Big Time or Bust
My Sister Eileen is cinematic cotton candy, dissolving the moment it hits the tongue. It portrays a world that never existed, and that likely seemed dated in 1955. Despite the potentially combustible confluence of Jack Lemmon, Bob Fosse, and Blake Edwards, Eileen is neither a success nor a flop. It is simply unambitious, and instantly forgettable.
The movie seems assembled from spare parts. Based on the stories of Ruth McKenney (which also inspired a 1942 non-musical version of My Sister Eileen starring Rosalind Russell), the plot is fairly simple: two sisters from small-town Iowa come to Manhattan intent on making their fortune in the Big City—a classic “big time or bust” scenario if ever there was one. Winsome Eileen (Janet Leigh) is set on making it big on Broadway, while the slightly more worldly Ruth (Betty Garrett) is an aspiring writer. Neither has more than a vague notion of what she’s doing, and they embark on their adventures in the Big Apple with such guileless aplomb that you can’t help but marvel. You can’t believe they’d ever hit the big time, and as the film wears on, you start wanting to see them bust.
You can tell it’s 1955 by the fact that they can rent a spacious apartment in downtown Manhattan for only $65 a month (and then have the gall to call it a dump). The timeframe also sets up the movie’s focus, not their careers, but their quests for romance. Eileen is blonde and vivacious, Ruth is dour and taciturn, feeling overshadowed by her pert sister. The problem here is that we’re obviously supposed to identify with Ruth, and root for her to find love despite her hapless sister, but neither Ruth nor Eileen compel the viewer to do so much as yawn.
And so we turn to the men. Blake Edwards co-wrote the script with Richard Quine, but aside from a handful of one-liners that have the faint but distinct ring of Edwards’ traditionally bullish vulgarity (there’s a running joke vaguely implying that the girls’ apartment was formerly leased by a prostitute), there is little here to indicate that this was written by the auteur of the beloved Pink Panther series.
Jack Lemmon has a more palpable impact than Edwards, but he’s still little more than decorative, onscreen for about 10 minutes. While it goes without saying that he is the most charismatic figure in the movie, that’s scant praise, considering the resolute drabness of the rest of the cast. His Robert Baker is essentially the same witty, irascible cad Lemmon would play in The Apartment (1960), as well as Under the Yum-Yum Tree and Irma la Douce (both 1963). When he inexplicably falls in love with Ruth—and believe me there’s more chemistry between two limp dishrags than these two star-crossed lovers—you hope he comes to his senses, leaves the girl, and runs across the soundstage, into another, better movie.
Apart from Lemmon, the movie’s strongest aspect is Fosse’s choreography. This is only ostensibly a musical, with dance elements and songs popping up as if out left field every few minutes or so. While this may seem to describe any number of musicals from the period, they seem to have been haphazardly scattered throughout Eileen, with no attention paid to any conception of thematic sense or pacing. It seems as if the script and the songs were conceived separately and added after the fact, and the result is oddly disconnected. Tellingly, the movie neither begins nor ends with a song, something that was absolutely de rigueur in the musicals of the day.
If the music is unremarkable, the dancing is another matter entirely. In particular, a brief exchange between Fosse’s Frank Lippincott and Tommy Rall’s Chick Clark allows both men to let loose. If you’re willing to sit through 100 minutes of fairly tedious romance for five minutes of anomalously placed but excellent dancing, then you will probably get as much out of Eileen as there is to be gotten.