My Sister Eileen (1955)
Although the poster proclaims My Sister Eileen as “that joyous new musical,” this film was actually a re-make of a 1942 version starring Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair. That movie was an adaptation of a 1940 play, which was inspired by short stories written by Ruth McKenney. So it’s not the “newest” thing ever, but it is “joyous.”
McKenney’s stories were based on her own experiences of moving to Greenwich Village with her sister Eileen, and they were published in The New Yorker in the late 1930s before being issued as a book.
But McKenney’s short stories weren’t just made into a book, a play, a movie, this movie-musical, a radio program, and a TV series. Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, the playwrights who originally brought “My Sister Eileen” to the stage, re-worked their play into a Broadway musical with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the writers behind Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Good News), and music by Leonard Bernstein. The musical was called “Wonderful Town,” and it premiered in 1953 with Rosalind Russell in the starring role.
Oddly enough, this 1955 musical of My Sister Eileen contains none of the “Wonderful Town” music. Columbia had bought the rights to the story of My Sister Eileen when they made the 1942 film, and they still owned it. They wanted to make a musical version, but they were unable to come to an agreement with the producer of “Wonderful Town” to use the show’s music and lyrics. But Columbia decided to make a musical anyway, and hired Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write new music. Off they went!
Blake Edwards (yes, Mr. Pink Panther himself) and Richard Quine wrote the screenplay, and Quine directed it. Quine had a long history with My Sister Eileen; he played Frank Lippincott in the 1940 play and the 1942 movie!
Judy Holliday was the studio’s first choice for Ruth, but when negotiations fell through with her, they offered the part to Betty Garrett (Neptune’s Daughter).
Garrett had been unofficially blacklisted because of her marriage to Larry Parks. Parks had once been a member of the Communist Party, and he had been forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. He’d been blacklisted, and his wife’s career stalled, too; she hadn’t appeared in a film since 1949’s On the Town.
Playing the title character is Janet Leigh. This was her first musical, and she spent weeks working with the film’s choreographer, Bob Fosse, before filming began. This is the first film that Fosse choreographed and appeared in. He’d been in several films before, including 1953’s Kiss Me Kate, but this was the first time he got to choreograph the whole film, too. He was fresh off of a successful stint as choreographer on the Broadway musical “The Pajama Game” (he would choreograph the movie version starring Doris Day in 1957), so Columbia gave him a shot.
To the movie! We open on New York City with a cheerful song about the bohemian neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Then Ruth (Betty Garrett) gives us an informative voiceover: “There we are now, the Sherwood sisters. One would-be-writer and one would-be-actress, in search of fame, fortune, and a for-rent sign on Barrow Street. The one in red, that’s me, and the beautiful blonde, that’s my sister Eileen.” The music swells over the title card!
When Ruth says that her sister is beautiful, she isn’t speaking just out of sisterly affection. Men stare at Eileen as she walks down the street, and when she pauses to adjust her shoe, that man’s blow torch accidentally goes off (in a shockingly phallic gesture!) Eileen turns and smiles innocently. She’s gorgeous, but sweet and naive, too.
The Sherwood sisters have just arrived in New York from Ohio, and they’re exhausted after a day of apartment searching. So when Papa Appopolous (Kurt Kasznar, Lovely to Look At) tells them that he has the perfect apartment for rent, they follow him into the basement. Rather trusting, if you ask me, but fortunately this story doesn’t turn into a murder mystery.
As you can see, this is another of those stretched out, crazy-wide CinemaScope films (like Daddy Long Legs, Kismet, and To Catch a Thief, which was shot in the similarly wide VistaVision). The image is almost twice as wide as the standard Academy ratio. For a more detailed discussion of aspect ratios, check out this website.
It’s a terrible basement studio apartment, but Eileen convinces Ruth to take it. She’s tired and overwhelmed, and Big Sister Ruth can’t say no to her little sis, even when it comes to renting this “concrete catacomb!”
Papa has just collected the first month’s rent and bid the sisters goodnight when the entire apartment begins to shake violently! The city is blasting a new subway line just below the Sherwood girls’ new home, so the building periodically convulses.
Papa reassures the Sherwoods that the blasting stops between midnight and six AM, but they’re pretty unhappy.
