileen's apartment. At the very end of this movie, a jackhammer pokes up through the floor and three construction workers emerge. When they pull off their helmets, we see that they're Moe, Larry and Curly! Moe lambastes his two 'knucklehead' workmates while the soundtrack starts playing the 'Three Stooges' theme tune!
In 1953, Betty Comden and Adolph Green approached Rosalind Russell to star in a Broadway musical version of 'My Sister Eileen' with music by Leonard Bernstein, to be called 'Wonderful Town'. (The original title wasn't legally available.) I really dislike 'Wonderful Town': it has a score which I consider extremely pretentious. Rosalind Russell, to her credit, had no illusions about her own song-and-dance abilities. 'Wonderful Town' was never filmed, because Columbia had retained the musical rights … and they made their OWN musical version in 1955, with tunes by Jule Styne that are vastly better than anything "Lenny" Bernstein ever wrote. Interestingly, Richard Quine (who hed acted in the original film and the Broadway cast) directed the musical remake, and his role as Frank Lippincott was taken over by Bob Fosse, giving his best performance as an actor and choreographing some snappy dance numbers as well. I strongly recommend both film versions of 'My Sister Eileen', which is more than I can say for the overrated 'Wonderful Town'. I'll rate this 1942 version 9 points out of 10. Well done!
Rosalind Russell was one of the finest comediennes in the American movies, and this in a period which saw the likes of Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn and others. Russell was a rarity: though all the others often played dizzy women, in her comedies, Russell always played smart, hard-edged career women (the exception was her first major comedy role, as the catty Sylvia in THE WOMEN).
At a time when HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS is set to open, with its lackadaisical heroine pursuing a writing career as she tries to make sense of her romantic entanglements, it behooves us to remember MY SISTER EILEEN, which (when it was filmed in 1942) is the prototype, as the two Sherwood sisters (Ruth, played by Rosalind Russell, and her younger sister Eileen, played by Janet Blair) come to New York City to try their hands at writing (for Ruth) and acting (for Eileen). The slapstick annoyances, the charmingly maladroit Greenwich Village denizens (part ethnic, part "bohemian"), the stereotypical romantic encounters, all make for a charming entertainment. In the wake of the sexual frankness of HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, MY SISTER EILEEN might seem dated, but it's a lovely reminder of the wit and the humor of the generation growing up during World War II, when women were (again) finding new possibilities in the workplace, but still had the same problems finding proper dates.
The film begins in Columbus, Ohio and young Eileen has visions of stardom on the stage–though she only has worked in community theater. Her older sister, Rosalind Russell, is an aspiring writer and they agree to both go to New York to seek fame and fortune. Along the way, they meet a bazillion crazy characters who wander into their basement apartment faster than is humanly possible. And, yes, I truly do mean wander into the apartment. It's like Grand Central Station in there and after a while the gimmick just doesn't make sense. Subtle it ain't!
MY SISTER EILEEN is a screwball comedy that is very, very aware that that is exactly what it should be. While often cute and enjoyable, all too often the film seems to think that by being too loud, too chaotic and too goofy, it will be a successful film. Personally, I enjoyed it but wish they'd perhaps slowed the whole thing down and tried for at least some subtlety and style. It made the pacing of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and BRINGING UP BABY seem absolutely slow by comparison!! Throughout this film, whenever the action seems to slow, the film makers seem to just randomly toss characters into the mix with the instructions "act kooky"–sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. As a result, it's a very hit or miss production. However, fortunately, the film ends on a very high note with a surprise (and funny) cameo appearance. I won't say more–it might spoil the fun.
Overall, it's a good time-passer and a decent film, but don't expect magic.
ROSALIND RUSSELL was always at her best in comedies and here she had a role that got her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 1942–and it's easy to see why. She's downright hilarious as the gal from Ohio with writing ambitions and a pretty blonde sister (JANET BLAIR) with a penchant for attracting men and trouble.
All the wacky situations stem from their Greenwich Village basement apartment which seems to have more visitors than Grand Central Station. It's all exaggerated fluff, but it works, thanks to a fine cast and sterling performances.
RICHARD QUINE and GORDON JONES do repeats of their Broadway roles, and DONALD MacBRIDE as a policeman who wants quiet on his route is hilarious. JUNE HAVOC makes a brief appearance as a medium who used to live in the girls' apartment. GEORGE TOBIAS, as the opportunistic landlord with the Greek accent, is at his funniest in a colorful supporting role.
My favorite moment is the conga sequence with Russell and Blair trying to get rid of sailors who don't speak a word of English, creating a disturbance that lands Blair in jail. Janet Blair is pleasant as the blonde bombshell but it's Russell who milks the most out of her role and gets all the laughs. She's terrific.
BRIAN AHERNE does what he can with the role of the talkative editor, but it's not much of a part. Still, he adds a certain debonair charm to the role.
Summing up: Notable chiefly as a terrific vehicle for Russell's unique brand of comic talent.