BR: My Sister Eileen (1955)

August 8, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  June 19, 2018

Genre:  Musical / Comedy

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

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track (with some Dialogue & Sound Effects) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Richard Quine’s remake of Columbia’s 1942 film adds to the colourful yet convoluted history of Ruth McKenney’s short stories which were turned into a 1940 play by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, followed by the 1942 film version penned by the playwrights, and superseded by a separate 1953 stage musical based on McKenney’s material (rebranded Wonderful Town) which featured music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and had actress Rosalind Russell reprising her Oscar-nominated film role in both the ’53 stage version and the 1958 CBS teleplay.

The stage musical’s success proved too irresistible for Columbia to ignore, but in lieu of costly music rights, the studio commissioned new songs by Jules Styne and Leo Robin, and dance numbers by Bob Fosse, who also played the role of Frank Lippincott originated by Quine in both the 1940 stage and 1942 film versions.

Got that?

With colour and CinemaScope, the 1955 version retains most of the same characters from the original film with some unique modifications. Gone is the setting of WWII and the need to economize, as are opening scenes in which sisters Ruth (Betty Garrett) and Eileen (Janet Leigh) make it clear to their father and grandmother that they need to leave Cleveland, Ohio, for the Big Apple and seek careers as writer and actress, respectively.

In the ’55 film, Eileen seems to have earned greater screen time, and while writers Quine and a young Blake Edwards exploit Leigh’s obvious sexuality, in both film versions of Fields & Chodorov’s story, the central plot follows Ruth’s goal to become an independent working woman. She still needs to break into the male-dominated world of publishing and its sexist tsars, but Ruth remains convinced her talent just has to save herself and Eileen from a dank, dark basement apartment that rumbles whenever the workmen blast deeper for a new subway line.

Both films feature sex-hungry men, and it’s worth noting how Ruth’s publisher Bob Baker is upgraded from 1942’s chattering, suave, but generally restrained cad to, well, a total creep. Jack Lemmon’s innate goofiness softens the edges a bit, but Bob’s no gentleman, trying to get Ruth hammered in his beautiful mid-century bachelor pad so he can take full advantage of her by the fireplace. Ruth still feels she’s an old maid – a constant source of gags and self-deprecating ribbing – but Bob ‘55 is very direct in being attracted to her, a hunger that’s left almost to the very end in the ‘42 version and the ’58 teleplay.

Where Eileen ‘42 is eyed, groped, manhandled, and chased by men, director Quine allowed costumer designer Jean Louis to maximize Janet Leigh’s figure and flowing blonde hair, and any groping is translated into song & dance routines, both inside the small but CinemaScope-friendly apartment and wider exterior locations.

All the key scenes & vital dialogue from the ‘42 film are retained, but the quest for Eileen’s heart and panties by drugstore cafe manager Lippincott (Bob Fosse) and reporter Chick (Tommy Rall) is expanded in a few new scenes at the drug store.

Fosse’s boyish looks suit Lippincott, and Rall’s wide grin make his version of Chick a real crocodile, and the pair’s alley duel outside of a burlesque studio is an incredible work of spiraling acrobatics, timing, and lithe movements. The quartet’s number in a park gazebo is equally lively, and Leigh shows off her own dancing skills spinning and whirring while Fosse articulates some smooth, slow-motion gestures.

 

 

The new songs by Styne and Robin are perfectly fine, but it is strange no official soundtrack album was ever released of the numbers nor underscore. (Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports an isolated mono music track comprised of songs – some just instrumental backing – and George Duning’s underscore, with a few cues taken from the music & effects track.)

Perhaps Columbia felt the shadow of the Comden / Green / Bernstein material was so stark, it seemed pointless to compete; there’s also a sense that the film was made to cash-in on the stage musical’s success, and for the studio to reassert its rights of the film stories for a future remake, if not an update for subsequent audiences… which ultimately materialized in a short-lived TV series in 1960. (More on that one later.)

