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In the late 1930s, The New Yorker magazine published a series of stories about two sisters from Ohio who moved to New York. The author, Ruth McKenney, based the stories on experiences she and her sister Eileen had when they first settled in Greenwich Village. The articles became very popular and served as the basis for the 1940 Broadway comedy My Sister Eileen. In 1942 the play was made into a film starring Rosalind Russell and later became the basis for the 1953 Broadway musical, Wonderful Town. Columbia Pictures owned the screen rights to the original comedy, but in the mid-1950s, the studio decided to film it as a musical. When studio executives couldn't reach an agreement with the producer of Wonderful Town, Columbia decided to create their own musical version of the popular comedy and hired Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write a new score.
As in the other versions, My Sister Eileen (1955) follows two sisters, Ruth and Eileen Sherwood, who move from Ohio to an apartment in the Village where they encounter some "colorful" and eccentric characters. Ruth (Betty Garrett) is a struggling writer who tries to get a job with publisher Bob Baker (Jack Lemmon). Eileen (Janet Leigh) is also having trouble finding employment, but she has no trouble finding suitors. One of the men she meets is Frank Lippencott, played by Bob Fosse, who also choreographed the film. Blake Edwards and Richard Quine wrote the screenplay for this screen version and the latter had the advantage of performing in the Broadway comedy a decade earlier as well as the 1942 film.
Since the new musical version couldn't bear any resemblance to Wonderful Town, a studio attorney stayed on the set to look for similarities between the two. According to Martin Gottfried in All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse, "Since the only musical number in the original play was Ruth doing a conga with a group of Brazilian sailors, it was the only song in the movie that resembled anything in the show. The attorney wouldn't even allow musical numbers to be used in the same spots as in Wonderful Town."
Bob Fosse was already established as a talented actor and dancer when he took on the added role of choreographer in the mid-fifties. He received a Tony Award in 1954 for The Pajama Game, the first Broadway musical he choreographed. My Sister Eileen was the first time Fosse both performed in and choreographed a film. According to Kevin Boyd Grubb in Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse, "Fosse's choreography bolstered even the weaker songs" in My Sister Eileen. Biographer Gottfried stated that Fosse rehearsed Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh "until they were ready to drop, having them endlessly repeat a wriggly, knock-kneed, slithering dance that they did in a gazebo. He kept telling the women, 'You have to do this very tight,' and he said it so frequently that Betty began to call all the thigh-rubbing choreography 'shaving your hairs.'"
My Sister Eileen was Janet Leigh's first musical and since she didn't have any previous experience in the genre, she met with Fosse several weeks before filming began to work on her singing and dancing. Even though they were both married at the time, Leigh admits there was a spark between them: "Both Bobby and I knew, even without talking about it, that an affair would have happened if we let it. There was that much electricity between us." In her autobiography, Leigh summed up her experience working on My Sister Eileen: "We were a young, spirited, talented, ambitious conglomeration of energies. It was a six-month labour of love. No one wanted it to end, and it was a sobbing group who gathered for the farewell party."
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Richard Quine
Screenplay: Blake Edwards & Richard Quine. Play by Joseph Fields & Jerome Chodorov. Based on a story by Ruth McKenney.
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Music: George Duning, Jule Styne, Leo Robin
Cast: Janet Leigh (Eileen Sherwood), Jack Lemmon (Bob Baker), Betty Garrett (Ruth Sherwood), Bob Fosse (Frank Lippencott), Kurt Kasznar (Appopolous), Dick York ("Wreck" Loomis), Tommy Rall (Chick Clark), Lucy Marlow (Helen).
by Deborah Looney