A sold-out festival audience was treated to a delightfully breezy Rosalind Russell comedy on Friday afternoon: MY SISTER EILEEN (1942). For some reason, this movie is not often shown or seen these days, which is peculiar considering it was perhaps Russell’s definitive role during her lifetime. After playing Ruth Sherwood in this Columbia film, she reprised the part for a radio adaptation in 1943, in a hit Broadway musical version (entitled Wonderful Town) in 1953, and even in a live television production of Wonderful Town in 1958. So in one way or another she performed the role on the big screen, the small screen, the radio and the stage!
The property originated as a series of autobiographical short stories in The New Yorker by Ruth McKenney. These were turned into a successful 1940 play starring Shirley Booth, which formed the basis of this movie. The story follows two sisters who move from Ohio to New York — Ruth (Rosalind Russell), responsible and street-smart, to pursue a writing career, and Eileen (Janet Blair), young and naive, to make it as an actress. They move into a basement apartment in Greenwich Village with a bohemian artist landlord played by George Tobias (!), and encounter all sorts of comic hardships living in the city, from lecherous men to annoying neighbors. The funniest scene finds a bunch of Portugese sailors pouring into their apartment, and the only way the sisters can get them out is to form a conga line and lead them into the street, where passersby end up joining in.
Brian Aherne plays a magazine editor who falls for Russell. They make a good screen pair, and it’s no wonder they teamed up for three other films: Hired Wife (1940), What a Woman! (1943), and Rosie! (1967). But today I was struck mainly by Rosalind Russell’s effortless flair for comedy. What a winning, sophisticated actress she was, as adept at physical humor as she was at verbal banter. Both are equally on display in MY SISTER EILEEN. Russell was Oscar-nominated for this performance — her first of four nominations — but lost to Greer Garson for Mrs. Miniver.
Before the screening, Russell’s son Lance Brisson appeared on stage for a discussion with film historian Cari Beauchamp. He spoke of his parents’ close lifelong friendship with Cary Grant, and related a charming story of how their fates originally intersected. His father, Frederick, had been friends with Cary Grant since their childhood in England. In 1939, Frederick was crossing the Atlantic, and the only movie onboard the ship was The Women, which played on a constant loop. After eleven days, he was sick of Rosalind Russell’s voice but also had decided he simply had to meet her. Grant invited him to come visit in Hollywood, where coincidentally he was shooting His Girl Friday with Russell. To help Frederick out, Grant set up a dinner for all of them — a dinner which Russell thought was a date with Cary Grant! Eventually, though, she and Frederick hit it off and in 1941 they were married, with Cary Grant serving as best man. It was a union that lasted 35 years until Frederick died in 1976.
Brisson added that The Women was significant for Russell’s career in that it established her persona as a strong career woman, something she continued to play in movie after movie through the 1940s, MY SISTER EILEEN included.