March 8, 2015

Rosalind Russell, My Sister Eileen


After having thoroughly enjoyed Rosalind Russell's comedic turns in both The Women and His Girl Friday (performances which I feel should have landed her Oscar nominations), I had a decent amount of excitement in store for the film that actually did land Russell her first nomination--My Sister Eileen is a light-hearted and easy watch, though nothing particularly outstanding, as demonstrated by the fact that google searches will lead you to more hits on the 1955 remake than this '42 original. I did find the film and Russell to be enjoyable, though having seen better films and better performances from her, this one reads as a consolation "Welcome to the club!" nod than one of actual excellence.

It's not that I didn't like her. I did. It's just that there wasn't much there to like this time around. As with Hepburn, Russell isn't given much to do in this film, and I'm not sure that she was the best pick for this role to begin with. Russell has too much culture and poise imbued into her to come off as a realistic doe-eyed, small-town girl with dreams of the big city. The film consistently wants to assert Janet Blair/Eileen as the it sister and toys with this idea of Russell being the frumpier sister, but doesn't truly explore this idea or that side of her, and thus what we're left with is Roz running around for an hour and a half balking at all the craziness New York City has to offer, with tons of funny faces and loads of sarcasm sprinkled throughout the performance. I might even go as far as saying that Blair has more outright dedication to her role of Eileen than Russell does with Ruth (that's not even to say that I think Blair does a better job, but rather she sticks to the mind much more so than Roz does). And while Russell's funny faces can be a hoot, the character doesn't do much else. Russell has some well-acted moments towards the end (namely the scene where she internalizes her feelings for Robert Baker and the scene where she's packing up to leave New York City), and she sustains the film's empty characterization of Ruth with healthy dosages of dedication and passion, but there's a lot left to be desired here. Compared to other screwball heavyweights this category has recognized (Dunne, Lombard, Colbert), there's clearly not enough here to warrant it as one of the best performances of the year. An ordinarily decent performance in an ordinarily decent flick, Roz gets a solid


  1. Poor Roz. Like Barbara Stanwyck, always an Oscar bridesmaid, four nominations each. The most painful of those losses being for Mame Dennis Burnside, but what can you do against Susan Hayward's stoic march toward a gas chamber. Reportedly, Russell may have cost herself an Oscar for Picnic because she refused to be considered in the Supporting Actress category.

    Not having seen Eileen since the 70s I can't directly comment on it, but neither was sent clamoring for it again and again, and in the age of home video, it's been one of those films with a history of sketchy availability. No, the jewels are Sylvia Fowler, Hildy Johnson ("I wouldn't cover the burning of Rome for you if they were just lighting it up, and if I ever lay eyes on you again I'll hammer on that monkey skull of yours till it rings like a Chinese gong!"), and Mame.

    When Russell died in 1976 after years of battling cancer and crippling arthritis, it was a particularly sad goodbye to a lady who had provided such boundless joy and laughter. Always a star of the very first order.

  2. Speaking of The Women and Russell, how about a little gossip from Russell and Shearer's own biographies?

    "Norma had it in her contract that only a man could be starred with her. On any picture. No woman’s name could be up there with hers. For The Women she’d capitulated and said Joan Crawford might also be starred above the title, but when it came to me, that was another story. She must have felt she’d been pushed far enough. I, on the other hand, wasn’t willing to settle for billing that said “with Rosalind Russell” underneath the title. I’d already starred in pictures and I didn’t care to be demoted.

    I thought about the situation. When it comes to a fight with management, a performer has only one weapon: he can refuse to perform. The employers have everything else: they have the lawyers, they have the contracts, the courts will usually back them up. But if a performer gets sick, what can his boss do?

    After about five weeks into production on The Women, I got sick. You couldn’t pull that trick in the first few days, they’d just replace you. I never attempted it again in my whole career, and I only did it that once because I had a feeling I could make it work. There had been signs and portents. I’d gone to a luncheon where I’d met Louis B. Mayer, and he’d said, “I hear you’re stealing this picture,” and I’d said, “I’m tryin’, I’m always tryin’.” And Life magazine had been sniffing around again. And I just had this feeling in my bones."

    After about four days of Russell's strike, Norma gives in:

    "I now agree that both Miss Joan Crawford and Miss Rosalind Russell may be given co-star credit with my name; provided, however, that in no event shall Miss Russell’s name appear in size of type larger than 50% of the size used to display my name."