Wits and Wiles

The 1942 version of My Sister Eileen, is one of my favorite all-time movies. It aired on TCM Saturday, September 29, and I had to watch.

The TCM brief synopsis of the film reads: Two sisters – one smart, one pretty – move to New York to build careers. Rosalind Russell plays Ruth Sherwood, the smart one, and Janet Blair plays Eileen Sherwood, the pretty one. It’s hard to imagine Rosalind Russell, a great beauty, cast in a role where her looks take a backseat. But the casting of the beautiful blonde Janet Blair playing her part as the sexy young ingenue works.

The film begins in Columbus, Ohio where Ruth is a writer recently fired from her local newspaper job and Eileen is an aspiring actress in the community theater. After a misadventure jeopardizes both of their jobs, the two venture to New York City to seek their fame and fortune. The film centers around their misadventures as young women setting out on their own in the big city.

What strikes me most in this film is the contrast between the behavior of the two sisters in how they choose to navigate the world. Ruth uses her wits; Eileen uses her wiles. We get a glimpse of this when they first arrive at the bus station in New York City. Ruth, ever practical, sets her sights on finding accommodations they can afford. Eileen is immediately set upon by a male admirer and distracted from the task at hand. From that scene on, the two sisters rely on their individual strengths – smarts and looks – in how they interact with everyone they meet.

Throughout the movie feminine wits and wiles are contrasted. We see how both are effective, but also how both have their pitfalls. One truly does not win out over the other. And, in the end, each sister sticks with her strengths.

When I think of many of my favorite female characters, particularly in movies from the 1930s-1950s, wits and wiles are often relied upon by the women and often the same woman in navigating situations and stations in life. It’s a modus operandi that is a key to many of the best portrayals of women in film. This theme is put front and center in My Sister Eileen in a truly enjoyable film.

Speaking of enjoyable. Lest I forget, My Sister Eileen also has one of the funniest Conga line scenes ever in the movies. Worth watching the clip here courtesy of TCM.

My Sister Eileen (1942) – (Movie Clip) Portuguese Merchant Marine
Sailors of the Portuguese Merchant Marine have followed Ruth (Rosalind Russell) home to Greenwich Village where she and Eileen (Janet Blair) attempt to get them out of the apartment, in My Sister Eileen, 1942. Run time: 04:42