Sony’s HD transfer is gorgeous and flatters Charles Lawton Jr.’s beautiful colours and compositions, including the dark dramatic shadows which accentuate the absurdness of the basement apartment where street lights beam through the barred window, and Leigh’s figure is neat arranged for the 2.35:1 ratio. Lawton’s other striking work includes many classic Columbia westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Cowboy, Comanche Station), and a pair of Rita Hayworth classics (The Lady from Shanghai, and the 3D musical hybrid Miss Sadie Thompson).

Other notable changes to the original film characters include making greedy landlord Appopolous (played by broad, gravel-voices, and grandiose Kurt Kasznar) less of a creep and more of benevolent but still-obnoxious father figure. His painting hobby is still present, but his art receives less screen time. Upstairs neighbour and beefcake ‘Wreck’ Loomis is still the same, but it’s neat to see young Dick York playing the broad character in place of more straight dramatic work in Inherit the Wind (1960), and prior to the hit TV series Bewitched (1964-1969).

Perhaps the biggest challenge in pulling off a successful remake is the casting of Ruth. Although Betty Garrett didn’t earn any Oscar nods, she gives a fine rendition of the story’s star character, adding her own deft delivery of lines, reactions, and physical maneuvering through dance and physical comedy. It’s a great performance that should’ve led to a steady career – Garrett had already appeared in the 1949 classics Neptune’s Daughter and On the Town – but the actress and husband / actor Larry Parks were blacklisted after HUAC. Her last feature before a 50 year gap would be The Shadow on the Window (1957) for Columbia, but she had memorable & regular roles in TV’s All in the Family (1973-1975) and Laverne & Shirley (1976-1981).

As a director, Richard Quine had a real winning streak with The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956), Bell Book and Candle (1958), The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and other light comedies plus the odd drama at Columbia, but the next decade would see him working in episodic TV until The Prisoner of Zenda (1979), and directing part of the disastrous The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), his last film before committing suicide in 1989.

If the stage musical managed to eclipse Columbia’s remake, its stars and choreographer have ensured the film’s standing as a worthy update of the original play. (The story of two women seeking careers in the big city is timeless, and could be updated with some clever gender reversals and pokes at contemporary corporate culture.) Julie Kirgo’s essay traces the characters’ journey from McKenney’s semi-autobiographical short stories in The New Yorker to book form in 1938, the original play directed by George S. Kaufman, the 1942 film and 1946 radio show, and adds some backstory to the young & talented cast. (See the review of the 1942 film for further details on that film + radio show.)

Neither TT’s Blu nor Sony’s DVD of the 1942 film feature a commentary track that sorts out the eccentric history of the stage, film and separate musical versions derived from McKenney’s stories, and adding to the complex history is Russell’s return to the role on live TV.

 

The 1958 Teleplay

Perhaps the reason a spinoff soundtrack album never followed was due to the pre-existing love among fans for Wonderful Town and its Tony Award-winning music. Styne & Robins’ ’55 songs are longer and better designed to showcase the film’s dance numbers, whereas the Bernstein-Comden-Green songs are sometimes musical vignettes, kept tight to keep the story moving and support the innovative dance numbers.

The two musical interpretations are very distinct animals, and although the surviving ‘58 kinescope of the CBS broadcast is reportedly missing some material – there’s a jump around (55:40) between Bob’s solo and Eileen and Chick cleaning up in the apartment after dinner – it shows some of the sharp story editing that prunes & reorders character appearances, and radically changes the events leading up to the finale where Bob states his love for Ruth.

Rosalind Russell was the only original stage cast member to return for the teleplay, and although it’s a role she owns top-down, in each film & stage incarnation, Ruth is more or less a late-ish twentysomething / mid-thirtysomething struggling writer, so to soften the transition of Russell’s reprise 16 years after the first feature film, many of the actors are a little older as well. The passage of time hasn’t dimmed Russell’s energy, though, as she proves she’s perfectly skilled at physical comedy in the classic “Conga!” sequences.

