Image courtesy of DVD Beaver
The Major and the Minor (1942) dir. Billy Wilder
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Robert Benchley, Rita Johnson and Diana Lynn
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
“Why don’t you step out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”
Ever hear (or use) that one before? (Or variations on that theme?)
Well, thanks to screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, the abovementioned come-on line from their wickedly diseased minds splashed onto celluloid in 1942’s “The Major and the Minor”, Wilder’s debut in America as a director.
Though filmmakers during this period had to deal with significant censorship because of the restrictive production code, Wilder managed to make movies that flouted the code persistently by brightly and fiercely presenting all manner of permissiveness in a multitude of new and exciting ways. With “The Major and the Minor”, Wilder would pull some rather substantial wool over the eyes of the Code – and what magnificent wool-pulling it proved to be!
The picture features saucy, sexy, vivacious Ginger Rogers as small-town girl Susan Applegate who tries – rather unsuccessfully – to make a go of it in the concrete jungles of New York. Tired of all the wolves that want just one thing (and one thing only – right fellas?) from her supple self, she’s compelled to beat a hasty retreat back to middle America after the abovementioned martini line slithers out of the slavering mouth of horny reprobate Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley). Osborne refuses to take “no” for an answer - insistently endeavoring to get into Susan’s panties. She is forced to resist in a manner that betrays her almost veteran-like stature in having to expertly rebuff similar unwanted amorous advances.
Once at the train station to escape the dogs, as it were, of New York, she realizes she is short a few dollars for the ticket back home and gets the idea to do a makeover (pigtails, lollipop, balloon, etc.) to qualify for a child’s discount ticket. The ruse gets her a ticket, but once on the train, she’s pursued by some skeptical conductors and finds herself hiding in the compartment of a handsome young officer, Major Phillip Kirby (dashing Ray Milland). The Major takes an instant liking to this lollipop-licking “12-year-old” (who, befitting her pre-teen “age”, is referred to as “Sue-Sue” rather than “Susan”) and in an initially innocent, fatherly way Kirby becomes Susan’s saviour and benefactor – not only securing her safely on the train, but temporarily putting her up at his fiancé’s family estate.
It is here, amongst high society, where Lucy (Diana Lynn) a real 12-year-old (and little sister to Phillip’s fiancé) engages in sibling rivalry in extremis and helps Susan steal Phillip’s heart from her nasty, cold fish older sister. And it is also here that amongst the upper crust where the Major disconcertingly appears to be falling in love with a 12-year-old girl.
We, the audience, have had no doubt the Major would fall for Susan, but it starts getting just a little bit strange that the charade continues quite as long as it does. Yes, Susan knows she’s 30 and we know she’s 30 and Lucy knows she’s 30, but the Major most certainly does NOT. In fact, as he’s a teacher of young military cadets, he even seems to be setting his “Sue-Sue” up with any number of his students. He seems to be downright shilling Susan – perhaps to quell his own feelings for her.
Amusingly, but also tellingly, Susan – once the recipient of unwanted attentions from much older men (when she “was” 30) is now, at the age of 12 being hounded by young teenage boys.
On the surface, The Major and the Minor seems to be as frothy and inconsequential a romantic comedy as one is likely to experience. As the film progresses however, you realize it’s pure cynical Billy Wilder and while thoroughly bubbly, it’s not inconsequential in any way, shape or form. Substantially ahead of its time in terms of examining the sexual roles of men and women, and in particular, the way in which women are sexualized by men and society at practically any age, this proves to be a picture that does the requisite double duty of being entertaining and thought provoking all at once.
Finally, one of the more interesting aspects of this picture in terms of how women are viewed by men and by society at large is the fact that Susan is not – even for a moment – a convincing 12-year-old to the REAL 12-year-old and, in actuality, often acts far more immature than a 12-year-old actually would. The fact that a grown man AND teenage boys STILL seem attracted to this 12-year-old who might actually be younger or, at the very least, MORE immature seems to suggest the pedophilic nature inherent in ALL men.
“The Major and the Minor” is an extraordinary picture. It’s funny as hell and even romantic, but it’s also super-creepy. Some might suggest the creep factor was not Wilder’s intent, but one only needs look at his subsequent work (“Double Indemnity”, “The Apartment”, “Sunset Boulevard”, etc.) to realize that there’s no reason why it would NOT be intentional.
Wilder was nothing if not provocative. Watching this movie and comparing it to contemporary want-to-be provocateurs like Todd Solondz and his ilk, it becomes especially apparent how ahead of the pack Wilder was – ahead of the pack, ahead of his time and, to a certain extent, ahead of our time also. Wilder was and is, in fact, the real thing, while those who try to do the same thing now in their insufferably hip fashion are not much more than poseurs. Wilder is definitely a major. Most of the rest are minor.
“The Major and the Minor” is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment