My Sister Eileen (1942)
My Sister Eileen was an adaptation of a play that premiered in December 1940, which in turn was inspired by short stories written by Ruth McKenney in the 1930s.
McKenney’s stories were based on the crazy escapades that she and her sister Eileen experienced when they moved from Ohio to Greenwich Village. The stories were published in The New Yorker before being issued as a book called My Sister Eileen in 1938.
They proved to be extremely popular. Besides becoming a book, a play, and this 1942 film, McKenney’s work was also adapted into a 1953 Broadway musical, a 1955 movie-musical, a radio program, and a TV series.
I chose My Sister Eileen because the main character, Ruth Sherwood, is a reporter and aspiring author. Be sure to check out all the posts and fantastic blogs participating this year!
Back to My Sister Eileen. The play based on McKenney’s stories premiered in 1940 and ran for three years, closing in January 1943.
(In a tragic turn of events, Ruth McKenney’s sister, the real Eileen, and her husband Nathanael West (author of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts), were killed in a car accident on December 22, 1940, just four days before My Sister Eileen opened 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.)
As you can tell from its three-year run, the play was highly successful, so it’s no wonder that Columbia snapped up the rights to make this movie, reportedly shelling out $225,000 for the property.
But it is a little unusual that the studio released the film while the play was still running. This meant that audiences could watch Shirley Booth play Ruth onstage and then head to their nearest movie theater to watch Rosalind Russell tackle the part onscreen. And because Richard Quine and Gordon Jones appeared in the play and in the movie, audiences could compare the two actors’ performances. Also, Max Gordon produced both the stage and screen versions, so they have that in common, too.
Fun fact: Richard Quine would have a long history with My Sister Eileen. Not only did he play Frank Lippincott on Broadway and in the 1942 movie, but he and Blake Edwards would go on to write the screenplay for the 1955 musical version. Then Quine directed it!
As you can see from the ad heralding Columbia’s purchase of Pal Joey and My Sister Eileen, the studio definitely tried to capitalize on the play’s success. The play loomed large over the movie; the well-publicized connection between the two and the fact that the play was still running on Broadway when the movie premiered contributed to the way the film was received. For instance, the majority of Bosley Crowther’s review of the film in The New York Times is concerned with comparing the movie to the play. He wrote of the movie’s premiere that:
…now those few million people who haven’t already seen it on the stage can catch a virtual facsimile of the original play, still running at the Martin Beck. For this boisterous and sprawling screen version, which Max Gordon has also produced, pulls the same gags, same rough-house comedy and draws the same gleeful response. Indeed, about the only difference in content between the film and the play derives from a cautious modification of some of the latter’s more ribald lines. The Hays office naturally put its foot down on the bandying of certain loose words. But not very hard. The implications of the original are still easy to detect and the baseless assumptions provoked by two pretty young ladies living alone in a Village basement “apartment” still generally motivate the show.
To the film!
We open on a newspaper office in Columbus, Ohio, where Ruth Sherwood (Rosalind Russell) bangs away at her typewriter. (Russell famously played another reporter in His Girl Friday (1940); you can see her in that role in the blogathon banner above.) She’s writing a hyperbolically positive review of the actress starring in a local production of “A Doll’s House.” When she finishes, Ruth hands her article to a colleague, reminds him that he promised to print a big picture of the actress along with the review, and then hurries away.
This might all have been fine, except that the actress is Ruth’s sister, Eileen (Janet Blair). And she handed in the review before the play ever started…in fact, she’s in a rush to make it to the theater before the curtain rises.
Again, this might all have been okay, though certainly dubious ethically, except that Eileen doesn’t actually go on that night. The Columbus Little Players had chosen to star two different actresses in the production, and they’d flipped a coin to see who would play the part on the first night. Eileen won, but at the last minute, the other actress (whose father is the owner of the newspaper where Ruth works) pulled some strings so that his daughter could go on opening night.
