Film Title: My Sister Eileen
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
Genre: Screwball Comedy
- Rosalind Russell
- Janet Blair
- Brian Aherne
Classic Hollywood has no shortage of films about people who leave home in search of a career. Sometimes they’re a bit more serious, 1933’s Baby Face for example. Sometimes, however, they’re hilarious. 1942’s My Sister Eileen finds not one, but two women looking to hit the big time. One is a writer, the other an actress – and as you may have already guessed from the title, they’re sisters.
Ruth Sherwood (Rosalind Russell) is a reporter for the Columbus Courier. Her sister Eileen (Janet Blair) is a would-be actress whose experience has literally taken her nowhere. As it happens, Ruth wants to help her sister and writes an article about a local play in which Eileen is set to star. The only problem is, Eileen is bumped from the play, compromising the accuracy of Ruth’s story, and Ruth is subsequently fired. This does not bode well for either girl, both unemployed, unmarried, and on a fast track to failure. The girls’ grandmother (Elizabeth Patterson, known years later for her frequent appearances on I Love Lucy) urges them to move to New York with the hopes of finding the right connection. It sounds wonderful to all concerned, except the girls’ father Walter (Grant Mitchell), a curmudgeonly man who sees no point in having his daughters leave their hometown. Nevertheless, with some help from grandmother’s influence, both girls board a bus for the Big Apple the following morning.
Almost immediately upon their arrival, a plethora of comedic roadblocks stand in the way. The first day is spent trudging through the streets of New York with luggage in search of an apartment. Hours pass before they settle on the only place they can afford, a basement, bunker-like apartment in Greenwich Village with an open window to outside foot traffic. Luckily for Ruth and Eileen, the summer weather keeps them warm, but the inability to block out the city noise (especially repeated blasts from street work nearby) make the living environment side-splittingly miserable.
Ruth starts pounding the pavement with her writing. An attempt at finding work with Manhatter Magazine proves fruitless, more so because of an argument she has with its publisher Ralph Craven (Clyde Fillmore). Still, Ruth’s work is professional and worthy of being read, a fact quickly discovered by Manhatter’s editor Robert Baker (Brian Aherne). Baker takes a sudden interest in Ruth and mercilessly goes to bat for her. When he meets Eileen, the blonde and more alluring Sherwood sister, he finds himself interested in her stage aspirations. Baker’s involvement is fine, but money is running low, and a ridiculous sequence of events continues to push the girls closer to admitting that their father may have been right.
My Sister Eileen is undoubtedly Rosalind Russell’s film. Her dry wit and off the wall comments make this a nonstop ride of funny moments. Janet Blair’s Eileen is slightly naïve, but a good person and very innocent. She seems unaware that men everywhere are bidding for her attention. Ruth has basically accepted her fate as the less-desired sister (though she is by no means unattractive). Ruth is wiser, and perhaps more conscious of life’s difficulty; Eileen is carefree and looks to her sister for guidance. Both Russell and Blair turn in great performances here. Brian Aherne’s character keeps the viewer guessing, mostly because we’re never really sure if he has an ulterior motive for helping the girls or if he is a genuinely nice guy. Just when we think he may be ready to pull his mask off, it doesn’t happen, and we start to think “maybe he’s just…..nice?”
Sadly, the only DVD treatment this film has gotten is as part of Sony’s Icons of Screwball Comedy line. I say “sadly” because there are no special features or bonus material associated with the film. The beginnings of My Sister Eileen started long before this 1942 effort and extended well beyond. The story was originally a series of autobiographical articles written by Ruth McKenney for The New Yorker. From there, a successful 1940 Broadway play was produced before finally making it to the big screen. In 1946, Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair reprised their roles for a radio adaptation. A 1953 Broadway musical, a 1955 film remake, and a very short-lived 1960 television series followed. My Sister Eileen (this version) could have benefited from a bonus documentary about the history of the story and its influence across several mediums. Hopefully one day this film will get a better release.
If you love to laugh, this film is one to see. The antics are widespread, but it is the subtle comments and lightning wit of Rosalind Russell’s character that really put this comedy over the top. Finally, a surprise cameo at the very end is sure to catch you off guard; I certainly didn’t expect it!
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