The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Into the Woods

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Sister Eileen (Wonderful Town)

September 22, 1955   Columbia   107 minutes

New York, New York, it’s a Wonderful Town. And at heart that’s the whole essence and perpetual appeal of My Sister Eileen. Perhaps the Jerome Chordorov/Joseph Fields play should be a training course for musical comedy writers. It sort of was. Composer Leroy Anderson (with lyricist Arnold Horwitt) took his first crack at Bway with it, only to be fired at the eleventh hour and paid off with $2500. Catching Leonard Bernstein with a few weeks off was a lucky stroke, and with Comden & Green they banged out a classy, character-driven and thoroughly modern score that hasn’t worn out its welcome yet. Refurbished as a Bway musical smash, it was inevitable that Hlwd would take notice. But studio mogul Harry Cohn was a notorious cheapskate; and since Columbia had rights to the original film property, Cohn thought it cheaper to make his own musical version—Bernstein, Comden & Green be damned. They were too “high-brow” anyway—remember how MGM had to “dumb-down” On the Town for the masses? But how ballsy of Cohn to call in Comden & Green’s other collaborator, Jule Styne (and his Gentlemen Prefer Blondes lyricist, Leo Robin) to replace the Bway team. What an awkward phone call from Jule that must’ve been: “Hey, Betty, Adolph, you know that smash hit you just had with Lenny? Harry Cohn wants me to rewrite it.” Styne may have just won an Oscar (for “Three Coins in the Fountain”—really one of his lesser tunes) but he was now a major Bway figure, and it’s obvious My Sister Eileen didn’t take up much of his time, or interest. Too bad he didn’t score It’s Always Fair Weather with Comden & Green (instead of Andre Previn) during this same period—especially given they’d just fixed Peter Pan together. But Cohn didn’t simply jettison the Bway rewrite, he also ignored its marquee attraction: its Bway star. 
Rosalind Russell had already played the too-smart-for-her-own-good Ruth Sherwood in Columbia’s 1942 screen version of the  play, and earned her first Oscar nomination for it. She’d had quite a good run in Hlwd for nearly twenty years, but by the early ‘50s she was played out in movies. So she reinvented herself as a Bway star in two quick iconic vehicles, Wonderful Town and Auntie Mame—which she rode into a third act of Hlwd Star power (and an Oscar nom) as a woman in her fifties—a feat undoubtedly assisted by her husband, Bway producer Fredrick Brisson (partner of Harold Prince & Robert Griffith) and the man known widely as “the Lizard of Roz.” Still neither of them got Wonderful Town on the screen—tho in 1958 they televised an abridged version on CBS. But at age 48, Roz was looking a bit long in the tooth for Columbia’s remake anyway, even tho Ruth is a forgiving role for over-age actresses. Shirley Booth, who originated the part on stage was 42 at the time; Roz was 35 for the film, but 46 by the time of the Bway run. Of course in reality, Ruth (McKenney, the original author) was in her mid-20s when she and younger sis, Eileen lived in that basement apartment in Greenwich Village.

Cohn’s idea, and not a bad one at that, was to star Judy Holliday—not always an easy fit for a good vehicle. Here, she’d have been fine; maybe even special, but it did not come to pass. Her recent screen partner, Jack Lemmon was attached and wound up with second billing—for a subordinate part. It’s hard to figure why Lemmon got such a running start in the movies. He’d done a number of live TV dramas, but nothing from this perspective that would seem to catapult him to starring roles from his first film on. This was only his fifth film, and he was already on track that year to grab his first Oscar. So who should play Ruth Sherwood? She wasn’t quite Star talent, and got 3rd billing at that, but nobody could say Betty Garrett wasn’t right for the role. Her husband, Larry Parks had made Cohn a lot of money in two Al Jolson bio-pics (the sequel was the #1 film of 1949). But the HUAC witch hunts killed his career, while Garrett struggled on. This could have been a bone thrown from Cohn, but Garrett gave it all she got—and this remains her most vivid and versatile screen performance.