They decide to tough it out. It’s time for bed, so they put on their pajamas and Ruth does her exercises. What a perfect time for some exposition! Turns out that Ruth has always been smart and driven career-wise, while Eileen has always been a magnet for the opposite sex. She’s a good girl, (the movie is consistently clear about that!) but men seem to lose their heads when confronted with her beauty and charm.
And cue the first song, “As Soon as They See Eileen” sung comically by Ruth as she makes faces in the mirror and applies her various beauty treatments. It’s all about how she’s a nice, presentable girl but no one seems to care “as soon as they see Eileen!” Here’s a sample of the lyrics: “I’m over twenty with plenty of knowledge/I and my college degree/But I’m frankly annoyed; tell me Dr. Freud, what is the matter with me?”
Eventually she’s covered in cold cream and a neck/chin lifter and hairnet. When she goes into the courtyard of the building, a little boy runs screaming when he sees her, which just seems to reinforce her tune. Then Eileen emerges in her “matching” pajamas, except where Ruth wears cropped pants beneath her Asian-inspired tunic, Eileen wears not much at all:
Columbia’s costume designer Jean Louis (the designer of Rita Hayworth’s black strapless dress in Gilda, and the shimmering gown that Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang Happy Birthday to JFK) designed the costumes for this film, and it’s a really fascinating exercise in contrast. Eileen and Ruth are almost always dressed in coordinating but contrasting outfits. Notice how Eileen’s jammies are white with pale blue trim but Ruth’s are pale blue with white trim? Watch for similar touches throughout the movie.
In another cool touch, Ruth typically wears the more traditional late 1940s “sweetheart” silhouette of a cinched-waist and full skirt, while Eileen appears in the newer, tighter “bombshell” or “vamp” silhouette that hugs her prodigious curves. The costumes are just another way of emphasizing the differences between the two sisters: Eileen is beautiful and sexy, and Ruth is plain and smart.
The costumes also play a tricky game with Eileen. Janet Leigh has a teeny-tiny waist and a 1950s torpedo bust–all the trappings of a bombshell. But she’s not a seductress, not in the least, and it’s very important that we trust in Eileen’s innocent goodness (part of the plot is that people often assume the worst about Eileen just because of her appearance). The costumes have to show off her figure and make her look gorgeous enough to turn heads, while maintaining her sweet, girlish character. It’s fun to see how Jean Louis accomplishes this dual, at times-conflicting, task!
Anyway, the Sherwoods are about to go to sleep when they are confronted by another unwelcome surprise. A man bursts into their apartment, but don’t be alarmed:It’s just “Wreck,” (Dick York, the first Darrin on “Bewitched”) who lives upstairs and works as a professional football player and wrestler. He explains his odd situation to the bewildered Sherwood girls. He and his fiancee Helen live upstairs (shocking!); they can’t afford two places but since Helen works nights as a switchboard operator and sleeps during the day, they’re never really in the apartment together. It’s all perfectly innocent. Ruth says she’s not sure she understands, but then she’s from Ohio…Wreck nods and says that would make a difference!
(I like the Wreck/Helen subplot because it reminds me of The More the Merrier!)
Things keep getting worse and weirder. The sisters realize that the curtains on the street-height window don’t close, and there is an obnoxious street lamp right outside. Then Ruth gets a nasty shower from a street cleaner:
A policeman comes by, but instead of helping the sisters, he tells them that he doesn’t put up with any nonsense on his beat and bids them a curt goodnight. Turns out the “palm reader” who had the apartment before the Sherwoods was doing more than telling fortunes…
The next morning, it’s job-hunting time! The girls put on their snappiest pastels and have a brief moment of nervous self-doubt before engaging in a pep-talk musical number with Papa and Wreck.“We’re great but no one knows it!” they sing as they strut down the street!
(I love how the Sherwood girls have perfectly matched shoes for each outfit.) This motivational song gives them enough confidence to board the subway and emerge in Times Square. It’s fun to see New York as it was in the 1950s!
When Eileen drops the paper while fumbling with her change purse, men scurry to help collect the pages. By contrast, when a man bumps into Ruth on the street, causing her stories and articles to spill from her valise onto the ground, not a single person rushes to her aid. It’s a rather cruel moment showing the differences between Ruth and Eileen’s worlds.
Eileen heads to a producer’s office in hopes of auditioning. The secretary tells her that it’s by appointment only, but when the producer sees Eileen, he pulls her right into his office…Eileen doesn’t need appointments.
