MY SISTER EILEEN: Blu-ray (Columbia, 1955) Twilight Time
The slightest of the many reincarnations of Ruth McKenney’s beloved stories, first serialized in New Yorker magazine, collected into a best seller in 1938 that swept the nation, on the surface at least, director Richard Quine’s My Sister Eileen (1955) has everything a blue chip musical should to succeed; a pre-sold title, a killer cast, some energetic and affecting choreography from Bob Fosse, and a score by Jules ‘Gypsy’ Styne and Leo ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ Robins. That the results are far from stellar, at least for a musical, thus remains a sincere mystery, as co-stars, Janet Leigh (Eileen) and Betty Garrett (Ruth) prove real firecrackers, flanked by delicious comedian, Kurt Kasznar as the lovable slumlord, Papa Appopolous, Dick York (slightly miscast as the robust physical specimen, Ted Loomis, perpetually wearing a grey track suit and lifting weights, in a part originally slated for the beefier, Aldo Ray), the effortlessly chic dancer/choreographer, Bob Fosse (soda jerk, Frank Lippincott), superb dancer, Tommy Rall (as slippery newshound, Chick Clark), and, in the pivotal role of Ruth’s potential mate, Jack Lemmon (publisher, Robert ‘Bob’ Baker).
Requiring little tweaking, as McKenney had written from the heart about experiences with her own sister Eileen, the pair newly migrated from relatively laid-back Ohio to New York’s den of Bohemianism, Greenwich Village, the 1940 Broadway adaptation by Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov was a smash hit, running a whopping 863 performances. Barely a week into its lucrative run the real Eileen was killed, along with her husband, in a horrific auto accident. She was only 27. But the show, as they used to say, went on…and on, mutating into a 1942 screen comedy costarring Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair – a smash for Columbia Pictures, and later, a 1946 radio adaptation also with Russell and Blair reprising their roles. 1953 saw yet another acclimatization along the Great White Way: Wonderful Town, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Leonard Bernstein. Again, McKenney’s fondly recollected exploits proved impossible to resist. Ostensibly, Columbia chief, Harry Cohn, would have loved to produce another hit movie based on this latest resurrection. Alas, producers of this musical were asking too high a price for the film rights. And so, Styne and Robin were brought in by Cohn to write an entirely different score; Cohn also hiring an attorney to ensure ‘his’ Eileen bore no earthly resemblance to Wonderful Town. Alas, this proved a miscalculation from which My Sister Eileen never entirely recovers.
For although Bob Fosse’s choreography, particularly during his character’s competition dance-off with Tommy Rall, is startlingly original and exhilarating, virtually none of the Styne/Robins’ songs hold a candle to Comden and Green’s Broadway score. In point of fact, the co-authored screenplay by Blake Edwards and Richard Quine is chalked so full of great comedy vignettes, culminating in a gregarious conga line with a fleet of Brazilian sailors, it somehow seems sacrilege to intermittently delay the laughter with these mediocre ditties. The songs repeat what we already know about these characters. The title, My Sister Eileen is also a tad misleading, since it is Betty Garrett’s sharp-witted and level-headed Ruth who gets the plushier part, leaving Janet Leigh’s plucky and prettier, Eileen to naïvely fend off the wolves…if only she could recognize them as such. Six years earlier, Betty Garrett’s ‘association’ with liberal hubby, Larry Parks had blacklisted her a communist sympathizer in the eyes of HUAC, ousting her from a promising film career. Her big return in My Sister Eileen puts a period to this hiatus and, in the expanded part of the sadder but wiser Ruth, Garrett illustrates proof positive she is as ever the marvelous and genuine comedienne.