Tho her name is in the title, Eileen isn’t the leading role, but Janet Leigh got top-billing anyway—probably the only case where Eileen trumps Ruth on the marquee. Leigh was in her ninth year of playing ingénues, and as Mrs. Tony Curtis had some Hlwd cachet, but she’s right for the role; pert & yummy—and a perfect contrast to Garrett as Ruth (tho the heart aches to imagine Janet & Judy Holliday together.) Leigh had some interesting and mature roles ahead of her; Touch of Evil, Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, and along with Bye Bye Birdie (of course) these have been my primary points of reference for her. What a pleasant surprise to see her so fresh and radiant. She’s everything Eileen is supposed to be; full of spunk and sweetness, and quite the tootsie. Happily, she lacks the saccharine sincerity of Jane Powell, or the pushy perkiness of Debbie Reynolds. Still it’s a bit much that men are falling at her feet all over Manhattan (Isn’t NY, after all, a city full of beautiful women?) But we certainly don’t mind if her two primary suitors are Tommy Rall and Bob Fosse. Their presence—and bespoke musical numbers—almost justify the rejection of Wonderful Town for a new script. It’s interesting to see the change of fortune between them in two years.  Rall,  who had  a featured role in Kiss Me Kate and was one of the 7 Brothers in search of Brides, now takes a back seat to Fosse, who not only has the larger (and more sympathetic) part but has graduated to choreographer as well. In the interim he’d made his mark on Bway staging a few numbers in The Pajama Game—which turned his former dancing partner, Carol Haney, into a Rialto sensation—and Damn Yankees, in which he met his match, the matchless Gwen Verdon. Here he is, back for one last shot at screen acting, still very much the shy, boyish blonde kid (age 28)—hardly the confident rake or task-master of his later reputation. But there’s nothing shy or tentative about his choreography. As he’d demonstrated in Kate, his moves were startlingly original, already signature, and so a competition of dance-steps with Rall in a theater alley is a stunning delight. It’s not even set to any song, just some innocuous dance music whipped up by George Duning. But to watch these two in flight—Fosse with his windmill spins and Rall in his peerless leaps—is a joy not seen in any other Eileen. Later on, paired with Garrett & Leigh the boys make a daffy foursome for the film’s highlight, “Give Me a Band and My Baby,” a song Garrett first socks over, while the others “play” the band. But once the dancing begins the men steal the thunder with the silly ragtime shuffle—jerking like wind-up mechanical dolls. Rall must’ve had a lousy agent; from Kate to Eileen he inexplicably and undeservedly lost his featured billing and soon lost steam entirely in films--before returning to Bway. Even tho he’s ostensibly the villain here, he’s quite likeable in his strutting way. But if Fosse comes off best, it’s because the moves are, after all, his own. He performs a midnight pas de deux later with Leigh, but it’s a bit dull; surprisingly conventional (like the “Robert” he used for his billing here--and never again.) Tommy & Bob are both absent from Fosse’s final dance: the Conga. Here’s another song that isn’t a song. (I’m sure Duning, and not Styne, wrote this as well) It’s a bit of a mash-up, interrupted by plot and incident, and yet… during one central section with Ruth, Eileen and a group of Brazilian sailors making circle-eights around the basement flat—executing pointed & funny hand gestures—for one all-too-brief moment it’s a piece of musical comedy heaven. Still it’s a lame finale compared to the Bernstein, Comden & Green “Conga,” which closed the first act on a resounding and cacophonous high; and integrated Ruth’s attempted reportage into the song:    

     What’s your opinion of women’s clothes?
     Major Bowes?
     Steinbeck’s prose?
     How do you feel about Broadway Rose?
     What do you think of the—CONGA! 
Here it’s reduced it to:
     La la la la conga!
     Ho ho ho ho conga!
     Hee hee hee hee conga!
     Razz-ma-tazz conga! 
And then this head-scratcher from Kurt Kasznar:      
     Hekarakarontal hekarakarontal conga!

What the hell? And then it fairly flies off the rails. The number isn’t given a chance to build and conclude; it just gets them all in jail.  And then, briefly, in court. Have you ever noticed how many musicals end up before a court or judge of some kind? You won’t have to look further for examples than the next four films in this journey. Beyond the “Band” number, Styne & Robin wrote five new songs. The film’s opening is a pretty lame knockoff of B,C&G’s “Christopher Street;” merely an intro, extolling Greenwich Village for its “atmosphere.” Leigh does OK with an uninspired up-tempo ballad, “There’s Nothing Like Love.” An extended sequence at El Morocco (so much for extolling the Village—no other version trolled uptown for its atmosphere) has the club’s orchestra playing (endlessly) a tune we’ve not yet heard: “It’s Bigger Than You and Me”. Lemmon sings the song later in his penthouse as a sudden roué, in seduction of Ruth. It doesn’t really make sense—it feels more suited to his character in Bell, Book & Candle. Nor does Ruth’s outrage & virginal flight make sense. Doesn’t she like the guy? Why does she lie when he correctly pegs her at the start, and makes it clear that he likes her as is? At least Styne did well by Garrett with a good character number for Ruth, “As Soon As They See Eileen” Starting with its “Once in Love with Amy” vamp, it’s a charm song much like Judy Holliday’s Bells opener: “It’s a Perfect Relationship,” the kind that holds the audience in its pocket. Garrett knows it, and does it proud. (Her voice suggests a bit of Garland—another intriguing bit of fantasy casting) And yet…and yet she’s not a Star. Roz towered over the show like a Grand Marshall. Betty’s more like a den mother. (Roz was so dominant, even Carol Channing, who replaced her on Bway couldn’t keep the show alive beyond a few weeks.) In another quartet, this one with landlord Kurt Kasznar and a very collegiate Dick York (a decade before Bewitched), Ruth & Eileen are taught the mantra, “I’m Great, But No One Knows It,” as they head off seeking fortune. It’s a cute number with echoes of Oz as the foursome skip down the backlot “Village” sidewalk as if it were the Yellow Brick Road. But there’s no “Ohio,” no “Swing” or “Wrong Note Rag,” and Styne’s ballad is a poor substitute for the sublime “It’s Love.” But in a way the score for Wonderful Town is undeserved—it’s too sophisticated for such lightweight material (can you see a real jock articulating the lyric sentiments of “Pass that Football”?) I’m not saying Styne & Robin’s score is more suited to the content, but it sure doesn’t seem to cheat it any either.

