I first saw "My Sister Eileen" years ago as a kid. In the early 90's, I saw the film at a tribute to Betty Garrett at which she was present to answer questions. I found her to be a wonderful person full of humor and warm remembrances of her co-stars and experience in Hollywood. She talked candidly about the blacklist that kept her and husband Larry Parks out of films for several years until she made this film, but did not show any signs of bitterness over the experience. What a wonderful lady!
Anyway, the film still holds up 46 years later as a fresh and entertaining remake of the Rosalind Russell film of the 40's which I have yet to see. Russell had done the Broadway musical version, "Wonderful Town", which was also done as a TV special some time during the 50's as well. Since Leonard Bernstein was not willing to let his music go without a huge price, Columbia instead hired Jule Styne to write the music. I have seen the TV version of "Wonderful Town" which is enjoyable, but this film brings the story to life in color and with beautiful location footage of New York's Greenwich Village. Shots of the surrounding area including the famous Washington Square make this a must for lovers of the Big Apple. Having visited Greenwich Village several times in the past couple years, I was amazed by how much it has NOT changed! This aspect alone makes "My Sister Eileen" seem as fresh today as it was during its initial release.
As Eileen, Janet Leigh is perky and lovable, but it is Betty Garrett who steals the scene as Ruth with her wonderfully likable personality. The not-so-plain jane, Garrett is a struggling writer who comes to New York from Ohio with her pretty sister (Leigh) whom all the boys go gaga over, making Ruth feel unattractive. Before you know it, Eileen has the attentions of sweet Bob Fosse and scoundral Tommy Rall, while Ruth finds herself attracted to publisher Jack Lemmon. In only his third year in Hollywood films, Lemmon had proved himself to be a versitile actor. This was one of three musical remakes he did at Columbia during the mid 50's. The other two were "Three For the Show" (a remake of "Too Many Husbands") and "You Can't Run Away From It" (a remake of "It Happened One Night"). He sings one song ("It's Bigger Than You or Me"), and doesn't do too badly!
Then, there are two other characters who fit into the storyline: shyster landlord Kurt Kasznar, and athlete neighbor Dick York (of "Bewitched" fame). Kasznar, Rall, and Fosse had all appeared together in MGM's "Kiss Me Kate". Rall and Fosse's rival dance shows the potential of the future Broadway legend Fosse who went onto create the dances in such memorable musicals as "Pippin" and "Chicago" (as well as direct several classic musical films). Fosse's creative touch is clearly visible here.
The musical highlight is the "Give Me a Band" number with a tipsy Garrett leading Leigh, Rall, and Fosse in a dance number with invisible musical instruments. The other songs are hardly classics, but in this film, that just doesn't matter; the shear magic of New York's Greenwich Village and the wonderful stars make this an all-time classic.
In comparing this to "Wonderful Town", I can say listening to the Original Broadway Cast and viewing the video of the TV special, I would like to have seen Bernstein's songs in the film as compared to Jule Styne's. The production number of "Christopher Street" (which is not even mentioned in this film) is ironic considering that 15 years after it was written, Christopher Street would become part of another legend: the Stonewall riots for Gay and Lesbian rights. Then, there are two other production numbers lead by Russell: "Swing" and "Conga", which is done in "My Sister Eileen" as a non-sung dance number. Eileen, as played by Edie Adams, comes off as unknowingly selfish, while Leigh's Eileen is a seemingly goody-goody miss perfect. Russell and Garrett are both perfect as Eileen, and I am glad that Garrett had the chance to play the part which Russell had already done on film the decade before.
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