Like the ’55 film adaptation, the girls’ father & grandmother have been deleted, but landlord Appopolous appears only at the beginning & end; more unusually, he woos The Wreck’s future mother-in-law (Dark Shadows’ Isabella Hoopes), adding to the teleplay’s sugary finale where love affects more than the two sisters. The mother-in-law’s appearance is delayed towards the denouement, and Bob’s appearance at the police station is designed to stir up a little jealousy between Ruth and her pretty younger sister, who also has eyes on the suave editor.

In the finale of both films, everything is resolved at the apartment, but perhaps to open up the musical, everything wraps up at the Village Vortex, a jazzy bohemian club where Eileen is set to make her singing & acting debut. Instead of Bob ’42 handing Ruth a paycheque for the sale of her story which enables the girls to keep their apartment, two strokes of luck enable them to stay put in NYC: Eileen’s gig at the Vortex, and Chick giving Ruth an official press pass for more reportage.

As in the ’42 film, the former tenant / fortune teller has one (shorter) scene, but unlike both films, Lippincott’s presence is slowly reduced, and he’s pushed to the margins because that character lacks Chick’s connections, which ultimately help Ruth. Chick’s also less of a creep and redeems himself by giving Ruth a career break instead of fake leads.

Chick also gets one great scene at the Vortex: when he tries to cross the dance floor to reach a table, he becomes entangled in the slow, acrobatic motions of the hip dancers. The wordless “Ballet at the Village Vortex” is one of the musical’s standout numbers where characters come close to plastic cartoon characters, a link aided by the striking backdrops where realistic scale and geometry are replaced with fanciful exaggerations evoking a Maurice Noble sketch.

Alongside prolific TV director Mel Ferber, Herbert Ross earned his first credit, co-directing and most likely handling sequences where the dancers filled scenes. Ross’ contributions are the most energetic moments in the teleplay, and he shows no fear in placing the camera inches from action, with dancers whipping past the lens to immerse TV audiences into the drama.

The nighttime “Swing!” number in the street set is a real treat, as Russell leads a frenetic troupe and the studio editor cuts on explosive hand gestures; and in the opening “Christopher Street” sequence, the camera glides along the large set as personnel shift from active movements to cartoon friezes, including a kissing couple.

Like the films, the “Conga!” sequence is a major highlight, but it’s not held entirely at the apartment. The bulk of the number takes place at the dock, and Russell shows she’s fully fit to be tossed, yanked, twirled, and flopped around like a rag doll, still singing and hitting all her performance marks. The sailors eventually arrive at the girls’ place, but it’s a short coda before the prison scene with Eileen.

Awkwardness is front & centre in the “Conversation Piece” number where the spaghetti & meatball dinner is upgraded to a sitting & drinking session in the complex’s shared courtyard. Bernstein’s mocking brass punctuate the silence that follows each character’s embarrassing attempt at jovial & witty observations, and it’s probably the key scene where Lippincott loses his stature as Eileen’s worthy suitor.

Several gags from the original ’42 script are retained (notably Ruth holding up the sample of roughage-friendly cereal “Nature’s Broom”). The cast is uniformly strong, and although Jacquelyn McKeever doesn’t have Janet Leigh’s smoldering qualities, the sharpness and range of her voice are memorable. McKeever’s filmed appearances are very small – her only other credits are appearances on Look Up and Live (1954), Omnibus (1959), and Bronco (1959) – as were Sidney Chaplin’s, whose deep voice and striking looks were better welcomed by stage productions.

Chaplin’s perhaps too handsome for Bob, but his version is also the least creepy: Bob ’42 is chatty and annoying but shows interest whenever there’s a beautiful woman; Bob ’55 has eyes only on Ruth, and is clearly a womanizer, entering a chi-chi club with his secretary (sultry Adele August) wrapped up like a slick print model in a deep red dress; Bob ’58 has better manners, and as revised by the writers, he becomes a contrived wedge between the sisters until Eileen makes him realize his heart is glued to the elder sister, so he returns to the club and professes his love to Ruth.

