My Sister Eileen (1942)

Film Review

MY SISTER EILEEN

Release Date: 24 September, 1942

Studio: Columbia

Director: Alexander Hall

Stars: Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, Janet Blair, Gordon Jones, Allyn Joslyn

Writers: Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, from their play of the same name

Cinematographer: Joseph Walker

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2014

My Sister Eileen was shown as part of the Family in the Movies: The Ties That Bind theme at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. The guest speaker was Lance Brisson, son of actress Rosalind Russell.

Synopsis

Two sisters from Columbus, Ohio, erstwhile writer Ruth (Russell) and aspiring actress Eileen (Blair) Sherwood rent a basement apartment in Greenwich Village. A subway tunnel is being blasted nearby. After they object to drunks ogling them through the window, a policeman warns them not to make a disturbance. "The Wreck" (Jones), who lives upstairs, asks if he can sleep in their kitchen while his mother–in-law visits.

Ruth goes to "Manhatter" magazine with a manuscript. After getting into the middle of an argument between the editor and the publisher, Ruth runs out , accidentally leaving her manuscript with editor, Robert Baker (Aherne).

Meanwhile Eileen has gone to a theatrical agency looking for a job. She meets reporter Chic Clark (Joslyn) who immediately decides he wants to "interview" the pretty young woman. Clark follows Eileen home and sends Ruth away on a false story so he can "interview" Eileen alone. Editor Baker, intrigued with Ruth's story, visits the apartment and rescues Eileen from Clark.

Ruth’s supposed story was about the docking of Portuguese Merchant Marine fleet at the Brooklyn navy yard. The Portuguese marine cadets follow Ruth back to the apartment; in the resulting confusion Eileen is arrested and spends the night in jail.

At dinner, Baker advises Ruth to write about something she knows, Eileen's adventures in NY.

Dad Sherwood and Grandma visit. Jones is revealed to be sleeping in the sister's apartment. Eileen comes home, and her father learns she spent the night in jail. He demands his daughters return to Ohio. Baker arrives with a check for Ruth’'s story about Eileen. The landlord declares that blasting has ended, and the sisters take a six months' lease. Everybody goes out to dinner. Three workmen drill through the floor and pop out of the subway tunnel.

Discussion

Innocents pursuing careers in the big city, the sisters, trusting, friendly Eileen and cautious, sharp-tongued Ruth, encounter wacky people and odd events as they adjust to life in their small basement apartment. Beautiful, innocent Eileen attracts attention; events revolve around her. Ruth's success comes from writing about Eileen's adventures. Their family in Ohio worries about the dangers of city life, needlessly (it's a comedy, the sisters are never really threatened).

Lightweight, wholesome, lacking raciness, the comic effect depends on the unusual setting, the eccentric characters, and the series of amusing events. The contrasting personalities of the sisters and their mutual affection anchor the plot.

The workmen who pop up through the floor as a final gag are the Three Stooges, totally befuddled.

The hit play My Sister Eileen opened on Broadway in late 1940, starring Shirley Booth as Ruth, and was still running in September 1942 when the film was released. The play closed in January 1943 after 864 performances. Gordon Jones, who had been a star football player at UCLA, also played "The Wreck" in the original Broadway production.

Russell, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, nicely captures the personality of Ruth: her intelligence, acerbic qualities, dedication to her writing, and affection for her sister. Russell's film career began in 1934; during the thirties, she received conventional romantic roles; although she played them well, the softness of such parts did not quite suit her strong features, husky voice, and assured manner. Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) cast her in a suitable part as a tough newspaper reporter, equal to her male colleagues. In the forties she frequently played self-directed, assertive career women. Russell made three comedies with Brian Ahern whose easygoing personality was a good match for her forceful one.

Eileen Sherwood, the most significant role in her film career, fit Janet Blair perfectly: pretty, vivacious, with a rather one-dimensional personality. Blair, a band singer signed by Columbia Pictures, made her first film in 1941, at age 20. Russell recommended the appealing and lively young actress for My Sister Eileen, her fifth film. Subsequently, Columbia cast Blair in a series of programmers, with the exceptions of Once Upon a Time (1944), co-starring Cary Grant, and Gallant Journey (1946), co-starring Glenn Ford and directed by William Wellman. Having made no particular impact as a film actor, Blair's contract was dropped by Columbia in 1948. She continued her career in television and theater. During the national tour (starting April 1950) of South Pacific, Blair played Nellie Forbush over 1200 times. Blair returned to films in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In England, she co-starred with Peter Wyngarde in the atmospheric Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn, 1962), a version of Fritz Leiber's horror novel Conjure Wife (1943). She appeared in numerous TV shows, including as Henry Fonda’s wife in The Smith Family (1971-1972) and continued to appear regularly until the early 1980s. Her last TV appearance was a role on Murder, She Wrote in 1991.

Guest Introduction

Lance Brisson, son Rosalind Russell, talked about his parents:

During the making of His Girl Friday, Russell thought Cary Grant was asking her out and was somewhat disappointed when he introduced her to another chap who had seen her on screen and wanted to meet her. Frederick Brisson, "the other chap", knew Grant when he was still Archibald Leach; Grant acted as his go-between. Russell soon got over her disappointment, as Brisson won her affection. They married in 1941. Brisson was an important producer on Broadway with several hit plays, and he produced nine films. He produced the stage and film versions of hit musicals Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955).

After Hollywood dried up a bit for her in the late 1940s, Russell took the risk of going back on stage. She was dedicated to her career, took all her roles seriously, and was determined to continue acting. Russell toured with Bell, Book and Candle (1952); on Broadway, she won a Tony for Wonderful Town (1953-1954), the musical version of My Sister Eileen, then did Auntie Mame (1956-1958) the most acclaimed role of her career.

References

Janet Blair, 85, Actress in Films Who Shifted to TV in ‘50’s, Dies. New York Times. February 22, 2007