Release Date(s)1942 (September 24, 2019)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Arrow Academy)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
The Major and the Minor (1942) marked Billy Wilder’s debut as Hollywood director after writing many screenplays with partner Charles Brackett. A comedy that begins with disenchantment and leads to a masquerade and eventual complications, it stars Ginger Rogers as strong-willed Susan Applegate and Ray Milland as Major Philip Kirby.
Susan is sick and tired of being pawed at and sexually harassed by lecherous men in her job as a professional scalp massager in New York City, and decides to head home to Stevenson, Iowa. Finding herself without enough money for the adult fare, she heads to the ladies room, scrubs off her make-up, puts her hair up in pigtails, changes clothes, and emerges as what she hopes will pass for a 12-year-old so she can buy a child’s ticket.
The ruse works, but on board she faces the suspicions of a couple of conductors. Darting through the train to escape them, she ducks into the unlocked stateroom of Major Philip Kirby. Susan’s disguise and her childlike manner of speaking convince him that she is a frightened child, and he lets her stay with him until they reach his stop.
Philip’s fiancee, Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson), and her father, his commanding officer at the military academy where Philip teaches, learn that his train has been halted by flooding on the tracks. They drive out to meet him, and Pamela discovers Susan sleeping in the lower berth of his compartment and imagines the worst. She accuses Philip of being unfaithful and tells her father.
Partly to ensure the safety of the “child” and partly to erase all suspicion, Philip brings her to the academy, where her mother can retrieve her and he can show his commanding officer that Susan is only 12 years old. Convinced, Pamela and her father agree to let Susan stay with them. Everyone falls for the masquerade except Pamela’s young sister, Lucy (Diana Lynn), who has reasons of her own not to blow Susan’s cover and becomes a kind of confidante and co-conspirator.
The film’s premise might appear pretty far-fetched, since Rogers was 31 at the time. The viewer has to accept that everyone except Lucy sees through Susan’s 12-year-old alter-ego, which isn’t that convincing. Eventually we go along with the premise and enjoy seeing how an adult passing as a child negotiates the world of grownups.
The Major and the Minor, co-written with Charles Brackett as well as directed by Wilder, is overshadowed by Wilder’s subsequent films, such as The Lost Weekend, Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Some Like It Hot. In its time, however, it was a box office success. Previously, Wilder had written many top-quality scripts and was upset by how directors changed them. He longed to direct, primarily to protect his scripts from tampering. In The Major and the Minor, there’s the same type of madcap fun that he employed to great effect in Some Like It Hot, with Susan leading a pair of conductors on a frenzied chase through several train cars. The train, in fact, is also a story element that Wilder used again in Some Like It Hot. In both films, the protagonists are escaping from an unpleasant situation and the revelation is saved until late in the film.
Rogers was Wilder’s first choice to play Susan. Though she’s best known today for the series of musicals she made with Fred Astaire, she turned to dramatic and comedy roles in the 1940s and won a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle. She’s a perfect choice for Susan in terms of star power, charisma, beauty, and comic timing. Though never convincing us she’s a 12-year-old, her attempts to capture the mannerisms of a child are often hilarious, sometimes coming off more like those of a 6-year-old than a preteen. Not only does she impersonate a child, at various points in the film she mimics Pamela’s voice and pretends to be her own mother. Rogers gives the film a lighthearted touch and adds considerably to its charm.
Wilder’s first choice for the male lead was Cary Grant, but Paramount contract star Ray Milland ultimately got the role. Milland could play straight dramatic parts and comedy roles equally well. His distinctive voice and easygoing manner synch nicely with the rhythm of the film. The script is sure to have him repeat the word “child” over and over with regard to Susan to make clear that he is totally taken in by her disguise.
It would be impossible to make a film like this today, since the idea of pedophilia would get in the way and audiences wouldn’t accept that a person could be totally fooled by Susan’s disguise (Wilder attempted to explain this away by showing that Major Kirby is cross-eyed). Beneath the comedy is a significant theme. Susan is constantly suffering predatory advances whether as an adult or as a child, underscoring the fact that females are sexualized and preyed upon at any age. The film was remade in 1955 as You’re Never Too Young, a comedy starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. For this new restoration, the original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 2K resolution and completed by using a combination of PFClean and Revival software. The visual quality is sharp, with Rogers’ little girl outfit, the decor in the Hills’ home, the cadets’ uniforms, Lucy’s cluttered room, and the cadets marching in drill formation appearing especially detailed. Leo Tover’s cinematography features the brightly lit station with its crowds of people scurrying to catch their trains, soft lighting in Major Kirby’s compartment, and nighttime shadows cast across a train platform on which grown-up Susan stands in a white dress and hat, looking almost ethereal.
