In New York's Greenwich Village, considered the city's "Latin Quarter", there are many creatives living, from actors to writers and more, and it is here that sisters Ruth (Betty Garrett) and Eileen (Janet Leigh) Sherwood arrive with dreams as big as The Big Apple itself. Ruth wants to be a writer and has an in with a publishing editor named Robert Baker (Jack Lemmon) she hopes will lead to greater things, while Eileen has her heart set on acting, and Broadway in particular. But Ruth always feels in the shadow of her beautiful younger sister, for when men find out about her, they immediately lose interest in Ruth, despite her sense of humour and intelligence...
My Sister Eileen began life as the stories of Ruth McKenney and had in fact been adapted to a Rosalind Russell comedy in the nineteen-forties, not to mention a hit stage musical that Columbia had its eye on. However, they were not so keen on forking out for the rights to the property's songs, and instead had their own team of Jule Stine and Leo Robin compose tunes that may have been inferior, but were certainly cheaper. With this in place, all they needed was for one of their biggest stars Judy Holliday to take the Ruth role - but uh-oh, she was unavailable, and a solution had to be found. What they came up with was rather surprising given the politics of the era.
Garrett was the wife of singer Larry Parks, and about five years before they had been blacklisted in Hollywood for having left-leaning sympathies, a blight on many careers that carried on for the entire decade until times moved on. They had been getting by in stage shows as a singing, dancing duo, but the studio decided to take a chance, possibly reasoning the real draw in the production was starlet Janet Leigh, followed by new man of comedy Jack Lemmon, with Garrett trailing behind; that was certainly how the billing went, despite the Ruth character plainly being the lead. Yet if there's any motive for remembering her away from the stage, it was her sterling work in this.
Garrett was nicely sardonic, but exuded an interestingly soulful quality when reflecting on Ruth's lack of success with men. Plus she had a pleasant singing voice and could keep up with seasoned hoofers like Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall who were also in the cast as suitors of Eileen. The Fosse factor is likely the prompt for many to return to this film, as his singular talent with choreography was well to the fore here, still fairly nascent compared with the leaps and bounds he would devise (literally) later, but recognisably what had entranced audiences throughout his career, and indeed to this day as he remains one of the most venerated practitioners of dance of the twentieth century. The routine he and Rall share while their characters wait for Eileen to emerge from an audition was spectacularly athletic, the highlight as far as the dancing went.
There was more to this movie than that, of course, and it was witnessing this collection of talented people in the one place, in such an unassuming project, that made it so engaging. This was never going to be one of the diamonds of the fifties screen musical, it wasn't an MGM effort for a start, but nevertheless there was much to enjoy in its relatively modest plot and interactions. Also, it had a lesson to the men of the world not to be so eager and treat the women they are attracted to with respect: when Robert gets Ruth alone in his apartment, he turns into one step away from the wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon and she flees. The men who lust after Eileen are even worse, chasing her around and flustering her peaches and cream complexion, but we feel she makes the right choice of partner by the finale, which includes the crew of a Brazilian ship invading their basement apartment. In addition, this featured a nice early role for sitcom star of Bewitched, Dick York, though the scenes where he jumps and lands on his back will make you wince given how he ended up. All in all, a pleasing second division musical.