Eileen is inconsolable, and even though Ruth tries to trip the other actress on her way to the stage, there is nothing the Sherwoods can do. (Remember that: this dynamic where Eileen whines while Ruth actually tries to do something is a constant throughout the movie.) They return home with their father (Grant Mitchell) and their grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson.)
But it turns out to be just the kick in the pants the girls needed! They’d been wanting to move to New York City for a while, and there is nothing left for them in Columbus after this humiliating night.
Their father doesn’t want his daughters to go, but their grandmother is wonderfully supportive of their career goals. She tells their dad that Ruth needs to be around publishers, and she can’t be expected to just wait around Columbus for some “local dope” to marry her. And Eileen wants to make it on Broadway!
It’s really cool and a little unexpected that Grandma Sherwood is so supportive of her granddaughters’ unconventional dreams. One gets the feeling that she may have wanted to do something else in her life, too, and perhaps didn’t get the chance. So she’s going to make sure that her granddaughters get a shot.
The next morning, Grandma Sherwood surprises Ruth with a new typewriter (made me choke up a little!) and helps the girls pack. They are going to be late getting to the bus station, but don’t worry! Eileen knows the driver, and she asked him to swing by their house. So the sisters board the shiny Greyhound bus just steps from their front door! This is a recurring theme: Eileen is gorgeous and men seem to fall under her spell almost immediately, leaving Ruth to roll her eyes when yet another man goes out of his way for one of Eileen’s smiles. But Eileen remains a sweet, mostly innocent girl despite her power.
The “difference” between Ruth and Eileen is an important element in the movie. Eileen is beautiful and alluring and constantly pursued by men. She’s also naive and far too trusting. Ruth is “plain” and has no experience with men because they never notice her. But she’s smart, independent, and capable. It’s a typical contrast: sisters in classic movies (and modern ones) are often split on that spectrum.
Anyway, as their father and grandmother watch the bus pull away, he snappishly says, “I hope you’re happy, Mother.” He’s upset that his little girls are gone. Grandma says, with tears in her eyes, “It’s the happiest day of my life.” It’s my favorite moment of the movie.
The Sherwood sisters arrive in New York and Eileen wants to spend some of their precious cash on a hotel room because she is tired. But Ruth refuses–they’re going to be frugal and find an apartment that night. Also, they’re not going to take any more money from their father. They’re in New York to get jobs, so that’s what they’re going to do!
But it’s slow going. They’re exhausted by the time they get to Greenwich Village to see the last apartment on the list. They landlord, Mr. Appopolous (George Tobias) rushes them into the basement apartment.
It’s not ideal–tiny, dirty, oddly furnished, practically open to the street above, and uncomfortable. But Eileen says that she can’t walk another step (she’s annoyingly weak) and Appopolous seizes that opening and promises the girls that he will refund their rent if they want to move out after 30 days. Ruth reluctantly agrees, mostly because Eileen is being a real baby.
But as Appopolous leaves, there is an explosion and the building shakes horribly. He tells them not to worry: it’s just blasting for the new subway! The Sherwood sisters want their money back then and there, but it’s too late. They’re stuck.
Things just get worse from there. There is no window shade and a street lamp nearby shines directly into the apartment so it remains light even at night. Cats and dogs can squeeze in through the grate covering the window, and the apartment gets drenched by the spray from street cleaners. Plus, it’s so hot that the sisters keep the window open at night, but that means that their bedroom is essentially open to the street. The first night, two drunk guys walk along and harass the women through the grate.
Fortunately, a policeman comes by and shoos the men away, but he assumes that the girls are unsavory characters and warns them to move out. Apparently this apartment has not had very respectable tenants in the past.
Fun fact: if you’ve seen the 1955 movie, you’ll notice that the plot in this version and the re-make are very similar, and there is even some of the same dialogue. I’ll point out differences as they arise, but there aren’t many. Even the set is similar:
The next day, the sisters head out into the city. Ruth visits publishers and magazines to get some of her short stories in print, and Eileen heads to producers’ offices to get auditions. But it’s not a good day.
