They tell the same tale of two sisters, brainy Ruth and beautiful Eileen, who flee Ohio boredom to share a wretched flat in Greenwich Village. They even sport a lot of identical dialogue-some of it melodized in the musical remake- and yet these twin adaptations of Ruth McKenney’s New Yorker stories, both unavailable on tape, are so distinct they make an ideal double-feature disc.
The earlier My Sister Eileen (1942) is a screwball spleenfest, pitching gag after fastball gag as aspiring scribe Ruth (Rosalind Russell) navigates a Depression-era Manhattan overrun by sharpies. While the tone is farcical, there’s an edge to the movie’s depiction of single-gal city life, especially in scenes where jealousy and irritation overcome Ruth’s tolerance for the acting ambitions of flighty Eileen (Janet Blair). All that local color gets whitewashed in the musicalized 1955 remake with Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh, in which the Village-street sets look roomy and clean and the sisters’ spats are just sitcom shtick; but some Bob Fosse choreography and Jule Styne — Leo Robin songs wittily capture the Village esprit. Too bad someone didn’t tone down an alarmingly chauvinistic subplot involving piggy publisher Jack Lemmon (he even croons a date-rape ditty). Paired with its wartime ancestor, which openly celebrates female independence, the second My Sister Eileen (1955) seems a testament to ’50s feminist backlash. 1942 Eileen: B+