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This is one of the most entertaining musicals to ever come out of Hollywood. Light and witty, sweet and subtle, it's almost as if Lubitsch made it. The songs are a joy, the dancing a treat and the story deliciously simple. Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon shine, but the true star is the glorious Betty Garret, who should have been much bigger than she was. Please check this out, it's a charmer
I first saw "My Sister Eileen" years ago as a kid. In the early 90's, I
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
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.
Where has this film been all these years? What a completely charming
piece of entertainment with a nice score by Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny
Girl, Bells Are Ringing). OK, so it's no Singin' In The Rain or Seven
Brides for Seven Brothers. But it's equally as good as a lot of the
other lesser MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s such as Summer Stock
and On The Town. Based on the 1940 play of the same name (Book by
Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov;) Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh
are perfect as the Sherwood sisters. They both shine in their
performances. And top it off, the film highlights some wonderful
choreography by none other than legendary Bob Fosse. His work is, as it
always was, stylish and pure class. The only glitch in the casting is
that of Jack Lemon. He tries to be a slick, man-of-the-world New York
publisher. But his performance just falls a bit short of his usual
standards. And sadly there was very little chemistry between Garrett
and Lemon, making the blossoming romance of their characters somewhat
hard to believe. Still, even with this small weak link in the chain,
overall the film really works.
It does seem strange that just the year before this film was released, Broadway produced their own musical version of the original 1940 non-musical version of My Sister Eileen, called Wonderful Town (Music by Leonard Berstein; Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green). While Wonderful Town wasn't a huge Broadway smash, it did run 559 performances, which was respectable for 1954. With a musical stage version of the play already existing as a part of the world of musical theater, I tend to wonder why Columbia started from scratch with this film and didn't film the Bernstein, Comdon & Green musical. But still, it's nice to know that there are two different musical versions of this charming play to enjoy.
There are so many accolades that can be linked to the musical version of MY SISTER EILEEN in its Columbia 50's version that one doesn't know where to start. First some facts -- WONDERFUL TOWN, the Bernstein-Comden-Green Broadway version was a smash, not a so-so attempt as has been stated elsewhere. Rosalind Russell received every honor imaginable for her return to the state, and Edie Adams, as Eileen, was also acclaimed, along with the score, the book, etc. Columbia could not arrange with Bernstein and Co. for their handiwork so it rolled out its own EILEEN, and the results are beyond charming. For the record, to dispute another silly comment, BETTY GARRETT, one of the genuine talents of stage and screen, was a musical comedy star on Bway and Hollywood, so her training was extensive, and her performance in the film, perhaps, is its greatest attribute -- but the Bob Fosse-Tommy Rall 'challenge' dance outside the burlesque theater is brilliant, as is the Bandstand song. Janet Leigh would have enchanted any and all males within sight, and her singing and dancing is quite expert. Jack Lemmon's work is fine, and his voice is good -- he was a cabaret pianist-singer whenever the chance opened for him. He also recorded several LP's. IF there is one weakness, it is the same as the Broadway production (which incidentally got a stellar revival and awards recently with Donna Murphy). The ending is too abrupt, and the Conga Line number could have ended stronger. BUT it is a small element. This is one of those musicals, at the tale end of the musical era in Hollywood, that deserves to be listed among the finest of them all!!!
"On the Town"'s Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh play two sisters looking for
romance from their slightly seedy flat on the wrong part of town.
Eileen (Leigh) is the pretty one who has all the attention, while her sister waits quietly for her talents and charms to be appreciated. In the cast are Jack Lemmon, Bob Fosse, and Tommy Rall (so some excellent dancing going on here).
There are a number of OTT moments, not least the all-inclusive conga number near the end, but this musical version of a 40s classic manages to add something new and showcase the talents of its cast well.
"My Sister Eileen" has two great stars -- Bob Fosse and Betty Garrett -- stealing the show from two who turned out to be bigger stars -- Jack Lemmon and Janet Leigh. The story is pretty elementary and certainly predictable, but that doesn't matter. What makes this movie special is Garrett's incredible comic delivery (with and without the Brazilian navy!) and Fosse's fabulous choreography. When he and Tommy Rall challenge each other while waiting outside Eileen's "audition," you'll feel like you're in heaven.
I had heard that this second musical version of "My Sister Eileen" (the
first being the Broadway show "Wonderful Town") was very underrated.
Well, it's not.
Columbia Pictures owned the movie musical rights to "Eileen" and when Leonard Bernstein wanted too much money for "Wonderful Town", Columbia passed on adapting the Broadway hit, and created its own musical film adaptation. Unfortunately, this version isn't just inferior to "Wonderful Town" - the score and script are truly mediocre in their own right. The songs are all forgettable, which is surprising given that the composer is the great Jule Styne who went on to write "Gypsy" and other shows. Either he and lyricist Leo Robin had very little time to write the score or inspiration took a vacation.