The soundtrack is uncompressed English mono LPCM. Optional English subtitles are available for the hearing impaired. Dialogue is distinct. Rogers speaks in a sassy manner when she finds her hair treatment client wants more than a scalp massage. When she’s in disguise, she speaks like a child half that age, which adds to the comedy. No 12-year-old speaks or clings to a balloon the way she does. Later in the film, masquerading as her own mother, her speech is slower and more deliberate. When Susan is on the train (a studio set), we hear the low rumble of the train as it speeds through the night. Pamela lets out a blood-curdling scream when she discovers Susan in the Major’s train compartment, and a cloud of steam discharges from the train with a whoosh as Susan and Philip pass through it.
Bonus materials on the Unrated Blu-ray release include an audio commentary, a video appreciation, an archival interview with Ray Milland, a radio drama, an image gallery, the original trailer, a booklet, and a reversible sleeve.
Audio Commentary – Film scholar Adrian Martin notes that Billy Wilder made a French film called Bad Seed in 1933. Producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. gave Wilder the chance to direct The Major and the Minor—his first American film.” “It was a masterful film” for a first Hollywood movie. New York is established as a place of vulgarity and harassment. Robert Benchley was a celebrated writer of comedy and satire was in demand as a comic actor. Double meanings are suggested throughout by innuendo. In the 1940s, Ginger Rogers’ career turned from film musicals to dramas and comedies. Milland was equally effective in drama and comedy. “Milland had a wonderful voice for cinema,” while Rogers had to “do more gymnastics with her voice.” The transition between America’s neutrality and entrance into World War II is the time period of many Hollywood films, including this one. The film advocates for men serving in the war effort. Pamela is the unpatriotic machination to stop that, since she wants Philip to stay at the academy. As a Jew, Wilder was paranoid about being oppressed in Hollywood and had to be assured by Ernst Lubitsch that this would not happen. Youth culture is suggested by jazz music and jive dances. A switchboard is a great cinematic prop because it allows one to switch in and out of different scenes. According to Wilder, “Once you’ve clinched the ending, get out.” The film ends on a high note with the embrace of fantasy.
Half Fare, Please! – In this video appreciation, film critic Neil Sinyard discusses Billy Wilder’s collaboration with Charles Brackett and the successful screenplays they had written before Wilder was given the chance to direct. “I went into directing to protect my scripts.” Wilder was making himself a pest on sets, so Paramount agreed to let him direct, expecting him “to fall flat on his face.” The film established themes that Wilder would return to later in his career. The idea of the masquerade also occurs in Some Like It Hot and Fedora. The Major and the Minor is similar, structurally, to Some Like It Hot. The film was a risky project because it deals with the relationship between an adult male and a woman disguised as a 12-year-old girl, though it lacks smut or vulgarity. Many supporting cast members are discussed and the final scene is referred to as “concise, yet magical.” Clips from the film are interspersed with Sinyard’s comments.
Interview with Ray Milland – In this archival interview, Milland discusses his start in films in England. He was hired to replace a person to do trick sharpshooting. He was asked to make a screen test, and his first lead was in The Flying Scotsman. According to Milland, “I ambled my way through.” Referring to the studio system, he notes that decision-making came from the top. Milland was told what films he would do. Director Mitchell Leisen, with whom Milland worked on several other films, always asked for one more take, even after getting a perfect shot. A lot of production today starts with a director who hires a script writer, convinces a star to sign on, and secures the financing. Often a year and a half passes before a film goes before the cameras. Milland believes there’s more of a personal comment in modern films. Even during the studio system, people with a good track record had a degree of independence. During this audio-only interview, a color lobby card of The Major and there Minor is shown in a loop.
Radio Play – The radio show Lux Radio Theatre, introduced by Cecil B. DeMille, presents the 1943 hour-long adaptation of The Major and the Minor, starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland in their original screen roles.
Image Gallery – 12 black-and-white movie stills and 12 color images of American and foreign posters for the film are shown in a rapid slideshow. Individual images cannot be frozen.
Booklet – A 20-page insert booklet includes the essay Welcome to the Masquerade by Ronald Bergan, 13 photos, a poster reproduction, a cast and crew listing, and details of the restoration.
Reversible Sleeve – The artwork features the original poster for The Major and the Minor (Rogers as 12-year-old Susan and the copy “Is she a kid… or is she kidding?”) on one side and newly commissioned artwork (a simple close-up of Milland and Rogers) on the other.
– Dennis Seuling