Eileen gets laughed at when she asks to see producers (she’s a naive kid and thought she could just walk right in.) That may have worked in Columbus, but it doesn’t in New York.
In the waiting room of a producer’s office, a skeazy reporter named Chick Clark (Allyn Joslyn) notices Eileen and promises to publish an article about her. Then she’ll be famous and the producers will be knocking on her door! The dummy believes him.
It’s not a surprise that she is fooled by such an obvious scoundrel because Eileen seems especially silly and weak in this version. She’s incapable of surviving on her own, and she leans so heavily on Ruth that it becomes obnoxious and you hope that Ruth will lay some tough love on her sister instead of enabling her little girl behavior.
Meanwhile, Ruth isn’t having any success either. Towards the end of the day, she arrives at the office of the Manhatter, a magazine that she hopes might publish some of her stories. She is told to leave and just mail her stuff in when an editor named Robert Baker (Brian Aherne) pulls her into the owner’s office. Baker runs the Manhatter and wants to make some major changes, but the owner won’t let him. So he finds a “normal person” and asks her to tell the owner what she thinks about the Manhatter, hoping that he will listen to a potential reader.
Ruth is diplomatic at first (she’s not an idiot) but when the owner insults her and Columbus, she tells him that his magazine is too hoity-toity to appeal to most of the country, and she doesn’t know anyone who actually likes it. That’s exactly what Robert was hoping she’d say. He’s been trying to convince the owner that the magazine needs to be more “real” for weeks.
The encounter doesn’t go very well for Ruth, though. She is asked to leave and accidentally forgets her manuscripts. Robert finds them, and like Prince Charming with Cinderella’s slipper, determines to use them to track down Ruth. (Her name and address are all over them so it’s not that hard.) You can watch the scene here.
Fun fact: Brian Aherne was a British actor who started on the stage in the ‘teens and acted in theater, film, and television until the 1960s. Another fun fact: he was married to Joan Fontaine from 1939-1945.
Back at the apartment, Ruth is discouraged and Eileen is excited (though she shouldn’t be.) She tells Ruth about Mr. Clark, and Ruth cautions her not to get her hopes up. She knows that Mr. Clark is probably just after Eileen.
Costume analysis break. As I mentioned earlier, the differences between pretty, silly Eileen and plain, smart Ruth are central to the movie. The costumes play this up, and it becomes a really fascinating exercise in contrast. Take their outfits on this day in New York, for instance:
Eileen wears a pale, full-skirted dress with eyelet lace across the top and sleeves, and a low-ish V-neck. It’s feminine, graceful, and very pretty. Compare that to Ruth’s striped suit. It has big shoulder pads that give her a more “manly” silhouette than Eileen, her blouse has a big, floppy collar and a higher neckline, and her skirt is straight, not full. Also, the whole outfit is loose-fitting, and doesn’t nip in at the waist or emphasize her curves as Eileen’s dress does. Finally, Ruth’s hat is like an oversized fedora. Basically, it’s a female version of a man’s suit, quite different from Eileen’s delicate, feminine dress.
In fact, Eileen is always in a dress, and Ruth rarely wears one in this movie, choosing mostly skirt and jacket outfits.
You only have to look at what they’re wearing to get the fundamental difference between the sisters. But besides setting the sisters in opposition, the costumes also play a tricky game with Eileen.
She’s not a seductress, but the costumes have to show off her figure and make her look gorgeous enough to turn heads, while simultaneously maintaining her sweet, girlish character. So she has to look beautiful but not too sexy.
The costumes in the 1955 version play the same game and do it really well. Plus, there’s the added fun of color, which designer Jean Louis utilizes it beautifully. Head over to that review for more on the costumes in the 1955 film.
Back to the film. The sisters soon meet their upstairs neighbors, Helen (Jeff Donnell, born Jean but used her nickname Jeff) and Wreck (Gordon Jones, who also played the part in the play). Wreck is an unemployed former football player from Georgia Tech, and he takes care of the housework while Helen is at work in a fun gender-reversal. (He brags that he does everything except laundry because “that’s woman’s work.”)
Wreck and Helen are married, but Helen’s mother doesn’t know because they’re afraid that she wouldn’t approve of Wreck since he doesn’t have a job. Helen’s mother is coming into town for a few days, so the couple ask the Sherwoods if he can sleep in their kitchen during her stay. Eileen says “Sure!” because she doesn’t realize that it’s not okay to have a man sleeping in their apartment. You can watch the scene here.
Fun fact: in the 1955 version, Wreck and Helen aren’t married. They are living together platonically (or so they ensure the Sherwood sisters) to save money until they can get married. Scandalous!
Back to the film! Soon we meet Frank Lippincott (Richard Quine), who works at a drugstore lunch counter. He’s been giving Eileen free lunches (of course!) and she invites him to dinner.
Another small difference between the two films is that in this movie Eileen seems a little more aware of her power over men, and she is not afraid to use it when it suits her. She’s not entirely as guileless as Janet Leigh’s Eileen, who seems more bewildered when men do things for her. This Eileen is also not as concerned with making Ruth feel good about herself. Add the weakness and whininess I mentioned before, and I find this Eileen a little less likable.
Ruth is not surprised to see that Frank is totally enamored with Eileen. Typical. She’s very kind to him, though, even after he unwittingly insults her with the same line that appears in the 1955 version:
Things get crazier and crazier when a former “client” of the former tenant who was supposedly a psychic (read, prostitute) shows up and refuses to leave. Wreck throws him out, but then the policeman who warned the sisters earlier shows up, the subway blasting terrifies everyone, and Robert arrives to talk with Ruth. You can watch this chaotic scene here.
Ruth is thrilled to get out of that madhouse. She’s also excited when Robert asks her to dinner because she and Eileen have been living off of spaghetti and meatballs for a week. But of course he takes her to an Italian restaurant and orders spaghetti and meatballs!
It takes almost all night for Robert to tell Ruth that he likes her stories but that he thinks she would do better writing about her crazy life in New York with Eileen. She’s thrilled at the prospect and gets to work the next day. While her roommate Wreck irons in her apartment.
Can we take a moment to talk about Ruth’s hair in this movie? She has one of the most extreme examples of Victory Rolls I’ve ever seen, and it never changes. Her dark hair is rolled into a magnificent, thick pompadour with two distinct “horn” rolls on either side that dip where they join in the middle. Some claim that the “Victory Roll” name came partially from the “V” shape the curls made when styled like that: you can definitely see the “V” on Ms. Russell. For more on Victory Rolls and 1940s hairstyles more generally, check out this site and this one. Here are some other stars (mostly Betty Grable) in the 1940s rocking similar styles:
Meanwhile, there’s a whole subplot about Appopolous being a failed painter, Helen accusing Eileen of trying to steal Wreck, and Wreck hocking one of Appopolous’ paintings (they would only accept the frame!) to afford a few nights at the Y after the Sherwoods throw him out, but it’s minor at best.
This section is a pretty big change from the 1955 film, as in that movie Ruth gets tired of being treated like a washed-up spinster and pretends that her wild stories are about her, not about her sister. She’s also lies to try to impress the Robert character, who she really likes but who doesn’t seem to notice that she is a woman. But Robert in this movie knows from the beginning that Eileen exists, so it’s not an issue.
Unfortunately, when Robert takes Ruth’s story to the owner of the Manhatter, he refuses to publish it. So Robert quits in protest.
Ruth feels terribly about all of this, not least because she and Eileen have been in New York for nearly a month and are almost out of money. She needs to sell a story soon! Ruth is telling Eileen the bad news when their phone rings. It’s someone from Chick Clark’s paper who hires Ruth to write a human interest piece on a newly arrived Portuguese merchant marine vessel at the Brooklyn docks.
Ruth scurries away, hopeful that if she does a good job on this assignment she can get hired by the paper. But as soon as Ruth is gone, Clark arrives. He was assigned that story but he called Ruth to get her to do it instead so that he can arrange some alone time with Eileen.
She tells him to leave, but instead he starts forcing himself on her. Fortunately, Robert arrives in time to stop him. Clark leaves and Eileen turns all of her charm on Robert. He is entranced, naturally. But he eventually leaves, too. No sooner has Eileen been left alone when Appopolous shows up and starts forcing himself on her, too!
This time Eileen rescues herself by slapping Appopolous until he realizes that she is not interested in him. Poor girl–almost raped by two different guys within five minutes. It’s almost as though she can’t help it–she’s just so beautiful that men lose control, apparently. It’s gross.
Meanwhile, Ruth is in trouble, too. The Portuguese sailors find her irresistible and chase her all the way from Brooklyn. They end up in the apartment where they start a conga line behind pretty Eileen. That eventually starts a conga line in the street until there is basically a riot, albeit a happy, rhythmic one, on the Sherwood’s block. You can watch the scene here.
Fun fact: one of the few changes between the play and this movie involves the sailors. In the 1940 play, they were Brazilian, but the Brazilian government protested, so Columbia made the sailors Portuguese, instead.
Although these scenes are played for laughs, it is very disturbing how vulnerable both Eileen and Ruth are to the unwelcome advances of men. The “woman in danger” thing is not great to watch.
After the “riot,” Eileen ends up in jail, and she has to spend the night because the incident has “international ramifications.” Or something. But she’s having a lovely time there, because of course all of the policeman are wrapped around her little finger. Including, it seems, Robert, who comes to help the Sherwood sisters.
The next day, Eileen returns home with a guard of honor to find her father and grandmother on a surprise visit.
Ruth and Eileen try to keep the majority of their mischief from Father and Grandma, but eventually various things slip out. Naturally, their father orders them to come home at once. And since they are out of money without any jobs on the horizon, they are forced to comply. But they’re bummed about it. Especially Ruth, who admits that she has fallen in love with Robert.
They’re packing when Robert himself shows up. He has great news: he managed to get Ruth’s story in the new issue of the Manhatter, after all! And everyone loves it! He’s thrilled to present Ruth with a $250 check. Then the owner of the magazine shows up with a lovely contract giving the magazine the rights to every future “Eileen” story that Ruth writes. Success!
Ruth gets even more good news when Robert subtly proposes to her, saying that he’s looking forward to working with her for a “lifetime.” It’s very sweet.
As you can imagine, everyone is thrilled (except Mr. Sherwood, who was hoping his daughters were coming back home). Eileen is excited because she is famous now because of the story and can probably get a part onstage (she’s a selfish little brat), Ruth because she is a published author and can stay in New York, Grandma because Ruth has “made it,” and Appopolous because he manages to con the sisters into signing a six-month lease.
How in the world did he convince them to stay in that rat hole? He shows them an official letter from the city noting that the blasting has finished, plus he offers them crazy-low rent. What he doesn’t tell them is that the city is about to start drilling now that the blasting is done…
Sure enough, a huge drill pokes through the floor just as everyone is about to leave. Three (famous) workers emerge: it’s the Three Stooges in a brief cameo!
You can watch it here:
This movie was in production May through mid-July 1942 and premiered on September 30 to generally good reviews. Bosley Crowther at The New York Times wrote that, “This film is largely a farcical juggling act in which the authors, Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, keep their characters spinning more through speed than grace. Some of it is forced almost to snapping; some of it drags heavily on the screen. And Alexander Hall, the director, did little with his camera in that small room.” But, overall, “‘My Sister Eileen'” is gay and bouncing. It is a farce which depends entirely upon two doors. And we hate to think what would have happened to it if some one had thought to nail one of those doors shut.”