The popular 1953 musical migrated to London in 1955, TV in 1958, and was formally revived in 2003, but as for the 1958 kinescope, it’s reportedly the only filmed record of Russell in her third most famous role after His Girl Friday‘s Hildy and Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame (also 1958). Even in its slightly incomplete form, at 105 mins. Wonderful Town should be given a special disc release with extras that use the musical to trace the popularity of the characters and core story through plays, musicals, and movies instead of the current copy-of-a-copy on YouTube. There’s barely any detail, and although original ads of sponsor Westclox have been excised, the original wipes that followed ad breaks are intact. [Note: the full teleplay has since been pulled, leaving just excerpts of the musical numbers.]

Herbert Ross would produce musical and composer-themed episodes of The Bell Telephone Hour between 1964-1966 before returning to directing and make his auspicious feature film debut with Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969). His other classics include The Sunshine Boys (1975), The Seven-per-Cent Solution (1976), Footloose (1984), and Steel Magnolias (1989).

 

Finally, the 1960 TV series

Maybe Columbia had their sights on a TV spinoff after it was clear the most exploitable aspect of McKenney’s property was the original story, hence the single season show produced by the studio’s small screen Screen Gems division for CBS.

Apparently the brainchild of writer-producer-director and comedian Dick Wesson, the revamped storyline focused on the sisters trying to eke out careers after moving to NYC, and although unavailable on home video, the lone sampler on YouTube (“The Photography Mix-Up”) reveals some major changes to McKenney’s group of characters.

Ruth (Elaine Stritch) and Eileen (Shirley Bonne) are living in the slightly less dank and deep basement apartment managed by Apppopolous (Leon Belasco), but gone is soda jerk Lippincott and Mad Hatter editor Bob. The “Photography” episode introduces Chick, now a sleazy middle-aged reporter played by Jack Weston (!) taking peep shots of Eileen as she’s sun tanning on her building’s roof for an upcoming Hawaiian photo shoot audition.

Chick takes the shots to the editor of adult magazine Bonne Vivant, and a “glamour” photographer is scheduled to drop by the Sherwood’s pad, the address identified because Chick used his zoom lens to read Ruth’s name on the typewriter Eileen was using to write the family. Chick also thinks Eileen is Ruth when she dons a brunette wig, hence the episode’s Great Mix-Up.

Meanwhile, Ruth is shown working as a secretary and sandwich girl at a short story publication, and although she aspires to get her work in print, she’s part of the ‘prison’ that houses similarly older women who’ve given up on the dream of rich careers, including ‘mentor’ Bertha, played by comedienne Rose Marie, who’d immediately find success a year later on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966).

The laughtrack-augmented jokes are tired, the direction flat and dull, with camera angles placed straight-on or in corners in what looks like a very low budget production with just a handful of sets; even the Sherwoods’ apartment is barely decorated with the furniture and nick-nacks seen in the films. Appopolous is an even bigger creep, entering their home when he feels like it, and the girls seem more than tolerant of his invasive behaviour and shifts from cheery career supporter to cold heart, ready to turf them within 24 hours.

Without a quality overhaul, it’s unsurprising the series was cancelled after 27 episodes, which may have been a blessing since series regulars were limited to creep Chick, creep Appopolous, publisher Mr. Beaumont (veteran character actor Raymond Bailey), and new character Marty Scott (veteran comedian Stubby Kaye).

Tom Reese (Shadows,Vanishing Point) played The Wreck’s one-time appearance in presumably the pilot episode “You Should See My Sister,” penned by McKenney herself, and Canadian Anne Helm played Eileen in what’s presumed to be the pilot before Bonne took over the role. Other one-episode appearances included future game show host Bert Convey, John Banner (Hogan’s Heroes), and Wesson himself in the presumed pilot, who drew from his years on The Bob Cummings Show and brought in Bonne and Marie.

Wesson later wrote episodes for Petticoat Junction (1963-1964) and The Beverly Hillbillies (1968-1971), Bonne achieved some pop culture immortality in the classic 1966 Star Trek episode “Shore Leave,” and Stritch enjoyed a long career in stage, TV and film, including Woody Allen’s September (1987) and Small Time Crooks (2000).

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:

Amazon Canada —  Amazon USA —  Amazon UK

 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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