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Monday, July 26, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #22: My Sister Eileen, 1942

"Eileen, I don't think you were ready to leave Ohio!"

My Sister Eileen, 1942

Director: Alexander Hall
Writers: Joseph Fields & Jerome Chodorov from their play based on stories by Ruth McKenney
Cinematographer: Joseph Walker
Produced by: Max Gordon for Columbia Pictures
Starring: Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, Janet Blair, George Tobias

Why I chose it
In my pre-classic-film-loving days, I saw a revival of Leonard Bernstein's musical Wonderful Town on Broadway and loved it, but had no appreciation of the source material, and had no idea there were movies based on the story. Until now, that is, when this one was recommended by a film friend. It then tied in my Twitter poll with Kings Row, but my need for a change of pace and the Bernstein connection prompted me to watch it.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Sisters Eileen and Ruth Sherwood (Janet Blair and Rosalind Russell) are two aspiring career women in acting and news writing respectably, who have bumped up against their limits in their hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and set out to make their names in New York, much to the chagrin of their father and grandmother (Grant Mitchell and Elizabeth Patterson). Once in NYC, they struggle to find a suitable apartment and make do with a basement-level apartment with an open window to the sidewalk above (!). All kinds of unsavory characters try to take advantage of the greenhorns, especially beautiful, vivacious but somewhat dim Eileen, while they pound the pavement in search of their big break. Meanwhile, as the brains of the outfit, Ruth gets offered a contract to sell her autobiographical story My Sister Eileen for The Mad Hatter magazine, thanks to handsome editor Robert Baker (Brian Aherne), except that he gets fired for his efforts before she can sign.

Production Background 
Ruth McKenney was a writer who moved from the Midwest to NYC with her sister Eileen and wrote about it for the New Yorker magazine. The stories captured the public's imagination and were converted to a Broadway play, which, like many of the successful ones, found its way to Hollywood, with Columbia paying over $200K for the film rights.

The two lead actresses clashed on set, with Janet Blair apparently trying to upstage Russell (who would blame her, as Russell was quite the force). After getting a talking-to, Blair graciously accepted Russell's offer to coach her. The film earned Russell the first of her four Oscar nominations.

Some other notable film-related events in 1942 (from

  • Best Picture-winning Casablanca (1942), based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick's and set in 1941 war-time Morocco, premiered in New York. Its studio, Warner Bros., capitalized on the war-time events occurring (the Allied landings in N. Africa that mentioned the city). Although one of the most quoted movies of all time, it has one pervasive misquote: No one said, "Play it again, Sam."
  • During a War Bond promotional tour, 33-year-old popular star Carole Lombard, Clark Gable's wife, was killed in a plane crash near Las Vegas, Nevada on January 16, 1942, just before the release of her final film.
  • The Hollywood Canteen was founded (by Bette Davis, John Garfield, and others) and opened its doors on Cahuenga Blvd. to provide free entertainment (food, dancing, etc.) to servicemen by those in the industry. It operated for just over three years as a morale booster, during the war years, and was the impetus for the Warners' film Hollywood Canteen (1944), featuring lots of stars in cameo roles.
  • Lena Horne was the first African-American woman to sign a long-term contract with a major studio (MGM) as a specialty performer, meaning that she was initially cast in parts and subplots (usually separate singing scenes) that could be edited out for showings in Southern theaters.

My Random Observations

  • I think of screwball comedies being more a thing of the 1930s, but this film is proof that the genre lasted into the early 1940s at least. Wild, wacky, and not the least bit realistic, this farce is a showcase for the performers hamming it up/doing their schticks. It's amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. It's appropriate that Columbia stars The Three Stooges make an appearance during the proceedings.
  • Rosalind Russell is fresh off her brilliant role as Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, and in this film she plays maybe an earlier version of this character, just learning her way in the big city. She has the smarts and wisecracks ready to go. She's good here, but I would have liked to see a younger actor who could project small town optimism a bit more than thirty-something Russell.
  • Russell and Brian Aherne, her potential (?) love interest, were a good match, but I would have liked to see a bit more sparring between these two, a la Beatrice & Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
  • Despite the farcical tone, there are several suggestive scenes scripted around Eileen's attractiveness and naivete, but one, in particular, showed her about to get raped...and the tone of that seemed dead serious to me. That one could be deleted with no ill effects.
  • I'm now eager to see the 1955 film version with Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon (I imagine Lemmon is a bit zanier than Brian Aherne as his character is billed as a "playboy"). Seems it's a new screenplay by Blake Edwards.
  • I may never get the little ditty "I'm a rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech but a heck of an engineer" out of my head. TOO many repetitions of this one sung by "Wreck Loomis". Here is the college's fight song performed by the Glee Club in 1953. (Told you so!)

The tone of this one is set at the beginning when Eileen (Janet Blair) looks
clownish when despairing to Dad that she lost her part to the boss's daughter.
Ruth (Russell) takes encouragement from Granny (Elizabeth
Patterson) who doesn't oppose the sisters running off to NYC.

"Somewhere in Greenwich Village there is an apartment for us!"

Landlord Appopolous (Tobias) explains to the ladies that
the lack of a window means they get to watch all that goes
on on the street.

Allyn Joslyn plays a newspaperman who takes an "interest"
in Eileen's career.

Ruth and Robert Baker try to convince his boss at The Mad
Hatter magazine that Ruth's opinions might be worth listening to.

Eileen tries to entertain a new beau (Richard Quine, right)
when simultaneously being hit on by Chic Clark (Joslyn).

Baker and Ruth get to know each other in the backseat of a cab.

"The Wreck" Loomis (Gordon Jones) does the ironing in 
exchange for crashing at the ladies' apartment to escape 
his mother-in-law.

Former renter "Effie" (June Havoc) tries to explain to the ladies
why strange men keep showing up uninvited to the apartment.

The uncomfortable scene I mentioned above.

Yes, even sailors from the Portuguese navy end up as 
uninvited guests.

Donald MacBride is appropriately sour as the neighborhood cop.

Recognize that mug bursting up through the floor? (Just
when you thought it was safe to sleep in your basement apartment)

Where to Watch: Not available now on any streaming platform, you can get it as part of the "Icons of Screwball Comedy" DVD set. Check out your local library or purchase on Amazon.

Further Reading: I highly recommend this essay by fellow CMBA blogger Blonde at the Film, for many more plot and production details and a comparison between this film and the 1955 version.


  1. I enjoyed your "Random Observations"! I haven't seen this version, but I have seen the one with Jack Lemmon. I enjoyed the later version immensely, but your fourth "Random Observation" could apply to the later one, as I recall. It's uncomfortable in a comedy, in any setting, but maybe that was the point? It's still a good film and I think worth checking out.

    1. I think I will make the later film my choice when I get to 1955! I'd be willing to bet they handled that icky scene better there. Here, I couldn't decide if it was meant to be funny, in an odd way, and wasn't, or whether it just wasn't seen as egregious as we see that kind of behavior today. Either way, it didn't work for me. I realize my post may probably makes it appear as if I disliked the film. I didn't, but it won't be something I'll return to soon.

      Thanks for stopping by, Marianne!

  2. I enjoy all versions of the "Eileen" stories. Ruth McKenney's stories are on the short list of books I have read on the subway that have made passengers stare at the woman laughing out loud along with most P.G. Wodehouse and Booth Tarkington's Penrod.