It's a good thing Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees never had a sister as beautiful and talented as the young Janet Leigh, because she might have had to pull an Anthony Perkins on her.
Our review of Icons Of Screwball Comedy: Volume One, published August 5th, 2009, is also available.
What good does it do me to slenderize?
It's a familiar story: two small-town girls set out to find success in New York, one armed with brains, the other with beauty. In fact, My Sister Eileen may be even more familiar than other variations of the "big-time-or-bust" plot because it exists in so many versions. The basis for this 1955 film, a series of humorous autobiographical sketches by Ruth McKenney, inspired a stage play, a 1942 nonmusical film with Rosalind Russell, a Broadway musical (recently revived) called Wonderful Town, and this entirely separate big-screen musical. For a modest, unassuming story, it's gotten a lot of mileage—and it still has considerable power to charm, as this new DVD release shows.
Facts of the Case
Watch out, New York: The Sherwood sisters have arrived. Witty aspiring writer Ruth (Betty Garrett, On the Town) and her beautiful younger sister, Eileen (Janet Leigh, Touch of Evil), have left Ohio behind to conquer the big city. Ruth has a letter of introduction to magazine editor Robert Baker (Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot), and Eileen, who wants to be an actress, has a face and figure that turn heads. Their unscrupulous landlord, "Papa" Appopolous (Kurt Kasnar), encourages them to be optimistic, as does the amiable but not too bright jock (Dick York, Bewitched) who lives in their building. Surely it's just a matter of time before they make it big.
Unfortunately, New York is not as quick to embrace them as they had hoped—not in a professional sense, at any rate. Eileen quickly attracts the attention of both soft-spoken soda jerk Frank Lippincott (Bob Fosse, Kiss Me Kate) and slick newspaper man Chick Clark (Tommy Rall), but she finds that although her beauty opens doors, it doesn't get her acting jobs. Ruth, meanwhile, has gotten herself into a predicament. Stung when Bob Baker assumes from her writing that she is a frustrated spinster, she tells him that the irresistible character of "Eileen" in her latest story is based on herself. That definitely arouses Bob's interest, but not in her writing, and soon Ruth finds herself trying to deflect his advances…even though she's not entirely sure she wants to. It will take perseverance, luck, and a shipload of conga-dancing Brazilian sailors to sort everything out.
My Sister Eileen is the kind of musical that is almost guaranteed to cheer you up when you're feeling down. It's full of old-fashioned optimism, and the songs (by Jule Stine) are so bright and lively that you'll find yourself humming them days afterward. One of the film's greatest strengths is the screenplay by Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther) and director Richard Quine (Bell, Book and Candle), who played the role of Frank Lippincott in the 1942 film version. Character development and clever dialogue take equal precedence, so the wordplay isn't just amusing for its own sake—it helps to make the characters real. The character of Ruth is probably the prime example of this technique: In the time-honored tradition of women who consider themselves plain, she has cultivated a persona as "the funny one," erecting a protective shell of wisecracks and sarcasm. Garrett is perfectly cast in the role, and she does a persuasive job of showing us both her genuine love for her sister and the sense of inferiority she has developed from constantly comparing herself to her. Eileen herself, thanks to the strong writing, is much more than a pretty face: She is the tender-hearted, giving soul who never suspects an ulterior motive—which means that she has some nasty shocks coming to her once she arrives in New York. A less intelligent script might have made her character into a dumb blonde, but Eileen is just as well-rounded a personality as Ruth, and the relationship between the two sisters is a large part of what makes this film so heartwarming.
