The Major and the Minor, 1942, Paramount Pictures. Starring Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson. Directed by Billy Wilder. B&W, 101 minutes.
After a year of trying to make it in New York, Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) is ready to return home to the security, even probable dullness, of small-town Iowa. She wisely stashed away the return fare for the trip home when she first arrived, only now she learns that price increased a few months back. She’s broke, anxious to get out of New York, and inspired by a clever option: pretend to be twelve years old and get the reduced fare for minors.
Once on the train, the conductor is suspicious, and Susan finds refuge in the cabin of one Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland). Feeling protective of the frightened young girl, he allows her to sleep in his lower bunk that night. When the train tracks are flooded overnight, Major Kirby believes he has no choice but to care for little “Susu” until he can be sure she’s safe for the rest of her passage home.
Susu is captivated by the handsome Major, who takes her back to the military school where he teaches, and houses her with his fiancée (Rita Johnson) and her family. From there Susu is caught between getting home quickly, or staying and finding a way to lure the Major away from the woman she’s sure isn’t right for him — and into her arms instead. Add to the complications the fact that the Major is waiting for orders to serve overseas, and of course, it’s nearing wartime.
This was legendary director Billy Wilder’s directorial debut, and he was careful to be sure the movie would be a commercial success by keeping it “pretty close to the surface.” He’d written the role of the Major with Cary Grant in mind, but Grant, although a good friend, turned it down. The part then went to Milland.
However, Wilder and Charles Brackett, who co-wrote the screenplay, were incapable of creating total fluff. The characters in this film have depth, and the dramatic tension of getting the two stars together, necessary in any romantic comedy, is fresh in this story line. The story was particularly relevant to audiences at that time, who were immersed in war-time news.
In her autobiography, Rogers is effusive in her praise of Wilder, saying he “couldn’t have been more enchanting…I would have loved to have made another movie with Billy Wilder, but it was not in the cards.”
Wilder, for his part, in later interviews noted with gratitude she had agreed to do this picture with a new director right after winning the Academy Award for Kitty Foyle.
He also wisely kept the character of the Major from falling for the minor. Any sort of borderline attraction is on the lines of “what a beauty you’ll be someday” rather than something salient. And while it’s clear to the audience Ginger Rogers is hardly a twelve-year-old, somehow none of the adults in the film, save the train officials, suspect anything. Well, it takes them awhile, anyway.
Look for Ginger Rogers’ real-life mother, Lela Rogers, to play her mother in the film. Character actor and Algonquin Roundtable member Robert Benchley also makes a memorable appearance as Mr. Osborne, the amorous man who’s the final straw for Susan Applegate before she leaves New York.
This is a fun film, with innuendo and innocence all wrapped up in one neat package. As the first in an illustrious career of directorial successes, the movie is a must-see for fans of Billy Wilder, and a film for all classic movie fans to know.