This can’t-lose comedy is ace writer-director Billy Wilder’s first solo directing credit; he and writing partner Charles Brackett concoct a side-splitting crowdpleaser guaranteed to secure his Hollywood future. Ginger Rogers was never more adept, playing a fake 11 year-old in a farce that’s both code-iffy and censor proof; Ray Milland shines as well with the limitlessly clever and witty screenplay. And look out for Diana Lynn, the terrific teenage comedienne that Wilder found before Preston Sturges did.
The Major and the Minor
1942 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 100 min. / Street Date September 24, 2019 / Available from Arrow Video / 39.95
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Diana Lynn, Rita Johnson, Robert Benchley.
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Film Editor: Doane Harrison
Original Music: Robert Emmett Dolan
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder from a story and a play by Fanny Kilbourne, Edward Childs Carpenter
Produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Directed by Billy Wilder
Paramount made two smart moves in the early 1940s, when they promoted top writers Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder to the director’s chair. 1942’s The Major and the Minor sees Billy Wilder coming on his first full project, determined to hit a home run the first time out. This consistently hilarious, effortlessly diverting show would lighten the spirits of someone on death row. The fast-talking charmer Billy Wilder and the erudite Charles Brackett left no room for error, winning the trust of star Ginger Rogers and surrounding her with his own brand of Ernst Lubitsch-inspired whimsy, topical jokes and funny turns of phrase. Only ten years before, Wilder’s knowledge of English had been limited to the lyrics of his favorite pop songs. With the help of writing partner Charles Brackett, the Viennese expatriate showed Paramount that he could equal Preston Sturges any day of the week.
Life in Manhattan can be tough for an unlucky working girl in wartime. Tired of trying to make a living while dodging amorous creeps like Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley), Susan Applegate decides to go home to Iowa using money she’s set aside for just such a rainy day. But the fare has gone up by $5, stranding Susan in Grand Central Station — until she disguises herself as Su-Su Applegate, a tall-for-her-age eleven year-old. Some suspicious conductors spot Su-Su smoking a cigarette on the observation car, so she ducks into the first open compartment. There she finds Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), the commandant of the Wallace military school. Kirby is returning from a failed attempt to secure a transfer to active duty. He swallows Su-Su’s adolescent act, while Susan is convinced she’s met the man of her dreams, but under the worst possible circumstances. Several complications later, Su-Su is at Kirby’s military school, fending off the advances of a number of precociously aggressive cadets. Philip’s fiancée Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) also accepts Susan as Su-Su, but her little sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) isn’t fooled. Lucy doesn’t want Susan arrested: she needs an ally to show Philip that Pamela is a two-faced rat. Pamela has been pulling strings to wrongly convince Washington that the academy cannot do without Kirby. Armed only with her kiddie-koo cutes, Su-Su holds off the cadet wolves and goes to war against her female competition.
Starting with the word play of their title, Wilder and Brackett made sure that The Major and the Minor had everything wartime audiences needed. They updated a 1921 Saturday Evening Post story called Sunny Goes Home. Ginger Rogers’ imitation of an adolescent works not because it’s believable but because the actress has so much fun doing it. ‘Su-Su’ hikes up her skirt, puts on a big hat and walks slightly pigeon-toed, a routine that fools most of the people most of the time. Susan is sick of being pawed by obnoxious jerks in the Big Apple — Benchley’s Osborne even uses the line, ‘Why don’t you slip out of your wet coat into a dry martini?’ But her ruse backfires when she meets the charming Major Kirby. She’s encouraged when ‘Uncle’ Philip begins to see her as attractive, a development that Wilder and Brackett exploit for all it’s worth. Wilder must have wracked his brain reverse-engineering the Production Code. Major Kirby is clearly turned on by what he thinks is an adolescent child, but since we’re perfectly aware that Susan is a mature 25, the naughtiness is censor-proof. Imagine, a 1942 movie with a (sublimated) theme of pedophilia!
This theme comes to a head when Kirby tries to lecture Su-Su on the birds and the bees, comparing girls to light bulbs and boys to curious moths — which sounds derived from the lyric to the Falling in Love Again song from The Blue Angel. Su-Su at first tells Philip that her family uses screen doors to keep the moths away, but when she sees that he’s having difficulty with the analogy, she lets him off the hook: “I’ll try and be a better light bulb, Uncle Phillip.”
More hilarity ensues when America’s young military cadets prove to be budding Casanovas, trying out corny strategies to steal a kiss or otherwise score points on Su-Su’s weekend relay date. They behave like the randy bellboys in Wilder’s later Some Like it Hot — they’re worse than the wolves back in the Big Apple. Wallace Academy is an absurd parody of the same problem, as she’s chased and mauled by a bunch of girl-crazy shave-tails.
Wilder’s first studio feature holds nothing back; his personal brand of comedy emerges confident and fully formed. Punch lines are doubly punchy due to Ginger Rogers’ sassy delivery: “I spit.” “You bet I am.” Running gags are a core constituent of the Wilder style. He uses the idea of throwing coins into the hat of a bronze statue to help his comedy change gears, from funny-ha-ha to funny-bittersweet: “You know, General Wallace owes me 51 cents.” On the other hand, obvious farce plotting is avoided. Although Mr. Osborne shows up at the military school with his wife ((Norma Varden), he never directly confronts Su-Su with her ‘adult’ version back in New York.