Janet Blair was a relative newcomer to Hollywood when she made this movie. She started as a big band singer before making movies, and My Sister Eileen was only her fifth film. Blair would go on to a long career in show business, singing on stage and with bands as a featured performer and acting in movies. She also appeared on television through the late 1940s until her last performance on Murder, She Wrote in 1991. But at the time, Russell remembered that Blair was an anxious amateur compared to Russell, who had been starring in films since the mid-1930s.
Janet Blair, the girl who was cast as Eileen, started trying to upstage me. She was new and nervous, the same way I’d been when I started, so I invited her into my dressing room and delivered a short speech about the inadvisability of the course she’d embarked on. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘you’re not going to steal the picture from me because I’ve got the better part, the sympathy comes to me. And you’re not going to get anyplace with what you’re doing. I know all those old tricks. When you upstage me, all I do is turn my back on the camera, and then they have to come around on me full-face for my close-up.’
Then Russell offered to coach Blair, and the young actress, probably rather stunned, thanked her. Russell replied, “I’m not doing it because I like you, I don’t know anything about you. I’m doing it to get a good picture.”
It worked! Crowther praised the performances in the movie:
Rosalind Russell plays the smart sister with a delightfully dour and cynical air, and Janet Blair is disarmingly naive as the pretty, desirable one…(Naturally, Miss Russell is more often in the camera’s eye than Miss Blair.) George Tobias makes a richly flavored landlord, Allyn Joslyn is a glib newspaper tramp, Gordon Jones is very amusing as the athlete and Brian Aherne turns up a cool and blithe hero.
Russell was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in this film, though she lost to Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver. She later said of the nomination, “Glad as I was about it, the honor put me under heavy pressure. It means too much to the studios to have their people win; I still can’t think about the tension surrounding those races without breaking into a sweat.” It was the first of four nominations for Russell (Sister Kenny (1946), Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) and Auntie Mame (1958)), so hopefully she got used to the tension!
Fun fact: despite the fact that this movie was in production during WWII, very little of the war sneaks in. The screenwriters didn’t alter McKenney’s original stories, which were published in the 1930s, to reflect the changing times for this film. This Chesterfield ad featuring Russell (note the “now starring in the new Columbia picture, ‘My Sister Eileen,'” at the top) is the most WWII of anything connected to the film. (For more on ads from this era, check out this History Through Hollywood post.)
This was just the first of many times that Russell would play Ruth Sherwood. In fact, Aherne, Blair, and Russell reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre production of My Sister Eileen on July 5, 1943. You can listen to it here.
About ten years later, Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, the playwrights who originally brought “My Sister Eileen” to the stage and contributed to the film, re-worked their play into a musical called Wonderful Town with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (the writers behind Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Good News), with music by Leonard Bernstein.
It premiered in 1953 with Rosalind Russell in the starring role. She won a Tony for her performance, which was among five awarded to the production, including Best Musical, Best Choreography, Best Musical Director, and Best Scenic Design. Wonderful Town went to the West End in 1986 and was revived on Broadway in 2003.
Fun fact: oddly enough, the 1955 musical of My Sister Eileen contains none of Wonderful Town’s score because Columbia was unable to come to an agreement with the producer of the musical to use the show’s music. But Columbia decided to make a musical anyway, and hired Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write all-new tunes.
But they had to be very careful not to infringe on Wonderful Town. 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.”
Russell played Ruth for a fourth time when Wonderful Town was broadcast on CBS in 1958. But Elaine Stritch played the part in the CBS television series My Sister Eileen that ran from October 1960-April 1961.
And finally, here is my broad comparison between the 1942 and the 1955 versions of My Sister Eileen. Personally, I miss the songs and dances. I think they add some whimsy to the tale that I miss in the non-musical comedy.
Also, the 1942 version seems to start slowly and then pick up speed until the whole thing, with all of the various strands, gets resolved in a flash. Almost too quickly. And as I’ve mentioned, I don’t like this Eileen as much as the one in the 1955 film. Plus, I am especially fond of Betty Garrett and Tommy Rall, and the dances performed by Bob Fosse and Rall are some of my very favorites! Basically, I think the 1955 movie is more fun!