Wilder: The Major and the Minor (1941) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
19Aug/120

Wilder: The Major and the Minor (1941)

Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers), tired of New York after one year and 25 jobs, decides to return to Iowa. Trouble is, when she saved money for the train fare home, she didn't allow for inflation. So the audacious Susan disguises herself as a 12-year-old (!) and travels for half fare. Found out by the conductors, she hides out in the compartment of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), a military school instructor. The growing attraction between Susan and Kirby is complicated by his conniving fiancee (Rita Johnson)... and by the myopic Kirby continuing to think "Su-Su" is only 12!

We are now ready for Billy Wilder’s first English language film, The Major and the Minor, or, as I like to call it, Ray Milland is a Dirty Old Man.

The Major and the Minor is one of those rare romantic comedies where a characters is posing as a kid and the movie has to have walk a tightrope to make you believe that the two leads are meant for each other while trying to keep away from the icky subtext that one of the characters are falling in love with someone they think is a child.  The Major and the Minor does not quite accomplish this but I also think Billy Wilder took much glee in making both the character and the audience squirm.

But that's not the important thing I want to discuss right now: do you think it is a shame that Wilder and Ginger Rogers never worked together again after this film?  She was a perfect woman for the type of female characters that Wilder wrote so well.  She was feisty, could deliver his dialogue perfectly but yet had enough heart and charisma underneath to make you really care for her.  Other than Monroe, most of Wilder characters came from the same mold as Susan Applegate.

It's also funny to watch films years from when they were originally released because you can see an actor a totally different way.  Before The Major and the Minor all I had ever seen Milland in were dark dramas like The Lost Weekend or thrillers like Dial M for Murder so it was strange to see him do so well in a light comedy like this, although at the time this was what he was known for.  I had the opposite reaction to Fred MacMurray because when I started watched his Wilder films like Double Indemnity and The Apartment,  I had only known him from The Shaggy Dog films and The Absent Minded Professor, two roles that couldn’t be further away from his Walter Neff.

But I've rambled on enough, what do you make of this film?

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

Before I start in, I'm going to go ahead and ask we jump back-- unfortunately we don't have the time or ability to cover it, but between The Major and The Minor and Mauvise Graine it's been nearly eight years. In the time between, Wilder moved to Hollywood and was teamed up with screenwriter Charles Brackett. Together they formulated and wrote some fantastic comedies-- Ball of Fire, Midnight, Bluebird's Eighth Wife, and Ninotchka-- and had racked up three Academy Award nominations. Most of the films from this period can be typified by the two most notable directors to hitch a post to them, Howard Hawks and the legendary Ernst Lubitsch.

Lubitsch was the kind of mature yet risque comedies, and his European sensibilities towards sex and comedy obviously aligned with Wilder's. Because of this influence, you definitely see Wilder's more whimsical urges elevated from French farce to American screwball.

The Major and the Minor is a very playful, light film, in spite of the real issue with creepiness that will effect anyone not drawn in by the film's magic. Luckily, that might be a rare number: Rogers is such a good sport that the way she manages to modulate her many characters and temperaments go down as sweet as buttermilk. Milland is adorable, too, like some sort of pleasant, dumb teddy bear, whose devotion to his country blind him to an awful lot of things.

In regards to your Ginger Rogers query, I have to say that I think she played her part well here, but I can't imagine her in any of Wilder's next dozen films-- save maybe for The Emperor Waltz, and I won't wish that on anyone. Rogers had just won Best Actress for Kitty Foyle a year before this was made, but that was the high point of her career, and it was headed for decline. She had only one Fred Astaire collaboration to go, and her style of 1930's hoofing just wasn't favored by the time the war was in swing.

So, since you brought it up as well, what do you think the movie is saying about Susan playing a kid and developing a romance with Phillip? Phillip is the only male character in the film who treats Susan with an ounce of restraint-- was America oversexed in the early 40's? And consider that Susan is the only woman who receives such attention-- every other woman is either a punchline, devoted to science, or doing some nasty plotting. Does Susan's regression demonstrate that the paternal instinct helps keep men in line?