Regrettably, it is the sheer waste of talent on the whole, or rather, its restricted under-use, that proves truly off-putting as the narrative progresses. As example, it takes nearly 20 minutes for the writers to introduce us to second-billed Jack Lemmon’s wily womanizer; his 30-second ‘cute meet’ with Ruth in an elevator is barely a cameo, delayed almost another 15 minutes thereafter before we revisit his character again. The musically inclined Lemmon acquits himself rather nicely of ‘It's Bigger Than You and Me’ – a seditious seduction of our ever-pure ‘good girl’ – even if the song, like the remaining five, are colossally forgettable and thus, a terrible let down. Having spent her career always cast as the ugly duckling, meant to land the second-string/second-best male, Betty Garrett is a seasoned pro at spoofing the spinster. Despite all her subterfuge and obfuscation, she wins the grand prize in My Sister Eileen: quite refreshing. Watching Garrett and Lemmon go through the romantic motions and spirited ‘chase’ in this number, as flounder and octopus respectively, is vaguely reminiscent of Garrett’s comedic pas deux with Red Skelton in Neptune’s Daughter (1949), albeit, with the roles reversed; Garrett’s obsessed man trap hunting down Skelton’s frantic suitor to the catchier Oscar-winning tune, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’.
If only My Sister Eileen had a meatier score to recommend it. Certainly, the ensemble is up to the task of tackling some good – nee great – material. But no, the numbers in My Sister Eileen seem to be shoehorned into an otherwise simple little comedic gem that does not require their presence to be enjoyable. Worse, they stop the show cold, re-purposing plot points already outlined in the story, in no way to enhance or advance the story. As example, Garrett’s lamentation ‘As Soon as They See Eileen’ covers what we already know about both sisters: Eileen – the prettier, to whom men just naturally flock, and Ruth – a perennial wallflower, destined to remain tragically single - perhaps. Worse, the screenplay introduces, then jettisons most of its supporting cast. We spend the first moments of our story with Kurt Kasznar’s devious Appopolous, snookering Ruth and Eileen into accepting his moth-eaten basement apartment at a not-so-bargain-basement price. Kasznar’s comedic timing is superb as he gives a farcical grand tour of these dilapidated digs. He also does his noble best to augment the novelty song, ‘I’m Great’ – meant to instill confidence – a commodity both sisters thoroughly lack. But then Appopolous vanishes from view, as does Tommy Rall’s loveably disreputable Chick Clark – presumably, a better-looking rival for Eileen’s affections, much to the comparatively anemic Frank’s chagrin. But perhaps the biggest ‘red herring’ is Lemmon’s publisher; set up as a real lady killer who prefers beauty to brains, but then quite inexplicably falls for the more cerebral Ruth, who repeatedly lies to him about ‘her past’.
My Sister Eileen opens with some exotic second-unit shots of New York City, none too convincingly wed to Columbia’s backlot facades and facsimiles of the Big Apple’s more colorfully reconstituted Greenwich Village. Indeed, our cast never actually went to New York to make the picture: Hollywood’s tried and true ‘shoot it on the backlot’ liberally applied. We meet the Sherwood sisters, Ruth and Eileen – hailing from Columbus, Ohio. Although they already have an apartment lined up, the girls allow themselves to be swayed by the ebullient slumlord, Papa Appopolous into accepting a horrendously second-rate basement flat in his artsy tenement. Once occupied by a spurious clairvoyant, who likely did a lot more than read the palms of her clientele, these dingy downstairs lacks running hot water, has a kitchenette the size of a closet, and a front door that cannot even be locked from the inside. Worse, the apartment is located directly above the city’s planned route for a new subway line, with frequent dynamiting between early dawn and midnight, surely to unruffle the nerves. Too late, the girls discover these shortcomings. As Appopolous has promised to refund their money only at the end of thirty days, the girls have no choice but to stick things out.