Ruth McKenney’s stories have had a very lucrative afterlife. For several decades the Village adventures of the Sherwood Sisters spawned perennial updates—originally set in the 1930s, little adjustment was needed to bump up to mid-century. Perhaps the final upgrade was a sitcom on TV in 1960, starring no less than Elaine Stritch. Don’t hold your breath for this one to ever come out of the vault. (Without mentioning the sitcom title Stritch tells the story in At Liberty about Noel Coward offering her Sail Away while she was still committed to CBS. She didn’t know if she’d be free. Coward replied that he’d seen the show, and that she would be—and so she was.) But after the 60s, two girls sharing a Village flat was a scene quite different from the Sherwoods’ experience, and since then My Sister Eileen settled down once and for all as a period piece—tho not always the same period. As the source of the show, we know that Ruth met her ambition to become an author. But what of Eileen? She may not have become an actress but she scored herself a famous writer for a husband: Nathaniel West, best known for his savage dissection of Hlwd shallowness, The Day of the Locust. He and his wife were both killed in an auto accident as they were driving to join Ruth to attend the Bway opening of the original play. Little did they know how Eileen’s personality & spirit would live on, in many incarnations, for decades to come.

The film was directed by Richard Quine, a strictly B-movie helmer on the Columbia lot, who was beginning to move up into higher profile fare—particularly in his association with Lemmon. Quine was uniquely qualified for the assignment having been in the original cast of the 1940 Bway play as Frank Lippincott (Fosse’s role.) He also gave a leg up to screenwriter Blake Edwards, collaborating on 7 features, and launching his directorial career. Quine had previously directed a quartet of very light musicals with the likes of Frankie Laine, Dick Hyams & Mickey Rooney—completely inconsequential things even cultists never bother with. If Eileen didn’t set the world on fire, it wasn’t for an inexperienced directorial hand. In truth it was a frivolous little musical, the kind that was quickly going out of style, and would shortly be eclipsed by the first two real blockbusters, as Hlwd musicals began to be dominated by Bway’s superior product.
The film opened at the Victoria Theater in Times Square on September 22, 1955. On Bway, the big hits were Pajama Game, Fanny, Silk Stockings and the latest smash Damn Yankees—all soon to be movies. But musicals weren’t the only pipeline Bway was pumping to Hlwd; plays were also top film fodder. And just look what theater audiences could chose from that September: Anastasia, The Bad Seed, Bus Stop, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Inherit the Wind, Teahouse of the August Moon, Witness for the Prosecution and just on the horizon: The Diary of Anne Frank, No Time for Sergeants, and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Meanwhile, playing over at the Music Hall was Comden & Green’s It’s Always Fair Weather. And within the next few weeks, Oklahoma!, Guys & Dolls and Kismet would all hit the screens. Thus, in short order My Sister Eileen would seem as irrelevant as Moon Over Miami.

Another film I first saw on B&W TV during a sweltering summer at my grandmother’s in Spanish Harlem, My Sister Eileen left so little impression on me in 1972 I had virtually no memory of it. It has its moments for sure, but there’s not much more to say for it.

Next Up: Oklahoma!

Report Card:    My Sister Eileen
Overall Film:    C+
Bway Fidelity:  B- (story)  F (score)
Songs from Bway:  0
Songs Cut from Bway:  15
New Songs:  6
Standout Numbers: “Competition Dance”
               “Give Me a Band, and My Baby”
               “As Soon as They See Eileen”
Worst Omissions: “Ohio” “Conga!”
Casting:      Appropriate, if not optimal
Cast from Bway:  None
Standout Cast: Fosse, Rall, Leigh
Sourthumb Cast: Kurt Kasznar
Direction:   Competent, if unexciting
Choreography:   Thrilling early Fosse
Ballet:  A   “Competition Dance”
Scenic Design:  Backlot NY, 2nd unit locations
Costumes:    Jean Louis, sleepwalking
Standout Set:    Village flat & courtyard
Titles:   Great 1955 NY location shots    
Oscar Noms:  None
Weird Hall of Fame: “Conga”

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