The two saving graces in this film are Betty Garrett, who plays the more tomboyish Ruth. Unlike Rosalind Russell who played Ruth both in the non-musical film and in "Wonderful Town," Garrett can really sing and she's less self-conscious about being the center of attraction - she's much more natural in the role.
The other occasional grace is Bob Fosse's choreography. In some numbers, especially one dancing "duel" between him and the terrific Tommy Rall, the film comes alive. Unfortunately, some of the other dances - particularly the climactic "Conga" sequence, fall flat, perhaps due more to director Quine than Fosse.
Janet Leigh plays Eileen and she's very charming, though not quite the kind of looker who would have men literally at her feet all the time. She sings fairly well, and dances rather better. And since she's top billed, the script gives her character more emphasis than the original play. Jack Lemmon plays a publisher on whom Ruth has a crush; Lemmon is good, though his one song is far from a highlight - he's no singer.
It's a pity that Columbia and Bernstein didn't see eye to financial eye - it would have been great to see Garrett do "Wonderful Town," though Leigh and Lemmon would never be able to handle their parts in that score.
The first time Fosse was given the job of choreography for an entire movie, he came up with "The Competition Dance", a terrific number for himself and Tommy Rall. But the movie should have made a star out of Betty Garrett. Who knows, if MGM had made the film it probably would have. The score, by the way, is far better than that of "Wonderful Town", the stage version that Columbia wanted to film until the producers asked too much for it. Rent it, buy it, enjoy it. By the way, there is a soundtrack recording, but you'll have to spend weeks tracking it down. It may be worth it just to hear Jack Lemmon's take on "It's Bigger Than Both of Us".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Singin' in the Rain" seems to be everyone's favorite musical and I can
understand why. It's undemanding, funny, has great songs, a fine book,
and superlative dancing. But "My Sister Eileen" must be right up there
in the second rank.
Bob Fosse has never been better, and Tommy Ralls gets a lot of screen time. Fosse was a great dancer. The "airplane" number that Gene Kelly does in "An American in Paris" is done here by Fosse but at a furious rate, as if he were a jet compared to Kelly's propeller-drive C 47. Not to put Kelly down. He oozed charm and I love the guy, but his terpsichorean accomplishments were a shade below those of dancers like Fosse and Astaire.
In this movie -- whose plot is out-dated, a couple of young girls come to the Village to be stars and run into odd characters -- Fosse has never been better on screen. He had a good number in "Kiss Me Kate," but there wasn't enough of him. Here he does a "competition ballet" with Tommy Ralls that boggles the mind. I won't even try to describe it. At the end, both do a back flip, something Fosse always had trouble with. And it's all done to music that has no tune. It's just an ongoing riff.
That's one of the problems with the film itself. The numbers aren't that good. "Singin' in the Rain" had songs that had passed the threshold and become standards. Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. The songs in "My Sister Eileen" are tied closely to events in the plot but they aren't memorable. The story itself is dated. Greenwich Village is not what it was in 1954, when people left their windows open and you could sleep on the benches in Washington Square, as I know all too well.
But, plot aside, back to Fosse's choreography. Nothing that Kelly or Astaire did -- with the very notable exception of Donald O'Connor's famous "Make 'em Laugh" -- is as hilarious as Fosse's choreography on the band stand. It would take too long to describe it so I'll not try to do it.
Neither Janet Leigh nor Betty Garrett had much in the way of musical training but they hold up their end of the deal quite well. The dialog isn't as keen as it seems to think it is but it has its felicities. Betty Garret is trying to talk Fosse out of being so shy in his pursuit of Eileen. Garret: "Faint heart never won fair lady." Fosse: "You mean I should just take the bit in my teeth?" Garret: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained." Fosse (in a discouraged tone): "That's easier said than done."
If you like musical comedies, and especially if you appreciate Bob Fosse, you will enjoy this. Poor Fosse. One of his girlfriends mentioned him in the same breath as Michael Baryshnikov, and Fosse looked down and blushed with humiliation. I don't know why.
This delightful and unpretentious musical version of the Rosalind Russell movie is NOT a movie adaptation of Russell's famous Broadway musical "Wonderful Town" but an original movie musical that in my opinion is better than "Wonderful Town." It features Bob Fosse in a supporting role and also --and more importantly--his first choreographic achievement, and an excellent one to boot. Another added plus is a terrific performance as actress, singer, and dancer from Janet Leigh. And it features great turns by Betty Garrett and (singing!) Jack Lemmon. Don't miss this one.
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