We learn a little something of each sister’s aspirations in coming to the big city to stake their claim: Ruth, as a writer, and Eileen, an actress. While Eileen’s plans to become famous are pretty much a pipe dream, Ruth actually has a letter of introduction to Bob Baker, editor-in-chief of Mad Hatter Magazine. But Ruth has caught Bob at a bad time. All he wants is to get a jump start on his vacation. But before he departs, Bob counsels Ruth to write about the things she knows rather than the artificial stories she earlier submitted to him. There is no caveat of a job offer anywhere in this advice. And so, Ruth returns to the apartment somewhat disheartened. That evening, the girls become acquainted with neighbor, Ted Loomis, a disgraced wrestler living just upstairs with his fiancée, Helen (Lucy Marlow). Ted has his troubles too. Helen’s mother (Barbara Brown) knows not her daughter is ‘living in sin’ with a man and is shortly planning to visit her. Meanwhile, Eileen befriends soda jerk, Frank Lippencott inside a Walgreen’s Drug Store. Along with being instantly attracted to her beauty – like every other man – Frank sincerely offers to do what he can to promote Eileen’s career with any of the theatrical impresarios who occasionally frequent his counter.
Overhearing their conversation, newspaper reporter, Chick Clark oils his way into Eileen’s plans to audition for a new show, suggesting he has the inside track on the casting and can surely work his magic to ensure Eileen is a shoe-in for the lead. Both Frank and Chick accompany Eileen to her audition. Alas, this turns out to be for a burlesque house where striptease is the main attraction. Affronted after being asked to show off her ‘assets’, Eileen storms out of the theater in tears. Time passes. Bob returns from his vacation and invites Ruth for a sit down in his office. She presumes this will lead to a job. But actually, Bob once again admonishes Ruth for writing syrupy and contrived romances. He does, however, admire one of Ruth’s pieces – an exposé on the misadventures of her sister Eileen. Presuming Bob is just like all the other men she has ever met, more interested in Eileen than her, she lies to him about having concocted all of the stories about Eileen based on her own romantic experiences. Bob is confused – then, impressed. Evidently, Ruth is a gal to get to know better…a lot better, and presumably, by candlelight.
Bob pitches for a date with Ruth. She turns him down. She wants a job, not a romance with the boss. Returning to the apartment, Ruth lies to Eileen that Bob is fat, middle-aged and thoroughly unattractive. That evening, Ted asks if he might spend the next few days living in their apartment as Helen’s mother is coming for a visit. Reluctantly, they agree. Meanwhile, Eileen has invited Chick and Frank back to the apartment for a home-cooked dinner. But when Ruth’s famous spaghetti is ruined by the plumber, Chick suggests the foursome pair off for a night of high-stepping at the popular nightclub, El Morocco. Regrettably, Ruth runs into Bob. He is squiring a thoroughly vapid model. Once again, Bob is intrigued by Ruth whom he invites to join his table. Again, she refuses and shortly thereafter, convinces Chick, Frank and Eileen she has a horrible headache and must therefore go home at once. However, once outside the club, Ruth experiences a miraculous recovery. The foursome agrees to go elsewhere for their libations, winding up slightly inebriated in the park near a bandstand after dark.
The next day Bob asks for his secretary’s (Mara McAfee) opinion on Ruth’s writing. While she is enchanted by the ‘Eileen’ stories, she is also quite certain they are not autobiographical. Intrigued, and determined to get to the bottom of things, Bob invites Ruth to a candle-lit dinner in his penthouse apartment, presumably to discuss publication. Before long, however, Bob makes his ‘other’ intensions known, pursuing the chaste Ruth around the apartment like a scared mountain goat until she tearfully is forced to leave. Their money run out, their dreams dashed to pieces by the cruelty of the big city, the Sherwood sisters begrudgingly prepare to return to Ohio. Ted is sorry to see them go. Chick reenters the picture feigning, by telephone, to be the editor of a big newspaper, about to give Ruth her big break by assigning her to cover a ‘human interest’ story about a newly arrived Brazilian schooner docked nearby. Ecstatic, Ruth rushes off. Now, Eileen is confronted by Chick, who reveals the truth to her about his deception. She is outraged and summons Ted to chase Chick out of the apartment. Unable to reconcile his own slum prudery regarding Ted’s ‘live-in’ presence, Frank assumes the worst about Eileen and is ordered to leave; a real pity too, since Eileen has fallen hopelessly in love with Frank in the meantime.