The witty writing is matched by the equally witty choreography by young Bob Fosse (still credited as Robert Fosse). The standout "Competition Dance" number, in which Fosse and Tommy Rall square off in a danced one-upmanship, is breathtaking in its athleticism and sly humor. Fans of Fosse's work will also note the prominent use of hats in this dance, a Fosse-ism that would carry through his later choreography. Another especially enjoyable number, "Give Me a Band and My Baby"—a song that exists not to advance the story but simply for fun—is a buoyant ragtime-flavored song and dance by Garrett, Leigh, Fosse, and Rall in a deserted bandstand. Fosse and Leigh also have a charming romantic pas de deux, again flavored with gentle humor, and the conga number that weaves in and out of the Sherwoods' basement apartment is a highlight. The songs that aren't accompanied by dancing are equally clever and enjoyable, especially Jack Lemmon's "It's Bigger Than You and Me," which he sings while trying to seduce the startled Ruth, and Garrett's wry "As Soon as They See Eileen" (excerpted in The Charge). Fans of Leigh who haven't seen her in a musical will enjoy the opportunity to see her show off her singing and dancing talents; she displays a particular gift for crooning in the dreamy "There's Nothin' Like Love."
Although the disc copy calls it an "extravaganza," the movie is actually fairly modest in scope, and it's this very intimacy that makes it work. We feel close enough to the characters to care about them, since for the most part this is a story that uses musical numbers not to dazzle us but to help us see into the characters' hearts. The main exception is the use of a large-scale dance number to conclude the film, which glosses over the fact that some of the plot threads have been left unresolved. The subplot about "Wreck" Loomis (the Dick York character) and his slightly airheaded fiancée, for example, never quite reaches resolution, although it's headed that way the last time we see these characters. (A still photo on the back of the DVD case suggests that a scene resolving their plot line was filmed but discarded.) Up until this conga ex machina ending, however, the story is credible and rooted in recognizable, real-world dilemmas.
The visual quality of this transfer is crisp and attractive, with very little speckling and no other age-related flaws that I could see. Although the color seems a little overcast compared to other Technicolor films of its era, when bolder colors do appear on screen, they definitely pop. The included original trailer features more vivid color, but the effect is garish and harsh rather than pleasing; this suggests to me that the more subdued palette of the film is a deliberate design choice, perhaps meant to enhance realism. (I have to smile as I type that, however, since the film's wholesome, tidy version of New York City is not what I would call realistic.) Audio is clean, vibrant, and largely untroubled by hiss or buzz, but the 4.0 mix was woefully out of balance with my surround system: During musical numbers, the orchestral accompaniment emerged boldly, while the vocals were almost inaudible. If your system has stereo feed rather than surround—or if your surround setup gives you the option of selecting stereo feed—you won't have this problem and the audio balance will be fine. In my case, however, I found that I had to keep juggling the output from different speakers.
It's a pity that so few extras appear with this film. Besides a short gallery of tangentially related films (It Should Happen to You, with Jack Lemmon; Bye Bye Birdie, featuring Janet Leigh; and Born Yesterday, which also originated in a Broadway hit), we get only the film's theatrical trailer. This is a lot of fun in its own right, since it is built around a scene created just for the trailer, with Betty Garrett and Jack Lemmon addressing the audience. Nevertheless, especially considering the lively history of the material on which the film is based, it would have been nice to see a featurette on the movie's origins and making.
Anyone who's ever been in the shadow of a gorgeous sibling or best friend will recognize something of themselves in the character of Ruth Sherwood, and anyone who's ever been underestimated because of their good looks will feel a kinship with Eileen. And, of course, everyone who knows what it's like to chase a dream in the face of daunting obstacles can relate to the Sherwood sisters. The film leaves us with a reassuring sense that, no matter what life throws at us—and it throws a lot of bizarre things at Ruth and Eileen—as long as we have people to love and encourage us, we'll be fine. Call it naïve optimism, but that's one of the things I enjoy most about musicals like this one. In the end, My Sister Eileen is an uplifting, lighthearted antidote to harsh reality.
The Sherwood sisters are cleared of all charges of deliberately inciting a conga riot. Court is adjourned…until the next shipment of starry-eyed hopefuls arrives in New York.
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