The Major And The Minor (Cert U)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 100 minutes approx.
You will hear people say regarding old films, “They don’t make them like they used to”, though there are some instances where this might not be a bad thing, though it pains me to say that about a Billy Wilder film. And if the title The Major And The Minor reads as salacious enough to warrant concern, it isn’t actually as bad as it sounds.
Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) has had enough of New York and decides to return home to Iowa, having saved $27.50 for the train fare home. However, forgetting about inflation, she is five dollars short of the new fare and there are no buses, so Susan needs another plan, and disguises herself as a 12 year-old girl to get a half-fare train ticket. Remarkably, the ruse works though Susan is under constant scrutiny of the conductors.
When caught smoking, Susan flees the conductors, hiding in the compartment of Major Phillip Kirby (Ray Milland) who believes “Su-Su” really is 12 and lets her stay in his compartment. Weather issues force the train to stop near the army base Kirby is heading to, and after a misunderstanding with Kirby’s fiancée Pamela (Rita Johnson), Su-Su is invited to stay at the army base with Kirby until she is able to travel home again.
Most films rely on the audience suspending their disbelief in one way or another, but this one is asking a lot in expecting us to accept 31 year-old Ginger Rogers being able to be convincingly mistaken for someone 20 years younger than her. Then again, Mary Pickford made an entire career out of doing just that.
The Major And The Minor is Billy Wilder’s second film as director and his first one made in Hollywood after years as a screenwriter. The story is based on the 1923 play Connie Goes Home by Edward Childs Carpenter, but the script has been given something of a contemporary (for 1942) makeover, displaying Wilder’s trademark quick witted dialogue and snappy comic sensibilities.
Deconstructing the corny central premise takes the fun out of watching this film, but when viewed through a modern lens it isn’t so easy to dismiss but, at the risk of trying to sound too defensive of it, this was an entirely different era. Even the tagline “Is she a kid…or is she kidding?” could be read a sinister or alluring for the wrong reasons today but back then it was harmless.
For the most part, this is an asexual affair, though we can’t fully excuse how the upright Major Kirby does develop feelings for Su-Su, though it is more in the avuncular sense as he suggested on the train. A couple of moment teeter on the edge of swimming in the waters of bad taste but Wilder is too smart to court that sort of controversy. Instead, he turns it back on us via an amusingly awkward scene where Kirby attempts to give Su-Su the birds and bees talk.
Prompting this chat is the lascivious, often predatory behaviour of the cadets at the academy Kirby is stationed at – 300 horny teenage boys thinking their Christmases have come at once because there is a girl on campus. Ranging between 15 and older, these boys all try it on with Su-Su, which in itself is hard to parse given that she is only 12, and no, being 1942 doesn’t give this a pass, even if they don’t succeed.
Back to the viability of Susan’s audacious scam and how she manages to fool people of her own age yet can’t fool a real teenager in Pamela’s younger sister Lucy (Diana Lynn). The prodigious science student doesn’t like her sister nor does she like how she controls Kirby’s life by preventing him from active service which is his wish. To sabotage Pamela’s plans, Lucy blackmails Susan into helping her, the two quickly becoming friends.
This is typical Wilder, constructing fertile subplots to satiate genre conventions while he subverts everything else on the surface. The humour born from this sees Susan having to embrace her teenage alter ego to facilitate her disruptive actions yet using the wits and guile of her adult experience. Already a feisty woman, she gets to play the succubus card but without vamping it up, making such moments more amusing by dint of their innocence.
As much as the physical appearance of an older looking 12 year-old invites lewdness, Wilder is again keen to play for subtle laughs which, had this been the 80’s would be 18-rated in a heartbeat. When challenged by the train conductors, Su-Su claims to hail from Sweden with overactive glands, wittingly quoting Garbo in reply to being asked to speak Swedish with “I vant to be alone!”.
Something that does stand out as awkward is the naivety of Kirby. As an army major, he is just to kind and easily led, which suits the plotline with Pamela but not with Su-Su. He may have a dodgy eye but if he can’t recognise a grown woman dressed as a schoolgirl what use is he going to be on the battlefield? No doubt this wasn’t supposed to be a point of issue but it does undermine his military credentials somewhat.
Known for grittier roles, Ray Milland channels his inner James Stewart with a faint whiff of Cary Grant’s élan to make Kirby as likeable as possible and is a great foil for every one of the cat he interacts with. Coming off a big Oscar win for Kitty Foyle, the role of Susan/Su-Su might seem like a backwards step for Ginger Rogers but she immerses herself into the character with enough self-awareness that we buy into it – and she gets to dance a little too!
For his Hollywood directorial debut The Major And The Minor is Billy Wilder setting out his stall. Despite concerns over the premise, this is harmless enough fun that in lesser hands would be a tawdry mess. Witness the beginning of greatness here.
English Language Mono 1.0 PCM
English HOH Subtitles
Audio Commentary with Adrian Martin
Half Fare Please!
Ray Milland Interview
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ***
Man In Black