And are you like me and you get weirded out when a character in a black and white film is said to have red hair? Or do you just want me to explain my theory of the Maginot Line to you?

Lubitsch is of course one of his biggest influences and you can see the "Lubitsch Touch" throughout this charming film but another director that influenced Wilder to start directing was Mitchell Leisen.  Unlike Lubitsch, whom he adored, Wilder had nothing but scorn for Leisen that he decided no one like him should ever be able to direct his screenplays again.  Although I like Midnight, I thank Leisen for giving Wilder that last push so he could become our greatest writer/director.

But lets get back to the movie at hand.  I am glad you mentioned the Maginot Line because I think that is the most Wilder-esque moment in the film and it makes me smile every time they bring it up.  What you were talking about sex in this movie is a very good point.  I find it interesting that the only person that called Susan out in this film was Lucy, the kid who was only interested in science and not the opposite sex at all. Of course the teenage boys in the film were sexed up, but who can blame them when they are stuck in a boys only school and then a girl who looks like Ginger Rodgers comes into their orbit.

I love how this film is a light weight studio picture but is still a movie that is much more than a typical screwball comedy.  The movie is charming and is entertaining from beginning to end but it also has more substance than you would expect.

It was made during WWII and I love how the fiancee was a evil bitch because she wanted to keep her finance safe and out of the war, while Rogers is trying her hardest to get him shipped out.  Of course at the time that would make total sense at this time when patriotic fervor was at its highest.   Getting back to the sex thing, I find it really interesting that the older gentlemen in the film are the ones that fall for the ruse of Susan the most.  Is Wilder saying that we as men want our women to look like a sexpot but act like a little girl?  Do we want our sexy women to be innocent at the same time?

Finally, I think the film is beautifully shot and is beautiful black and white film.  I love some of the compositions in the house when people are spying on Susan.  The shots are framed almost like a noir film with people peering through peep holes, shades and more.  Like I said earlier, I liked Midnight which was written by Wilder but directed by Leisen but the look of the films could not be more different.  I have been trying to look at his directing style more closely and this is one hell of a good looking screwball comedy, I would put it up there with It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday.  

To wrap it up I think this was a really strong American debut for our boy Wilder and can't wait to talk about his next film Five Graves to Cairo.  Any final thoughts from you?

I don't know, man, the Marginot Line line struck me as pure Lubitsch. That invokes the sly sexual playfulness that came straight down from The Smiling Lieutenant. This film is such an aping of Lubitsch that it's hard to see where exactly the line is. That's not an insult-- saying Wilder on his first time out in Hollywood is comparable to the master of sexual comedies is far from it-- but it does make this kind of a hard beast to judge. Where does one end and the other begin?

Wilder hasn't really set himself far from the pack yet, but I think what gets me thinking of him is one of the film's final scenes, where Rogers, discovering Milland is in town, impersonates the mother of the girl she was previously impersonating. Playing with the desire to maintain an illusion beyond all logical stopping points is something I see him coming back to a lot, in both his comedies and dramas.

As for the sexual issues this film toys with, this again speaks to Wilder having fun toying with perceptions and, as I mentioned, the lies we tell ourselves to maintain a veneer of sanity. Rogers throughout the film is sort of like the emperor with no the clothes-- just she has clothes on, and everyone is almost too polite and/or smitten to point out the truth.

I think The Major and The Minor is a solid film, but not much of a stark difference from a majority of the works that Wilder and Brackett had written up to that point. Sweet, but with only a hint of an edge. Wilder had developed a style-- a sweet, inoffensive one-- but it's obvious that the writing pair wanted to push things further. This movie was produced at the onset of World War II next time, and for maybe the next decade, this film's patriotic optimism would get darker, and a different Wilder would emerge through the looking glass.

Next week: Five Graves to Cairo

 

The Films of Billy Wilder

Posted by Danny

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