When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Lucille Ball :: Nathanael West :: My Sister Eileen


This post is part of the Double Billathon hosted this week at the Broken Projector film blog.

In 1939, while Nathanael West was submitting the final manuscript of his Hollywood Apocalypse novel Day of the Locust to Random House, he was also pounding the keyboard for $350 a week as a scriptwriter for RKO Studios.   One of West’s B-Movie scripts that year (co-written with Jerome Cady and Dalton Trumbo) about a passenger airliner crashing in Amazonian headhunter country was produced as FIVE CAME BACK, which received a fair amount of financial and critical success but was overshadowed by the legendary blockbusters also released that year.

Although definitely a low-budget film from a major studio, the talents invested in the film were sizable.   Director John Farrow (father of Mia) and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (CAT PEOPLE, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, OUT OF THE PAST) put a lot of visual quality on the screen despite their sparse resources.   And the cast, while none of them were celebs, was a sturdy group of players who knew what they were doing.   Chester Morris was the pilot, and pre-redhead Lucille Ball was a ‘lady with a past.’   The other eleven crew members and passengers (of whom only five survive) were performed by a solid troupe of familiar character actors, the kind that gave memorable moments to thousands of films during classic-era Hollywood.

<strong>BEAUTIFUL LOSERS</strong>:   the sexually-generous Peggy (Lucille Ball), forced to leave town, gives an extradited and manacled assassin (Joseph Calleia) a light from her cigarette.

BEAUTIFUL LOSERS:   Waiting to board the doomed plane, the sexually-generous Peggy (Lucille Ball), leaving the country to end an illicit affair, gives an extradited and manacled assassin (Joseph Calleia) the light from her cigarette.

Yet it’s Nathanael West’s landscape of Beautiful Losers (half of whom perish before the end) that makes this film hard to shake off.   The pilot had lost his wife when a plane he was flying cracked up with her beside him.   A gangster dad said a gut-wrenching goodbye to his small son at the airport, and was gunned down by the cops minutes after the plane departed.   One passenger was a political assassin, extradited to Central America where execution awaited.  An elderly couple, who lost their only son, clinged to their autumnal love for each other.   In Day of the Locust West wrote about those who “have been cheated and betrayed” and the same could have described the human contents of this plane’s Art Deco fuselage.

West always had a fascination with the lost and the adrift.   In Jay Martin’s book Nathanael West:  The Art of His Life he described an unpublished West short story of three Eskimos brought to Hollywood for use as extras in a movie, and then were left stranded in L.A. after the picture flopped.  

Instead of Eskimos, strangely it was the screenwriting team who had dark years ahead:   Jerome Cady took a lethal overdose of sleeping pills on his yacht in the 1940s, because of the HUAC investigations that began in 1947, Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted from Hollywood and served time in a penitentiary for contempt of Congress, and the year after FIVE CAME BACK was released West’s life came to an end.

When West died in an automobile accident returning from a hunting trip in Mexico, Eileen McKenney — his bride of eight months — also perished in the crash.   Her sister Ruth McKenney had authored a book of witty essays on growing up with Eileen and of their adventures moving to Greenwich Village from their home in Ohio.   Her book MY SISTER EILEEN was adapted in 1940 for Shirley Booth on Broadway (a success, despite opening four days after Eileen’s sudden death).   In 1942 Columbia filmed the play as a vehicle to showcase the comedy talents of Rosalind Russell (as Ruth) and the sex appeal of the studio’s new pin-up girl Janet Blair (as Eileen).

Janet Blair and Rosalind Russell in MY SISTER EILEEN

Janet Blair and Rosalind Russell in MY SISTER EILEEN

Lots of the film’s comedy revolves around the artsy non-conformists the two Ohio girls encounter living in the Village, and the oppositional career and dating experiences of sexy, naive Eileen versus plain and wise-cracking Ruth.

Director Alexander Hall had a long history of directing but seldom seemed engaged with his product.   His work on EILEEN was tepid, getting close to being overtly stagey at times when the script easily lends itself to more shot breakdowns and metered variations of shot length.   But the script and the performances were sublime:   e.g., as a struggling writer scraping by during her first months in NYC, Russell got to declare, “I’m living on bread, potatoes and spaghetti — I’m starving to death and getting fatter by the minute!!”

As more evidence of the movie’s fun, it boasts a pre-fadeout cameo by the Three Stooges.

MY SISTER EILEEN never made it to VHS (it had a Videodisc release y-e-a-r-s ago), but is part of a new two-box DVD set that also features the wicked THEODORA GOES WILD and another Alexander Hall / Rosalind Russell collaboration (with more flair from the director) entitled SHE WOULDN’T SAY YES.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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2 Comments to “Lucille Ball :: Nathanael West :: My Sister Eileen

  1. Gautam says:

    Doug- thanks so much for participating in this year’s blogathon. This forms a very interesting Double-bill, the link between both the films being a real-life motorcycle crash!

    “…but the same could describe the human contents of this plane’s Art Deco fuselage..” -that is one of the best lines I’ve read in quite sometime now, its fitting in an article on B&W era hollywood.

    I’d also like to compliment on the layout of your blog, the theme is wonderful and just very edgy.

    Thanks again for writing, though the blogathon sort of bombed this year, like a B-movie with a big heart- but there’s always next year!

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