The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942)

the major and the minor review
After posing as a child to afford her train fare, a woman finds herself forced to maintain her masquerade at a military academy.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Billy Wilder

Starring: Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson, Robert Benchley, Diana Lynn, Edward Fielding

the major and the minor bluray

Plenty of movies require a large degree of suspension of disbelief from their audience, perhaps none more so than Billy Wilder's Hollywood directorial debut, 1942's The Major and the Minor, which asks us to believe that its cast of characters would fall for a 32-year-old Ginger Rogers posing as an 11-year-old girl.

Rogers' Susan Applegate adopts the disguise when she finds herself short of adult fare for a train ride back to her home town in Iowa. Following a trip to the restrooms at New York's Grand Central Station, Susan emerges as 'Su-Su', a bespectacled and pigtailed child who manages to convince the ticket seller that she qualifies for half-fare. Onboard the train, the conductors begin to smell a rat, not to mention Susan's cigarette fumes, and Susan/Su-Su evades their attentions by ducking into the compartment occupied by Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), an officer travelling back to his military academy. Falling for Susan's dubious disguise, Kirby allows Su-Su to spend the night in his compartment (the first indication that we're watching the product of a far more innocent era).

the major and the minor review

The following morning the train is held up by flooding, and so Kirby's fiancée, Pamela (Rita Johnson), drives to the train to escort him to the academy. To her shock, Pamela finds Susan in Kirby's bed and refuses to listen to his protestations of innocence. Kirby convinces Susan to accompany him to the academy to explain the situation, which she does so convincingly that she finds herself the academy's special guest. Susan spends the following days evading the amorous attentions of the young cadets while, with the aid of Pamela's young sister (Diana Lynn, as the only person on campus who sees through Susan's ruse), she attempts to seduce Kirby.

[ READ MORE: The Joy Of Screwball Comedies ]

It's strange for a movie of this era to ask its audience to root for a woman as she attempts to break up an impending marriage. Susan is quite ruthless in her pursuit of Kirby, accusing her love rival Pamela of not really being in love with the Major, an accusation that has no substantial evidence to back it up. Another subplot sees Susan aid Kirby's attempts to have himself assigned to active duty in the Pacific, something Pamela has pulled a few strings to ensure doesn't happen. Viewed through a modern lens, it would seem that Pamela has her fiancée's best interests at heart, rather than Susan, who is quite happy to let Kirby go off and fight ("Maybe all a girl wants is to be a photo above a soldier's bunk"). But you have to view The Major and the Minor in the context of 1942, when Hollywood was doubling as the propaganda wing of the US military. Pamela represents American isolationism, wanting her idyllic life to carry on regardless of what might be happening on the other side of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Susan on the other hand, is an interventionist, willing to sacrifice such stability. As an Austrian Jewish émigré, it's clear which side Wilder is on, and Hollywood is willing to give his home-wrecking protagonist some leeway for the good of the war effort.

the major and the minor review

With his first American directorial effort, Wilder establishes a theme he would return to several times over his career - that of a protagonist forced to assume a false identity. We see this again with WWII thriller Five Graves to Cairo, in which a British officer posing as a German spy is forced to later pose as a French waiter; with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis adopting drag to evade mobsters in Some Like it Hot; Lemmon again indulging in masquerade to win the heart of Shirley MacLaine's Parisian prostitute in Irma La Deuce; and of course the duplicitous deceit of Marthe Keller in Fedora. The Major and the Minor may not be as refined as some of those later examples, but Rogers' performance is as good as you'll find in any of them. While her childish disguise is never remotely convincing, the quality of Rogers' turn here prevents us from ever questioning the silliness of the whole affair, as we're swept along by a tornado of screwball comedy. She even gets a chance to strut her stuff, distracting a young switchboard operator with her famous dance moves.

[ READ MORE: Blu-Ray Review - Witness for the Prosecution (1957) ]

Wilder's film is filled with easter eggs that will delight classic film buffs, with multiple references to the pop culture of the day. A newsstand magazine boasts the headline "Why I hate women - by Charles Boyer," a dig at an actor Wilder held some animosity for thanks to his refusal to perform some of the scenes Wilder had scripted for the previous year's Hold Back the Dawn. When asked to speak Swedish, all Susan can muster is Garbo's "I vant to be alone" catchphrase. And in the movie's funniest visual gag, the visiting pupils of a nearby girls' academy are revealed as unconvincing clones of Veronica Lake.

the major and the minor review

The Major and the Minor may not hold up against Wilder's later comic masterpieces like The Apartment, Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three, but it's essential viewing for fans of the Austrian auteur, as it offers early indications of the gems to follow. It's also a fun, silly time, and of course it now has the added "what were they thinking?" factor as it naively weaves a story that's essentially about a grown man falling for a woman he believes is an 11-year-old child. Nabokov, eat your heart out.

Feature commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; video appreciation by film critic Neil Sinyard; archival audio interview with Ray Milland; hour-long radio adaptation from 1943 starring Ginger Rogers and Milland; original trailer; image gallery; booklet with essay by Ronald Bergan (first pressing only).

The Major and the Minor is on blu-ray September 23rd from Arrow Academy.