Classic Film Talk: ‘My Sister Eileen’ (1942)

Today we reminisce about

My Sister Eileen (1942)

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Directed by Alexander Hall

Starring: Rosalind Russell, Janet Blair, Brian Aherne

* Published specifically for The Rosalind Russell Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood *

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Synopsis

The Sherwood sisters of Columbus, Ohio, enjoy a tight-knit relationship despite being very different from one another. Older sister Ruth (Rosalind Russell) is a reporter for the Columbus Courier and is a generally serious, level-headed young woman. She acts as a protective figure to her younger sister Eileen (Janet Blair), a beautiful aspiring actress who is anxiously awaiting her big break. While Eileen is a striking beauty who has men lining up to take her out, Ruth is considered plain with a personality that makes her “one of the guys”.

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One evening, Eileen is working furiously to finish an article to be published in the early bird edition of the next day’s paper. The subject of her writing is none other than Eileen who is set to debut in an important local play. Ruth decides to boost Eileen’s performance to make a good impression on potential talent scouts even though, at that time, the play has not even commenced. When Ruth goes to the theatre, disaster is in the air as she learns that Eileen has been replaced at the last minute by another actress. Not only will she be reprimanded for her actions, Eileen will also be the laughing stock of Columbus. The next day, Ruth is informed that she has been fired and as expected, Eileen cannot show her face around town. Realising that a change is necessary, Ruth and Eileen both decide to give New York a chance as it has everything they both need, namely publishers and Broadway. Their father is against the idea though they get the full support of their grandmother before they leave.

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Once in New York, the girls search for a place to live. Because they are on a limited spending allowance, most apartments in Greenwich Village are out of their budget range. The hesitantly decide to stay at the last place they see, a run-down basement apartment run by a zany landlord, Mr. Appopolous (George Tobias), who tricks them into renting it for one month. It is not long before they regret their decision – hard as stone beds, terrible heat, lack of privacy, bomb blasting for the subway system – but continue on seeking out what they came to New York to achieve. Along the way, they come into contact with some other residents in their apartment complex and in the city. Ruth tries to submit a manuscript to the Mad Hatter magazine with little initial success although her work catches the eye of the editor, Robert Baker (Brian Aherne). As for Eileen, she is pursued by two men: dishonest reporter Chic Clark (Allyn Joslyn) and nice guy soda jerk Frank Lippincott (Richard Quine). The rest… well, that’s an adventure!

"My Sister Eileen" (1942) Director: Alexander Hall Shown: Janet

Background

The real Sherwood sisters: Ruth & Eileen

Author Ruth McKenney wrote a series of short stories based on her life with her sister Eileen that were first published in the New Yorker magazine and then as a book in 1938. In 1940, her work was adapted for the stage with the Broadway play running for a little over two years and 864 performances. The writers of the stage play, Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov, also wrote the film’s screenplay; a project for which Columbia paid a reported $225,000 in order to obtain the rights. (That would amount to roughly $4 million in today’s money.) The film was a deemed a success and got very positive reviews from critics with Rosalind Russell even receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance.

The 1955 musical version

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Columbia remade My Sister Eileen in 1955 as a musical with Richard Quine directing. Not only did Quine star in the 1942 version but he also starred in the stage version alongside Gordon Jones who played Wreck, one of the Sherwood sisters’ neighbours. To top it all off, Quine co-wrote the 1955 version’s screenplay with legend Blake Edwards. In addition to an absolutely stellar cast, this was indeed a recipe for success. This version fared well at the box-office but was marred by several lawsuits filed by Fields & Chodorov and McKenney regarding copyrights.

The 1955 cast:

Betty Garrett (Ruth Sherwood), Janet Leigh (Eileen Sherwood), Jack Lemmon (Robert Baker), Bob Fosse* (Frank Lippincott), Tommy Rall* (Chick Clark), Dick York (Wreck)

* Fosse and Rall were trained dancers with Fosse also dabbling in choreography and later in directing. Their combined talents are immense.

Notable differences between versions:

  • The film starts out with the girls already in New York, walking the sidewalks to find lodging. Columbus is mentioned many times but it is never used as a backdrop and we never see the girls’ father and grandmother.
  • Ruth was not fired from her job at the Columbus Courier. Instead, she has a letter of introduction from her editor recommending her skills. Likewise, Eileen did not suffer a public humiliation.
  • 1942 Ruth submits her work to the Mad Hatter out of desperation because it is the last publication on her preferential list. 1955 has a letter of introduction addressed directly to Robert Baker, editor of Mad Hatter.
  • The set-up of the basement apartment is opposite to what it was both in the stage play and the 1942 film. However, the interior of the apartments look quite similar to one another.
  • Wreck is married in the earlier film while he is only engaged in the later one. Both times he lives with his spouse/fiancée without her mother’s knowledge or approval.