Having arrived at the docks, Ruth gets more than the scoop when the Brazilian schooner’s sex-starved crew, every last one a handsome robust naval cadet, pursue her on foot back to the apartment, engaging both sisters in a conga line that attracts the attentions of the local constabulary. Everyone is arrested, presumably for disturbing the peace - even Helen and her mother, who had absolutely nothing to do with it. Eventually, the Naval emissary and Brazilian Consul intervene on everyone’s behalf. The girls return to their apartment and prepare for the trip back to Ohio. As luck would have it, Bob has figured out Ruth’s ruse and is even more in love with her for having lied to him about her sister, Eileen. Better still, he wants to publish her stories. As a peace offering, Frank gives Eileen with a box of chocolates. The Brazilian navy with Consul in tow arrive to present the girls with honorary metals for their hospitality. As Eileen and Ruth have decided to remain in New York, they accept the honor and elect to engage the entire neighborhood in a conga line that closes out the show.
My Sister Eileen is a fairly dulcet and disposable little nothing. Had it been made over at MGM in the mid-1940’s it likely would have received a more flavorful panache and a lot more fanfare. MGM, widely regarded as the greatest purveyors of musical entertainments, were not above producing charming ‘little’ musicals like Small Town Girl (1950) and Two Weeks with Love (1953) alongside their decidedly more instantly recognizable masterpieces. But Columbia Pictures never entirely licked the musical genre. Occasional hits, like You Were Never Lovelier (1942) and Cover Girl (1944) aside, the studio pretty much stayed out of the musical limelight, or produced them on a budget and talent scale far less noteworthy than the competition. And, tricked out in the vast expanses of Cinemascope, the subtleties of My Sister Eileen seem to get lost under the studio’s desperate attempt to transform a ‘small-time’ comedy into a big-time musical entertainment. Quite simply, it doesn’t work. The numbers are interruptions to the plot instead of being integrated for maximum effect, the characters’ motivations for bursting into song threadbare to downright flimsy. It is as though we can hear the sound of some grip just out of range drop the needle on the pre-recorded record about to be lip-sync for the benefit of the camera. Six forgettable songs and one electrifying dance routine later, My Sister Eileen is barely passable as a musical. Its comedy remains golden however, and on this score alone, there remains some joyously obtuse nuggets of laughter to be mined.
My Sister Eileen arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time’s alliance with Sony Home Entertainment in another superb-looking transfer, supervised by Grover Crisp and his re-mastering minions. There’s not much to say here, except that the visuals are, for the most part, up to Sony’s usual high standards in hi-def. One caveat, the main titles exhibit some modest built-in flicker, amplified grain, and, a hint of edge effects around the titles themselves; forgivable, I suppose, but rather curious, given Sony’s meticulous attention to fine detail elsewhere on this 1080p transfer. Colors pop as they should. The Cinemascope image is slightly soft around the edges, owing to the shortcomings of the Bausch & Lomb lenses more than anything else. The first reel looks marginally less refined than what follows it. On the whole, this is a very pleasing presentation with two ways to enjoy its soundtrack: either a 5.1 DTS remastering of the original 4-track stereo, or a 2.0 DTS remastering of the original elements. Naturally, the 5.1 has better spatial separation, but the 2.0 is noticeably louder by direct comparison, particularly for sound effects. Extras are limited to an isolated underscore, a badly worn trailer and liner notes from Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: My Sister Eileen left me flat. It is an adequate comedy but a very disappointing musical. The Blu-ray is first-rate. So, if you are a fan, this one is definitely for you. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)