Monday, 17 November 2014

My Sister Eileen: the film

A while ago I blogged about the lovely book My Sister Eileen by Ruth McKenney, which I heartily recommend. And in the latest meet-up for Simon and Andrea's Film Club, we watched the film - well, one of the films. It turns out this unassuming little collection of childhood and adolescent memories had quite an afterlife - although mostly focusing on the few chapters dealing with life in a New York basement.

All the posters I can find seem to think Janet Leigh's legs are the star.

There was a play, a 1940s film, a stage musical (called Wonderful Town), and this film - from 1955. I think the script might be similar to the play and Wonderful Town, but they couldn't get the rights to Leonard Bernstein's music - and so new music was written (and, so the Wikipedia entry informs me, even had to appear at different stages of the narrative - so as to avoid possible suing.)

I thought it would be fun - but I hadn't realised how great it would be. I really love this film!

The sisters are played by Janet Leigh and the remarkably Betty Garrett (Eileen and Ruth respectively); they do indeed live in a basement flat, just about the subway, and Ruth is trying to make it as a journalist. That's about where the similarities with the book begin and end. (Oh, except for the introduction of the Brazilian Navy - which is quite out of keeping with the rest of the film, though still great fun, and seems too far-fetched, despite being true.) In the film, Ruth is the plain-Jane to Eileen's beauty (and, while Betty Garrett is hilariously dry and feisty, in her early 20s she ain't). They both meet eligible young men - one of whom is Jack Lemmon; the other of whom is choreographer Bob Fosse (who plays a complete sweetheart, in Frank Lippincott; Jack Lemmon's character is rather creepier by modern standards, but is - I believe - intended to be romantically forceful in the '50s.)

Alongside their sororal relationship is the bedrock of the film, it's actually rather a lovely ensemble piece. Special mention must go to charming Dick York, their rugged, friendly neighbour, who pops in to do their ironing (although he won't do sewing; 'that's woman's work') and protect them from unsuitable suitors. We spent the entire film thinking he was called Rick (in a Noo Yoik accent), but it turns out he actually is called the Wreck - his wrestling nickname. Sure, why not?

My favourite songs were the two frenetic, cheery ones - 'I'm Great (But No One Knows It)', and the superb 'Give Me a Band And My Baby', in which the four participating characters pretend to be playing various instruments. And the dancing! Leigh and Garrett aren't terrible, but it's Fosse and Tommy Rall who dazzle and amaze - particularly in a tap-dancing scene. Indeed, Rall's character (a romantic rival for Frank L) seems to be there simply to give Fosse a dancing partner of equal talent, but I'm not complaining.

I don't really know why a film as joyful, funny, engaging, and beautiful as My Sister Eileen - with great songs and exceptional dancers - ever fell out of favour, but I certainly hadn't heard of it until lately. And is Betty Garrett known? Wikipedia tells me she was blacklisted in the US during MacCarthyism. She is so brilliant in this - delivering a withering line like nobody's business, and remaining entirely sympathetic throughout.  Janet Leigh is also good fun, and an able comedian. It's basically all a delight - which is fitting, given what a delight the book is.

Amusingly, Andrea and I spent some time musing on the fact that the song 'Why-oh-why-oh-why did I leave Ohio' (or whatever it's called) would have been a good fit, and kept wondering if it would turn up - only to discover later that it's in Wonderful Town, and thus would have been a very good fit!

Do track down the DVD - and enjoy this poor quality video of 'Give Me A Band and My Baby' as an introduction:


  1. I have never seen this musical (but I will - I love classic Hollywood musicals from the '30s-'50s) but had to comment that Betty Garrett is in two great Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra films - "On the Town" and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and she is wonderful in both of those! The blacklisting of the McCarthy Era was such a travesty. She made a comeback in the very silly (but popular) '70s sitcom "Laverne & Shirley" as their landlady and they started building in musical numbers so that she could sing and dance.

    Thanks for the review!

  2. Recommendation noted! With the onset of winter darkness, we need something to brighten up our evenings; just the other day my husband & I said, "You know, we should watch some more movies..." So we hit the dvd shelves at the library and picked up a few things. Just finished watching the musical "Chicago" earlier this evening, the one starring Zeta-Jones, Zellwegger (sp?) and Gere, and of course based on the choreo of the one and only Fosse (I'm a fan!) so would be grand to see him actually in action in this one, too. I've read 'My Sister Eileen' and thought it dandy; you make the musical sound a lot of fun, too, despite its departure from the actual storyline of its inspiration.

  3. Betty Garrett was also in All In The Family as a recurring character. I believe she was married to Larry Parks, whose career was also derailed by McCarthyism.

  4. It sounds lovely Simon - and ideal for these nasty cold, dark nights! I love a classic film (more than I like modern ones!) - shall look out for this!

  5. I love Betty Garrett! As Annie D mentions she is wonderful in those Gene Kelly films - steals the show which is hard with Gene around. Must get both the book and the film.

  6. When I googled Betty Garrett, I immediately recognized her as the landlady, Mrs. Babish, from Laverne & Shirley as Annie D mentioned. This does look like a fun film to watch.

    Wikepedia reminds me that Betty Garret was also in On The Town, which is a great film as I remember it. That film is also another example of a good dancer vs a great dancer, when you watch the dance sequences with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.

  7. Many thanks for this, Simon. I love Janet Leigh but have never seen this film nor read the book. Will try to remedy both omissions! GuyFS


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