My Sister Eileen, 1942, Columbia Pictures. Starring Rosalind Russell, Brian Aherne, Janet Blair. Directed by Alexander Hall. B&W, 96 minutes.
Ruth Sherwood (Rosalind Russell), a reporter for a Columbus daily newspaper, has written one of her finest reviews. In it she raves about the performance of none other than her sister Eileen (Janet Blair) in that night’s opening performance of A Doll’s House. Problem is, she wrote the review the morning of the play, knowing she’d be too caught up in the evening’s festivities to complete it then—and the director replaced Eileen before the curtain rose.
The paper doesn’t hear about the cast change and runs the review anyway, and Ruth is fired. With few options and a dream of success, she decides to move to New York City. Eileen, starry-eyed about success on Broadway, goes with her. Sharing the mere $100 between them, they head off.
Their lack of funds forces them to rent a basement apartment with no curtains, a broken window, and most notably, the occasional blast knocking pictures off the wall as work is done on the growing subway system. Then there are the ongoing interruptions from neighbors and former tenants to keep up with, and this is their first week in New York.
While Eileen looks for work on the stage, Ruth, in desperation, takes her stories to the publisher of a once-renowned magazine now known for being boring and out-of-touch. She ends up leaving in a huff after a heated discussion with this stuffy man, but accidentally leaves her manuscript behind. Editor Robert Baker (Brian Aherne), who is looking to update the publication, finds himself intrigued by her stories.
The sisters continue in their plagued apartment as they struggle to make it big, and success, it seems, it always just around the corner. But turning that corner doesn’t come easily.
The movie was based on the popular Broadway play of the same name, which was inspired by a series of autobiographical articles written by Ruth McKenney for The New Yorker magazine. With the exception of some minor changes to meet Production Code standards (such as changing the profession or living situation of some neighbors), it was true to the play—even Russell’s performance matched the cynical and smart nature of the play’s star, Shirley Booth.
My Sister Eileen received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Actress (Russell). That award, not surprisingly, went to Greer Garson for her role in Mrs. Miniver. However, Russell’s nomination for a comedic role is a tribute to her great talent, her ability to underplay her character to great effect and her sense of irony at an unbearable living situation.
Helping Russell shine were Aherne, whose urbane manner was a match for her cynical sophistication, and Blair, whose naïvete is the perfect setup for Russell’s witty comebacks. The supporting cast, including a constant parade of men chasing after Eileen, also did their part in emphasizing the stars’ talents.
My Sister Eileen is snappy entertainment moving at a quick pace, with offbeat characters who provide both cosmopolitan and street-wise humor. Along with His Girl Friday, it is some of Russell’s best work of the time, and a timeless story of surviving in a foreign environment.