DVD: My Sister Eileen (1942)

August 8, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Sony

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  August 4, 2009

Genre:  Screwball Comedy

Synopsis: Two sisters venture from Cleveland, Ohio, to the Big Apple in search of careers in the arts, settle into a less than ideal basement pad in Greenwich Village, and encounter several screwballs.

Special Features:  Theatrical Trailer.




Although based on the stage play by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov (and derived from Ruth McKenney’s short stories), this first film version of the play is a classic screwball comedy that benefits immensely from the casting of Rosalind Russell, already known for her fast dialogue delivery in the acidic drama / epic catfight The Women (1939), and playing the definitive Hildy Johnson in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940).

Ruth Sherwood is an admittedly less confident writer, starting her career from scratch, navigating through sexist publishers and caddish editors just to get a page of her work read, but the verve, fast reactions & timing, and (literal) ass-kicking personality is very close to Hildy. (Perhaps Fields & Chodorov were inspired by Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur’s hit 1928 play and 1940 screenplay?)

The story is very archetypal of the genre: two sisters gamble on their guts and talent and travel from Ohio to NYC in search of career and maybe some romance. Elder sis Ruth (Russell) shops her manuscript to the publishers of slick story periodical The Mad Hatter, while younger sister Eileen (Janet Blair) yearns for a plum acting gig after her supposed debut in Ohio becomes an unexpected embarrassment.

In NYC, the pair find nothing affordable, and are lured by fast-talking landlord Papa Appopolous (George Tobias in Curly Greek Wig #15) into taking the basement unit in a tenement building. The Greenwich Village locale is semi-Bohemian and bustles with passersby day & night, but being directly above a proposed subway line, the girls are treated to 18 hours of intermittent dynamiting. Broken locks allow the landlord, sex fiends, and Portuguese sailors easy entry; their half-moon window entices drunks to sit & kick their legs with glee at the nightie-clad sisters; and the building’s genial musclehead, The Wreck (Gordon Jones), crashes for a few nights in the girls  ‘kitchen’ until his fiancee’s visiting mother has left the building.

While Ruth pricks the interest of fast-talking Mad Hatter editor Bob Baker (suave Brian Aherne), attractive Eileen brings home two oddball suitors – Frank Lippincott, manager of a drugstore café (future director Richard Quine), and sleazy reporter Chick Clark (sleazy Allyn Joslyn). Landlord Appopolous also waits for the right time to force a smooch on Eileen, while Ruth is pretty much yesterday’s chopped liver to all except Bob, who progresses from a supporter of her writing to being entranced by her sharp, self-deprecating wit.

Director Richard Hall (Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Let’s Do It Again) may not have opted for fast cuts and any major camera movements nor allowed for much music in this dialogue-heavy film, but the pacing is kept very brisk, never slowing down for arty shots or visual vignettes of life in the big city. The lean script retains (presumably) the play’s convention of having an apartment of faulty locks that enable characters to barge or creep in and stir up tension in the girl’s hovel of a home, plus ignite a few goofball situations.

There’s much risqué material for a film made during the era of the Production Code. When the former tenant and her old client make separate pop-ins, her business cards insinuate her specialties went beyond afternoon-only fortune telling sessions, but the most outrageous gag comes after Eileen is arrested for enticing a round of conga dancing with Portuguese sailors: before she’s seen onscreen, we hear ‘Now open your mouth!’ as several grinning coppers surround her jail cell.

Other screwball gems have big mouth Bob & Ruth’s midnight banter waking up the upper neighbours in building’s the alley, Portuguese sailors forcing a round of ‘Conga!’ on the girls, and several perfectly timed nighttime intrusions that ensure the girls will enjoy neither privacy nor silence for quality shuteye.

My Sister Eileen offers a good supporting cast of character actors, especially Donald MacBride as one of the film’s many Irish-only cops. His long mug graced countless comedies and he often punctuated the imbecilic behaviour of others with one of the broadest facial depictions of outright frustration. (His reaction to Cosmo Topper’s “I want to sing!” declaration in Topper Returns is priceless.) Also of note is the cameo appearance of a particular comedic trio known for their nose-tweaking, face-slapping, head-smacking antics.

As was the practice of the era, studios would reunite some of the cast for special radio show adaptations, and with My Sister Eileen being one of the studio’s hits of 1942, Russell and co-stars Blair, Aherne, and Tobias reprised their roles for the May 18, 1946 episode of Academy Award Theater.

With material distilled to less than 20 mins. (!) plus extended sponsor blather about Lady Esther Cream, it’s a real curio to hear this severe condensation that seems to take material from the story, the play, and the film; overall it works, but perhaps half of the success comes from us being already familiar with the film and the cast in what are ostensibly half-hour samplers. Nevertheless, it’s a sly balance of narration and choice dialogue excerpts, and it’s available for free in a mini-package of radio shows starring Rosalind Russell via arvichive.org.

Russell would reprise the role of Ruth in the 1953 musical adaptation with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. That production features very different character emphases, new scenes, and a completely overhauled finale. The multiple Tony Award-winning musical was restaged with Russell for a live TV airing in 1958. (A more detailed breakdown of the two musicals + thoughts on the short-lived TV series based on Fields & Chodorov’s material appears in the review of the 1955 film.)

Co-star Aherne had appeared in The Constant Nymph (1933), Sylvia  Scarlett (1935), and Juarez (1939), and his later work includes Titanic (1953) and Prince Valiant (1954), whereas Janet Blair maintained a modest career in smaller productions and several TV appearances during the 1960s.

Jerome Chodorov’s film work lay primarily within the 1930s and 1940s, whereas prolific Joseph Fields contributed to the Marx Bros. classic A Night in Casablanca (1946), and the iconic musicals Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Flower Drum Song (1961).

My Sister Eileen appears in Vol. 1 of Sony’s Icons of Screwball Comedy, which also includes If You Could Only Cook (1935), Too Many Husbands (1940), and She Wouldn’t Say Yes (1945). Vol. 2 includes Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940), A Night to Remember (1943), and Together Again (1944).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan






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