Sister Betty

Sister Betty

Posted by Mike Finnegan on May 23rd 2018

“Judy Holliday had gotten into a contract dispute with Columbia as they were getting ready to film My Sister Eileen [1955] and they needed a replacement in a hurry. They wanted me.” Fortunately for movie musical fans, me refers to gracious, fabulously gifted Betty Garrett (1919-2011), born 99 years ago today, who recalled in her 1998 memoir Betty Garrett and Other Songs: A Life on Stage and Screen(written in collaboration with Ron Rapoport) how she briefly got back into Hollywood’s good graces after co-starring in the 1949 trifecta of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Neptune’s Daughter and On the Town and then absenting herself to join her husband Larry Parks, The Jolson Story/Jolson Sings Again (1946/1950) star who ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee and was consequently blacklisted, for several years of stage and concert performances. She would become almost exclusively a habitué of the theater and television in the years that followed, so that’s why we treasure her four MGM musicals and Ruth Sherwood in My Sister Eileen all the more. It turns out that the project really needed her, because it would not be the hoped-for film version of the hit 1953 Broadway musical Wonderful Town, based on the same beloved Ruth McKenney New Yorker stories about striving Ohio sisters making their way in 1930s Greenwich Village, that won five Tony® Awards including Best Musical (marking the only time that composer Leonard Bernstein – he of formidable On the Town, Candide and West Side Story fame – would claim that particular trophy, although his lyricist collaborators Betty Comden and Adolph Green would go on to corral a few more of them). Let Betty tell it: “It was a big hit in New York so it was only natural that Columbia, which had filmed the [1940] play [1942’s My Sister Eileen], should want to make a movie of it [Wonderful Town] too. But somebody connected with the musical wanted a lot of money for it and [Columbia boss] Harry Cohn said, ‘The hell with you. We own the property. We’ll write our own music.’ And he brought in Jule Styne and Leo Robin [the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes team] to write a whole new score.” 

It proved to be a marvelous homecoming before the camera for the multitalented Garrett, as The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther confirmed: “Happily, let it be stated that Miss Garrett and Miss [Janet] Leigh are okay. In fact, Miss Garrett is okay in shining letters. Her sister Eileen is just this side of superb. As the more clever one of the two damsels who come to New York with stars in their eyes and take up residence in a Greenwich Village basement that becomes a minor crossroads of the world, Miss Garrett has the proper skepticism and the right desperation for the role. Her way with a line is homicidal. What’s more, she can dance and sing. When the two girls console themselves adroitly in their cheerless dungeon with the assurance There’s Nothing like Love, the hearts of all seeing (and hearing) cannot help but be wrung. And when they join with Robert Fosse, who staged the numbers, and Tommy Rall to suggest a simple boon, Give Me a Band and My Baby, they scatter sheer sparklers on the winds. But it is Jack Lemmon as the magazine publisher who attacks the citadel of Sister Ruth who generates the most amusement and defends the tarnished dignity of males. And his off-hand maneuvering around Miss Garrett to shatter her resistance is grand. When the two, in a scene of grand seduction, sing It’s Bigger Than You and Me, the breadth of the spoof is established and the high point of the comedy is reached. My Sister Eileen rides joyously again.” Though Garrett regretted not being able to put her stamp on the Wonderful Town show-stoppers Ohio and One Hundred Easy Ways, she treasured the production as “such a happy set that we all hated to see the filming end,” a memory co-star Leigh (who earlier appeared in 1948’s Words and Music along with Garrett) also echoed in her 1984 autobiography There Really Was a Hollywood. Garrett recalled: “On the last night, Janet and Bobby and Tommy Rall and I were all sitting around when somebody said, ‘Let’s go home, get a night’s rest, and come back and do it all again.'” Skillfully directed to make full use of the expansive Cinemascope screen by Richard Quine, who co-wrote the script with the equally talented Blake Edwards, My Sister Eileen merrily manages its own kind of wonderful. Re today’s birthday baby, it’s truly “a testament to the versatility and showmanship of Betty Garrett, who rarely got a leading role, a shameful realization when one sees her set the screen on fire as the funny, knowing, exuberant Ruth” (Thomas Hischak, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical). Also featuring Kurt Kasznar and Dick York, it blows into town in fabulous 5.1 stereo June 19 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open June 6.