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In 1942, Columbia released the first film version of My Sister Eileen. Based on the madcap adventures of the McKenney sisters, penned by aspiring authoress Ruth and published in The New Yorker, the stories enjoyed immediate popularity when written as a Broadway play in 1940. During its three-year run, theatergoers flocked to the crowd-pleaser, touted by critics as "the giddiest delight to be seen hereabouts since You Can't Take It with You." The studio - in an unusual move for its time - adapted the play to the screen during the stage run, meaning that audiences could either see Shirley Booth (best known as TV's Hazel) live, or Rosalind Russell on the screen playing Ruth, the cynical and sensible sister trying to break into journalism. Man-magnet and hopeful actress Eileen provides the fodder for most of the misadventures, but even their living situation is comical: a basement apartment in Greenwich Village directly over a subway construction site, replete with wacky neighbors.
Russell shot to stardom playing another journalist in Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) costarring with Cary Grant. As Hildy Johnson, she pioneered the role of the smart and sassy career woman; her expert portrayal of an independent spirit led film analyst Marjorie Rosen to conclude, "Never for a moment does an audience doubt that she can't manage all by herself." Indeed, Russell was very comfortable being in charge in front of the camera; in her autobiography Life Is a Banquet, published shortly after her death in 1976, she describes the relationship between her and co-star: "Janet Blair, the girl who was cast as Eileen, started trying to upstage me. She was new and nervous, the same way I'd been when I started, so I invited her into my dressing room and delivered a short speech about the inadvisability of the course she'd embarked on. 'Look,' I said, 'you're not going to steal the picture from me because I've got the better part, the sympathy comes to me. And you're not going to get anyplace with what you're doing. I know all those old tricks. When you upstage me, all I do is turn my back on the camera, and then they have to come around on me full-face for my close-up.'" When the seasoned pro offered to then instruct her young tutor how to deliver an effective performance, an astonished Blair thanked her profusely for her kindness, to which the brassy Russell responded, "I'm not doing it because I like you, I don't know anything about you. I'm doing it to get a good picture." Direct and to the point: very fitting of the woman who once declared, "Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly."
Russell earned her first Oscar® nomination in the Best Actress category for her role in My Sister Eileen. Of the nomination she commented, "Glad as I was about it, the honor put me under heavy pressure. It means too much to the studios to have their people win; I still can't think about the tension surrounding those races without breaking into a sweat." She didn't have to sweat for long; she lost to Greer Garson for Mrs. Miniver (1942), the sentimental favorite that year. It would be the first of four nominations for Roz.
On a tragic note, the real Eileen McKenney died only four days before the Broadway opening. She was in a deadly car accident that also claimed the life of her husband, screenwriter and novelist Nathanael West, who is best known for his 1939 novel The Day of the Locust and later the 1975 film adaptation. Her memory, however, was kept alive through not only the play and the 1942 film: Russell starred in a musical version of My Sister Eileen rechristened Wonderful Town that opened on Broadway in 1953 and earned the actress a Tony award for her performance. In 1955, another version of My Sister Eileen was scripted and filmed, this time starring Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, and Bob Fosse. There was even a short-lived television series starring Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. But only the 1942 version has a surprise guest appearance in its final scene. Here's a hint: they were the kings of Columbia's comedy shorts - nyuk nyuk nyuk!
Producer: Max Gordon
Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: Joseph Fields, Jerome Chodorov, Ruth McKenney
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editing: Viola Lawrence
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Music: Sidney Cutner
Cast: Rosalind Russell (Ruth Sherwood), Brian Aherne (Robert Baker), Janet Blair (Eileen Sherwood), George Tobias (Appopolous), Allyn Joslyn (Chic Clark), Elizabeth Patterson (Grandma Sherwood).
by Eleanor Quin