Meanwhile, Ruth is attempting to meet with Robert “Bob” Baker (Jack Lemmon), a magazine editor who was Ruth’s former boss’s college roommate. She’d sent him some of her stories, and was hoping for good news. She arrives to learn that Bob is heading off on a two-week vacation.
Things just get worse when Bob kindly but firmly criticizes Ruth’s love stories as unrealistic and tragic, and then tactlessly delivers that blow about being a spinster.
He says that he assumed she was a cynical spinster from the stories he read…Nice. You can watch the scene here. It’s very Mad Men how Robert kisses every secretary (and Ruth, accidentally!) on his way out of the office!
So not a great day for Ruth. Let’s check in on the younger Sherwood. Poor Eileen is shell-shocked and discouraged. Apparently she didn’t know about the casting couch, and she wasn’t willing to play ball, so she didn’t get a job. She goes back to the Walgreens for a pick-me-up Coke. Frank Lippincott (Bob Fosse) is thrilled to see her again.
He offers to let her know if he hears of any auditions. He also gives her the Coke for free! New friend.
Fun fact: Eileen’s first foray into the world of acting is a fun example of Jean Louis dressing Eileen as a very good girl. Her baby pink outfit with big buttons, a wide collar, and a swingy skirt is innocent and girlish, and don’t forget that polka dot bow in her hair! This sweet pink confection helps echo and reinforce Eileen’s surprised naiveté at the casting couch policy, and helps the audience know that she definitely did not succumb. How could she, in such an innocent rosy outfit? Imagine how it would change things if Eileen had worn a tight black dress or a sexy red number, perhaps with a matching veiled hat instead of a pink dot hair bow?
So the day didn’t go as planned for either Sherwood sister. But they keep their chins up and keep trying each day. Ruth stays in to work on some new stories, and Eileen heads out to seek auditions. She has taken to enjoying (free) lunches at the Walgreens counter with her new friend Frank. She arrives to hear some exciting news: one of Frank’s friends is a pianist and is playing at an audition that very day. He has promised Frank to give Eileen a chance!
Eileen is thrilled, and the man in the brown hat is intrigued…it’s Chick Clark, a newspaper reporter. Chick is played by Tommy Rall, one of the greatest dancers ever. He’s spectacular–you may have seen him in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as Frank, or in Kiss Me Kate as Bill/Lucentio. He can spin like a top, jump like a jackrabbit, flip, leap, shuffle, and tap dance with the best of them. He just skims the ground, and makes gravity seems optional.
Chick likes what he sees of Eileen, and he just so happens to have a contact at the same audition. He offers to walk Eileen over to the theater, and she gratefully accepts. Then Frank offers to go, too; he knows Chick, and he knows that Chick will move in on Eileen given half the chance. And Frank has a crush on his pretty blond lunch buddy!
Chick and Frank wait outside the theater in a conveniently large, empty space with conveniently spaced crates. Their male egos are aroused, so they decide to release their competitive drives in a dance-off, you know, just like all men do.
It starts with some small competitions, like tricks with hats and jumping through handkerchiefs. Then the real dancing begins! Fosse choreographed it, so expect all his trademarks: shuffling steps, stooped shoulders, tight, small movements, and plenty of attitude!
As you can see, there is also a lot of hat-work, which is very typical of Fosse. He apparently started losing his hair fairly early and was very self-concious about it, so he always wore a hat and liked to use them in his dances, too. It’s obviously lots of fun to watch Fosse perform Fosse choreography, but it’s also fun to see a more classical hoofer like Rall adapt to Fosse’s style.
When I watch Rall dance, I get the feeling that the choreographers just let him go to see what he could do. The height, the speed, the grace combined with incredible precision…it’s always something amazing, and Rall makes it look effortless and joyful.
Fun fact: Jacques d’Amboise, the top male dancer at Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, was wooed to Hollywood to play a brother in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Later, D’Amboise remembered working with Rall: during a break in filming, the dancers were talking about various moves and trying some things out. They agreed that the triple turn (spinning three times in the air) was incredibly difficult and they had only heard of a few people being able to do it.
Well, Tommy Rall quietly stood up, did a triple turn, and sat back down again. D’Amboise, (remember, he was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet), said he was absolutely stunned. So when you watch Rall spin in this dance, just take a moment to remember how difficult it is, because it looks like the easiest thing in the world when he does it!
