When one thinks of 1950s musicals they're usually thinking in terms of a) MGM movies like Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and The Band Wagon; b) big roadshows like Oklahoma! and South Pacific; and c) Doris Day's musicals at Warner Bros. and elsewhere. Columbia Pictures was never particularly big on musicals, partly because the genre was expensive and commercially risky, dirty words for Columbia mogul Harry Cohn. An exception is My Sister Eileen (1955), an underrated, almost forgotten musical of the fifties ripe for rediscovery on DVD.
The film has an unusual mix of talent: Janet Leigh and Betty Garrett are sisters Eileen and Ruth Sherwood, wide-eyed and newly arrived in New York City from Columbus, Ohio, seeking fame and fortune. Thirty-year-old Jack Lemmon, in only his fifth film, gets second billing as the editor of a publishing house Garrett's writer courts, while 28-year-old Bob Fosse, early in his career, too, is a soda fountain manager who falls for Leigh's struggling actress. Fosse especially looks like a kid; he's billed in the credits as Robert Fosse while Dick York (Bewitched), who plays a goofy, out-of-work football player/wrestler, is billed as Richard York.
The film follows the sisters as they're duped into renting a dumpy basement flat from cheery slumlord Papa Appopolous (Kurt Kaszner) - an apartment that periodically shakes violently from the underground blasting for a new subway line. The girls struggle to find work. No one takes voluptuous Eileen seriously (though men fall over themselves trying to win a date) while Ruth is besieged by rejection letters and returned manuscripts.
One of the film's many charms is how well it captures the hopes and struggles of a pair of young women trying to make a go of it in the Big City. They share a mix of barely-contained excitement and terror in meeting their life's ambitions head-on, and the film does a good job humorously capturing the pitfalls of moving to an unfamiliar urban environment, a world full of oddballs and other eccentrics.
Betty Garrett is especially good. Though third-billed, the picture really belongs to her and her story, the ordinary young woman men completely forget "as soon as they see Eileen." Garrett made a very strong impression in a string of late-1940s films, especially as the plucky taxi driver (and Frank Sinatra's love interest) in the great On the Town (1949), but her Hollywood career stalled. Undoubtedly it was affected by the tragic persecution and blacklisting of her actor-husband, Larry Parks. My Sister Eileen was Garrett's first film in six years, and while at 36 she seems a bit old to be playing a young hopeful she's otherwise wonderful, an everywoman that surely struck a chord with 1955 audiences.
The other revelation is, unsurprisingly, Bob Fosse. Wearing two hats as choreographer and co-star, Fosse would soon move on to Stanley Donen's pair of Warner musicals, The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958), but his work here is in many ways superior. First, as the dreamy-eyed soda jerk, Fosse was inheriting a role played in the original 1942 film version by Richard Quine, who directed Fosse in the 1955 remake. Quine and Fosse must have shared a great affection for the character, one unlike any other '50s musical hero. He's shy and scrawny but not nerdy, a New Yorker but not overtly so. His scenes with bombshell Leigh have a real gentle charm, while his dances are both more subtle yet more exactingly expressive than what was standard for this era of movie musicals. (There is one outstanding acrobatic number, however, a tit-for-tat piece Fosse performs with Tommy Rall, who plays a rival for Leigh's affections.)
Leigh and Lemmon hold their own; neither is called upon to perform anything beyond their abilities, but they're singing voices aren't dubbed, and they move well in the dance numbers. Lemmon, a talented musician, shows off a natural sense of timing in his one number; it's a shame he arrived in Hollywood just as the genre was petering out.
Most of the film was shot on the Columbia backlot but, especially for the opening scenes, a good deal of second-unit footage was filmed in and around Greenwich Village and Times Square, all to show off the wonders of the still-new CinemaScope process. Seeing it today, these scenes work as an amazing time capsule.
Video & Audio
My Sister Eileen looks great in its original CinemaScope aspect ratio, which on DVD is presented in 16:9 anamorphic wide screen. Originally printed by Technicolor, the color is generally good despite the limitations of those early CinemaScope lenses. The Dolby Digital 4.0 sound is a decent approximation of the original 4-track magnetic stereo, with the music sounding especially good, though the directional dialogue and sound effects are limited. Optional English and Japanese subtitles are included.
The only real extra is a trailer, also 16:9 anamorphic, which includes the original text overlays and new footage shot especially for the trailer featuring Lemmon and Garrett. For the record trailers for It Should Happen to You (4:3), Bye Bye Birdie (4:3 LBX), and Born Yesterday (4:3) are included as well. Interestingly, the trailer for Born Yesterday appears to be a late-1950s reissue, formatted for 1.85:1 cropping.
As with Warner Home Video's release of Bells Are Ringing (which Garrett had also starred on Broadway), My Sister Eileen is part of that batch of second-tier musicals that missed out on theatrical revivals the way the Gene Kellys and Fred Astaires and Rodgers & Hammersteins have, but which can now be enjoyed in their full glory on DVD. My Sister Eileen is definitely one of the lost gems of the 1950s, and comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.