Wilder loves topical jokes, some of which may have to be explained to movie fans sixty years removed from their context. A joke about a girls’ school obsessed with Veronica Lake’s hairstyle always gets a big laugh, and Wilder pays off another gag with a funny reference to Greta Garbo. Those references will be understood by many, but Wilder indulges some in-jokes as well. The main reason he wanted to direct was to protect the integrity of his scripts. In Hold Back the Dawn, star Charles Boyer once refused to play a scene he didn’t like, which made Wilder furious. That’s why The Major and the Minor includes a moment where a precocious girl pulls a movie magazine from a sales rack and quotes the title of one of its articles: “Why I hate women, by Charles Boyer.” Touché.
The final scenes shift beautifully from comedy to romance. Susan’s mother is played by Rogers’ real mother Lela; Brackett and Wilder extend their premise to allow Susan Applegate to impersonate her own mother, thereby letting Ginger Rogers play Susan as a charming woman at three distinct ages. Wilder definitely strikes pay dirt with Ray Milland. Then a rising star at Paramount, Milland projects the right blend of decency and cluelessness required for the film’s pretzel plot — and its risky jail bait romance concept. Wilder reportedly first talked to Milland about doing the movie by chasing him down Melrose Blvd and yelling car-to-car: “Would you work in a picture I’m going to direct?”
Third wheel actress Rita Johnson does well in the thankless role, as the selfish fiancée who doesn’t want Major Kirby to serve his country. Wilder clearly cast Robert Benchley for comedy insurance, but keeps him under control. Perhaps with Benchley in the cast list, the front office worried less. The raconteur and comic is used to narrate the film’s trailer, an excellent choice.
The film’s secret weapon is Diana Lynn, whose delightfully direct and intelligent Lucy keeps the farce afloat. Farces can sag if we grow weary that nobody sees through impossible impersonations. Wilder and Brackett short-cut that by having Lucy, the most rational person in the story, spot the phony Su-Su right off the dime. Diana Lynn is even more adorably straightforward in Preston Sturges’ comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. I’ll watch anything she’s in.
No Hollywood director ever launched a career with such self-assured panache — Wilder gave them great comedy, a romantic through-line and sweet sentiment. He shows special skill directing actors — doing great with an established star and making two others look like more promising star material. What’s better, like most Billy Wilder movies The Major and the Minor is still fall-down funny, almost eighty years later.
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of The Major and the Minor is a sharp new transfer made by Arrow Films, and both brighter and cleaner than Universal’s old DVD. This show has never looked bad, but here we feel even more appreciation for Leo Tover’s polished B&W images.
Arrow gives us the amusing original trailer, a still gallery and a radio adaptation with the film’s two stars. Adrian Martin covers the movie in comprehensive style with his audio commentary, of course benefitting from the highly quotable Billy Wilder’s own comments and wisecracks. Favorite Brit film host Neil Sinyard speaks about M and the Mfor a full half-hour, covering much the same material and showing his own amusement at some of the film’s jokes, and some of Wilder’s quotes.
Sinyard notes the ‘bookend’ similarities between this first film of Wilder’s and his next-to last, Fedora. He also advances theories proposing that Wilder gave the picture more serious messages about the War that backgrounds his comedy. The film taps a perfect nerve of hometown resolve, when Su-Su’s mother assures Major Kirby that America’s women are willing to accept risk and sacrifice. I realize that he had the solid support of Charles Brackett, but Billy Wilder seems to have been the one German émigré that completely ‘Americanized’ himself … all except his accent.
Of special note is a half-hour archival audio interview with Ray Milland, who comes off as so personable, charming and funny that we eagerly believe the strange story of how he fell into film work — everybody he met must have thought, ‘this guy outta be in pictures.’ Responding to intelligent questions, Milland never condescends or brags as he talks about his career as an actor and director, explaining his approach and his opinion of the famous directors for whom he worked. Genre fans will be pleased when he says that his favorite directed film is Panic in Year Zero! Milland discusses it at length, wishing he’d had just a few more filming days to make it better. Someone correct me, I checked everywhere on the disc and couldn’t see when or where the interview was conducted — the skilled interviewers deserve credit.
The new disc’s cover artwork is okay, but the original alternate reversal sleeve feels more genuine, even if the vintage artwork isn’t the best. If patterns work themselves out, I’m hoping Arrow will soon be giving us Billy Wilder’s Paramount pix The Lost Weekend and Five Graves to Cairo in presentations as good as this one. Kino has promised both titles here in the states, in 2020.
Research source: Billy Wilder in Hollywood, Maurice Zolotow, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Major and the Minor
Supplements: New audio commentary by Adrian Martin; archival interview with Ray Milland; Half Fare Please!, a new video appreciation by Neil Sinyard; 1943 radio adaptation starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland; image gallery, trailer. First edition has an insert booklet with an essay by Ronald Bergan.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 25, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson