Wisecracking is a form of breathing for Rosalind Russell’s character in My Sister Eileen (1942) – and anyone would get weary after listening in to a person’s breath for 96 minutes. Still, the cracks are mostly funny (“Tastes great with strawberry and cream”, says a label on a can, to which Russell reacts: “What doesn’t?”) – and it’s awfully easy to forgive overt cuteness once you’re treated with respect by the cute-ee.
Two sisters from Columbus, Ohio – a wannabe actress Janet Blair and an unpublished writer Russell – move to New York City and, in their newcomer’s desperation, rent an apartment from hell. It’s sure enough situated not far from it (it’s a basement flat and the blasts from a new subway tunnel shake the place up every couple of minutes). There’s nothing to the locale that would gross you out (no vermin, no mould), but in the course of the plot it becomes a literal three ring circus of eccentric guests, slapstick routines and the eternal blasts underneath.
Of course, it has all been musicalized later on in the 1955 Richard Quine movie (and in the Broadway show Wonderful Town), but Alexander Hall’s version has enough legs to stand firmly on its own. The juxtaposition of Russell and Blair – brains of one to the looks of other – comes off great. Blair is a real dish: a plain one, but still a dish. And men are always grabbing at her: literally and understandably.
As far as strong male presence goes, there’s not much in this film but Gordon Jones’ clueless and animalistic “The Wreck” Loomis, a neighboring football player forced to share the flat with Russell and Blair for a while. A heap of beef packed in nothing but drawers and undershirt, he bounces off the walls like a rubber Zorro (his shovel-like hands dangling in front of him). He’s an athletic clown to fulfill Henry James’ definition of Owen Gereth in The Spoils of Poynton: “He was stupid without giving offence”.
And there’s George Tobias, who may be the comic centerpiece of the whole thing. His Greek painter Appopolous – Russell’s and Blair’s landlord – is a great pretender and a lovable cluck. Tobias’ toothless smile with the added value of ridiculous mustache and wiry haircut (not to mention his short tie) add up beautifully and redeem every scene he’s in.
And then there are Three Stooges, but I wouldn’t be caught dead spoiling the nature of their turn in this movie. See for yourselves; it’s worth it.