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  • 1942 Frank is never introduced to the audience before coming to the girls’ apartment for dinner whereas 1955 Frank is shown at the lunch counter of the drug store he manages. He also plays a heavier role in the 1955 film, mostly due to the fact that Bob Fosse’s dancing was relevant to the script.
  • In the 1955 version, the character of Effie the Spiritual Medium is mentioned at the beginning of the film but she is never seen unlike in the 1942 version.
  • Ruth and Robert eat at a restaurant in 1942 but have an intimate dinner at Robert’s home in 1955 with many added sexual overtones to the situation.
  • There is never a question of Ruth’s identity in the 1942 version although in 1955 version, Ruth masquerades as being the real Eileen from her stories.
  • Janet Leigh’s Eileen is far more worshipped and revered by men than Janet Blair’s rendition. Also, Blair’s Eileen is not taken as seriously as Leigh’s Eileen, very much as if she were a dumb blonde of sorts.
  • Robert quits his job and has an ornery superior in 1942 though is seemingly the big honcho of the office in 1955.
  • The romance between Ruth and Robert present in 1955 is not really present in the 1942 version.

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Part of these differences comes from the fact that this adaptation was to make it musical-friendly. Most of them came to be because the Quine-Edwards screenplay had to be different enough from the Fields-Chodorov version not to be subject to a lawsuit. This way, it could be claimed that the 1955 film was a sequel rather than a direct remake. Obviously, Columbia’s tactic did not work to their advantage.

Although there are plenty of variances between the two versions, they are both splendid films in their own rights and I would not change a thing about either of them.

Rosalind Russell

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From the first moment I saw Roz on-screen in My Sister Eileen, I knew that I would love the film. Honestly, I initially did not know what to expect because I had been a long-time fan of Betty Garrett’s take on the role of Ruth Sherwood so I was naturally a little partial to her interpretation. There was something different about Roz’s approach, however that immediately struck me. Her Ruth was very witty, sharp, and had a no-nonsense attitude even when people where challenging her views. Seeing the similarities between Roz’s and Betty’s performances made me realise that they were both dutifully incarnating Ruth Sherwood just as it had always meant to be.

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Roz had already co-starred with Brian Aherne in 1940’s Hired Wife and they would be reunited a year later for 1943’s What a Woman. They did not have a great deal of romantic chemistry in this film although they performed nicely together. Aherne was quite a stern presence on-screen and did not master comedy to a great degree but perhaps that was purposefully done in order to balance the relationship. Jack Lemmon’s take on the character of Robert Baker is a lot more colourful and appealing but, then again, I am not sure that Jack would have fared so well alongside Roz as there would have been too much competition for laughs.

(Interestingly enough, my Spanish-release version of this film has Aherne incorrectly credited as Brian Donlevy on the DVD cover!)

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This version of My Sister Eileen had many more screwball comedy elements incorporated into the story and Roz was at the top of her game in this film. Only two years prior she had starred in one of the most classic of screwball comedies, His Girl Friday, which solidified her status as a grand comedienne. When she started out in Hollywood and into the first few years of her career, she mostly appeared in dramas and mystery films. However the transition came naturally to Roz and she was wholly believable in any genre. In fact, I am most familiar with her from The Women, in which she plays a very snarky and unlikable character to such a degree that it is almost unthinkable that she could be any different in real life. Compared to her character as the horrible Sylvia Fowler, her Ruth Sherwood is a soft-spoken sweetheart who lights up the room.

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5 thoughts on “Classic Film Talk: ‘My Sister Eileen’ (1942)

  1. I really enjoyed your stroll down those NYC streets with Ruth and Eileen. I never made the Richard Quine connection between the two movies before, and I’m a fan. Thanks.

    I read the stories first in a library discard book. Honestly, just thinking about some of the incidents will still make me laugh out loud. I had seen the 1942 film many times before venturing toward the 1955 musical. I can’t say why I avoided it, but I think I was worried about being disappointed. Naturally, I wasn’t.

    Roz also played Ruth in the Broadway musical Wonderful Town. Edie Adams played Eileen. The songs were by Comden and Green and Leonard Bernstein. Like her future (at this point) role in Auntie Mame, Roz was acclaimed and Tony-nominated but didn’t bring the trophy home.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you had a good time revisiting the films, Paddy! 😀
      I have seen the 1955 countless times, so much so that I was expecting the 1942 one to have some musical elements to it! Roz could have definitely handled it, I think. The moment I saw her at her typewriter, I knew the film would be terrific. Now I am very curious to discover the short stories/book.

      How interesting that they re-named the Broadway play to ‘Wonderful Town’. Any idea why Fields and Chodorov changed the title? (The copyright issues would not come until a year or two later.)
      I’m very keen on seeing more of Roz’s work and think she was such a talented woman.

      Thanks as always for your kind words and for also providing some really intersting information!

      Like

  2. I saw the Rosalind Russell version some years ago and, although I liked everyone in the film, I never warmed up to Brian Aherne’s character – although I generally like him.

    I’ll have to give the 1955 version a try. It looks like a lot of fun!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’d love the 1955 version, particularly if you like musicals. There are some really great dance scenes between Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall. As for Aherne, I watched him in ‘I Live My Life’ the other evening and found him very appealing. I’m thinking that this was just not a good role for him. Jack Lemmon definitely does the job, though. ☺

      Liked by 1 person

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