The Major and the Minor is an elevator pitch movie selling itself on its title. As to what’s in it for the viewer, quite a lot if you like comedy that rides right into inappropriateness. It’s written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and one of the joys of watching this under-regarded 1942 comedy is looking on as two masters of their craft get into one tight spot after another – sometimes deliberately – and then Houdini-like spring themselves free.
Maybe when they first came up with the idea Brackett and Wilder didn’t realise that half-price train travel out of New York in the 1940s applied only to the under-12s. Maybe they thought 16 and under. But 12 it is, and that’s the dynamic that powers this farce about a grown woman who’s decided the fancy Big Apple life isn’t for her, and so heads to the train station to go home.
It’s only when she get there that she realises she hasn’t got the money for a full price fare. So – make up off, stockings swapped for socks, eyes widened, voices pitched up – she decides to pose as an 11 year old, 12 next week, for the long journey back to Iowa.
It’s worth remembering as we watch the adventures of the “kid” on this long and digressive journey that Ginger Rogers, about 31 at the time, is meant to be playing 11. Especially when Wilder and Brackett insert her into locations including the sleeping compartment of an army major also travelling on the same train. Later they install her at an army barracks overflowing with horny cadets all keen to take a pop at this – as far as they’re concerned – 11 year old.
Brackett and Wilder get round the problem simply by pretending it isn’t there. As far as they’re concerned the whole 11-years-old thing is only in play for as long as it takes for Susan Applegate (aka little Su-Su) to get her hands on a cut-price ticket, after which everyone involved carries on as if Su-Su were a bit older, maybe 16.
This is classic Wilder “wrong person/wrong place” territory – Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot – and it’s interesting to see him hit the ground running in his first film as a director in the USA. He’d only actually directed one film before, in France, en route to the US after escaping from Hitler. Since arriving Stateside he’d spent ten years building up his reputation by writing screenplays (Ninotchka, for Greta Garbo, among them). The Major and the Minor announces Wilder’s arrival as a player and starts him on a glorious 20-year directorial run – with films including Five Graves to Cairo, Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, The Seven Year Itch and The Apartment (classics all).
It being 1942 and with the country at war, it would be good, wouldn’t it, if Brackett and Wilder could work in a patriotic angle. The major, played by a shouting Ray Milland, wants to re-enlist in the army but his schmancy fiancé, a general’s daughter, is doing everything she can to prevent him from returning to active service. Double bubble – flagwaving for Milland and a handy villainess role for Rita Johnson as the scheming Pamela. Handy, because Su-Su has fallen big time for the major, though he sees her only as a kid and insists she call him Uncle Philip.
Wilder had wanted Cary Grant for the role of Uncle Philip, but Milland fits the role well, even borrowing a few of Grant’s cadences here and there. Ginger Rogers is brilliant, as she often was, even though she’s implausible as hell as an 11-year-old even with all that gauze on the lens. But then playing with a straight face to her fellow actors while winking at audiences is what Rogers excelled at. Note: winks not leers.
There’s a nice little role for the great screen comedian Robert Benchley as the sort of man who is everything the upright major isn’t – he gets to utter the line “why don’t you slip out of that wet coat and into a dry martini” – and Diana Lynn is smarts and perkiness incarnate as Pamela’s teenage sister, Lucy. Incidentally, when this film got remade, as the gender-flipped comedy You’re Never Too Young, in 1955, Lynn played the adult to Jerry Lewis’s faux kid.
And Ginger does a little dance at one point. What more do you want?