You can watch this extraordinary dance here. I spent some time as an au pair in the Czech Republic, and one of my kids was a four-year-old boy who loved music and dancing. I showed him this scene, and he just went wild! He’d watch it and try to imitate Fosse and Rall–it was the cutest.
Anyway, just after the back flip, a furious Eileen storms out of the theater. Turns out that the audition was for a burlesque show; she is humiliated and very angry at her two “friends” for sending her to strip!But they’re still invited for dinner…
Ruth is thrilled to hear that Bob likes one of her stories, “My Sister Eileen,” about a beautiful woman who can wrap men around her little finger! I’m thrilled about the way that Ruth’s costume fits in so perfectly with Bob’s decor. Notice the watercolor painting of the brunette woman in a red hat and red jacket behind Ruth? That’s interesting, because Ruth has dark hair and is wearing a red hat with a big red corsage…And notice how the red pillows provide a pop of color, just as Ruth’s red accents liven up her black dress?It reminds me of how Gene Kelly and Judy Garland match or coordinate in Summer Stock, signaling their eventual perfect coupledom.
Anyway, Bob really liked her story, and he says that he would like to meet this Eileen; she sounds like quite a girl! Ruth decides to fib. She is still smarting from Bob’s earlier comments about her spinsterdom and her writing, so she tells him that she doesn’t even have a sister, and that the story is based on her own experiences! She is Eileen!
Bob suddenly becomes interested in Miss Sherwood, and he invites her to dinner. She’s pretty excited to accept for the next evening.
But first she has to have dinner with Eileen and her suitors. She’s tired and not looking forward to chaperoning her sister. Nice petticoat, though!
Song break! Ruth feels downcast and pessimistic as she faces dinner with two men enamored with her sister and no men enamored with her. So Eileen sings a song extolling love’s virtues, and when that’s not enough, she puts on Wreck’s football helmet, shoes, and jacket to dance a minuet:
There’s nothing like a cross-dressing dance with your sister to cheer you up! Soon Ruth feels renewed and ready to face Chick and Frank.
Naturally, the pot of spaghetti and meatballs is just beneath the problem spot, and when the clueless repair guy hits it with his hammer, a whole bunch of plaster falls straight into the bubbling pasta. I love how both men turn to comfort Eileen, leaving Ruth alone with the ruined dinner.
This is another fun contrasting costume moment: Ruth in a loose, solid blue dress with longish sleeves, and Eileen in tight, patterned, cap-sleeved pink!
The Sherwoods, Frank, and Chick leave the club but keep the party going. Cut to the tipsy foursome walking by a bandstand in a park. Song break! They each play an imaginary instrument and sing and dance! It’s corny and fun, with more Fosse choreography:
Fun fact: one of Fosse’s biographers, Martin Gottfried, wrote that Bob Fosse rehearsed Leigh and Garrett “until they were ready to drop, having them endlessly repeat a wriggly, knock-kneed, slithering dance that they did in a gazebo. He kept telling the women, ‘You have to do this very tight,’ and he said it so frequently that Betty began to call all the thigh-rubbing choreography ‘shaving your hairs.'” Here’s that move in the middle, but first a “Frankenstein bounce” (my term.)There’s plenty of old-fashioned finale arms:
Even drunken dance scenes must end, and this is the end of this one. The next evening is Ruth’s date with Bob.
They have a lovely time in Bob’s mid-century modern apartment. Notice the brandy dispenser in the middle image! It’s terribly convenient–just tip and pour!
It’s not until the brandy has been flowing that Bob turns from appropriate, respectful man to sleazy seducer quite confident that his prey is just waiting to be caught!
He assumes from Ruth’s story about “Eileen” that she isn’t as innocent as she appears. Surely all those men wouldn’t do all those things for Eileen if they weren’t getting something out of it…wink. He speak-sings a seduction song and pulls it off pretty well, but remember that it’s supposed to be amusing. He certainly doesn’t play it completely straight; he’s trying to push Ruth to admit that she’s not the “Eileen” from the stories. Ruth’s face is hilarious. She really likes Bob but she is out of her league in this seduction scene. You can watch it here.
Ruth eventually runs out of the apartment. Bob just chuckles. He is pretty sure he’s caught her in a lie.
Meanwhile, Frank and Eileen have their own tender love scene in the apartment courtyard. Eileen leaves her hat outside, and Frank perches it on a tree branch and declares his love. He doesn’t know that Eileen is watching:
You can watch their dance here. Fun fact: in scenes where Leigh dances with Fosse, she wears flats instead of high heels to maximize their height difference. (She was 5’5 and he was 5’8).
Their love duet is beautiful and sweet, but things end badly when Frank discovers that Wreck is sleeping in the Sherwood sisters’ apartment. Frank assumes the worst, but in fact it is all very innocent. Helen’s mother is currently visiting, so she is staying in Wreck and Helen’s apartment. Helen’s mom doesn’t know about Helen and Wreck’s living arrangement, so naturally he had to find another place to sleep!
Now things get really serious for the Sherwood sisters. Not only are Eileen and Frank in a serious misunderstanding, but Ruth is deeply upset about Bob. Plus, the girls are out of money, and with no jobs and no prospects, they begin packing to return to Ohio. That is Eileen’s “packing outfit,” apparently.
But just as all seems lost, Ruth gets a phone call from Chick’s editor, asking her to do a human interest story on the Brazilian navy. Away she flies, hoping that this assignment will turn into a job, which will allow them to stay in New York. But there is trickery afoot!
The call is really from Chick, who pawns off his assignment on Ruth so that he can get Eileen alone in the apartment. He is a real sleaze bag. Eileen fights him off and calls for Wreck, who is there in a flash to convince Chick to scram.
It’s nice to have a big tough man within shouting distance, especially when an extremely talented dancer who also happens to be a really nasty guy comes calling.
Eileen changes out of her purple short-shorts and into a pretty pink dress to finish packing. (How did Ruth and Eileen get all of these full-skirted frocks to New York in their normal-size suitcases?) She gets a phone call from Bob, who assumes he is talking to Ruth. Eileen inadvertently spills the beans about her existence; now Bob knows that Ruth does indeed have a sister Eileen!
Things aren’t great for Ruth, either. She arrives at the docks and is set upon by sailors. She flees, followed by excited Brazilians all the way back to her apartment. It would be creepy if it wasn’t played for laughs.
Fun fact: as I mentioned earlier, this musical of My Sister Eileen legally could not infringe on “Wonderful Town,” the Broadway musical based on the same short stories. So an attorney was assigned to the film and sat on set every day to make sure nothing potentially litigious made its way into the movie. Martin Gottfried wrote that “Since the only musical number in the original play was Ruth doing a conga with a group of Brazilian sailors, it was the only song in the movie that resembled anything in the show. The attorney wouldn’t even allow musical numbers to be used in the same spots as in Wonderful Town.”
Their impromptu dance party causes quite a stir. People flood into the tiny apartment, and eventually the police take notice. Cut to jail. Helen, her mother, Ruth, Eileen, and all the sailors have been thrown in the slammer.
Eileen reassures her that she’s pretty great, too, but Ruth is so used to being overlooked that she can’t believe that Bob would want her when he knows about Eileen.
They’re eventually released and head home once again to finish packing. Guess who shows up? I love the way this scene is filmed. At first we see Bob, then Ruth’s disbelieving but hopeful face, before Bob heads straight for Eileen. He asks her about some of the events in Ruth’s story while Ruth watches from the background as her beloved becomes seemingly enchanted with her beautiful sister.
I wish Jack Lemmon had more screen time in this movie. He’s just great.
Guess who shows up behind Eileen? It’s Frank! He realizes that he made a terrible mistake, and he is back to make amends! It’s love all around.
Bob tells Ruth that he wants to publish her story, so she gets a career and her love. It doesn’t seem as though Eileen is going to make it as an actress, but who knows?
In Janet Leigh’s autobiography, she described making this film: “We were a young, spirited, talented, ambitious conglomeration of energies. It was a six-month labour of love. No one wanted it to end, and it was a sobbing group who gathered for the farewell party.” Their “conglomeration of energies” created an exuberant, amusing film with some wonderful moments and must see dances!
Fun Fact: The real Eileen, Ruth McKenney’s sister, married Nathanael West, author of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts.
Not a fun fact: Eileen and West were killed in a car accident on December 22, 1940, just four days before “My Sister Eileen” premiered on Broadway. They were driving to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a friend of West’s, before making their way to New York for the premiere of the play.