There are certain movies whose magic resides in knowing they’ll never be recreated, and I’m not talking about because they’re untouchable. I mean because their content only works in the era in which they were made (and even then they probably didn’t work for everyone). Such is the case with Billy Wilder’s American directorial debut, The Major and the Minor. Lovingly restored with a host of rare bonus features via Arrow Video, The Major and the Minor would be a blind buy purely for its bizarre storyline. On top of it all, though, there’s a fantastic performance by Ginger Rogers you have to see to believe.
Susan Applegate (Rogers) is sick of the lecherous men of New York. Determined to go back to her hometown of Stevenson, Iowa, Susan has the money saved for her train fare but forgot about inflation. With not enough to get home she concocts the idea of getting on the train with a “half-fare” for those under 12. With a hastily constructed costume, Susan is prepped to pass for a little girl. But when she meets Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland) the two have a hard time remembering Susan’s age.
It’s hard for modern audiences to get over The Major and the Minor’s storyline, especially with our decades of objectification and sexualization of young women. But that’s the joys of classic movies, understanding the history and context and being able to understand how times have changed. In this case, The Major and the Minor uses the premise of Susan pretending to be a child to focus on how other characters treat her and how she, in turn, treats Philip.
Is Wilder asking you to completely suspend disbelief? Yes. Are there moments where you wonder if Philip is truly in on things? Are there moments where Philip’s treatment of the girl he knows as “Su-Su” is creepier BECAUSE he thinks she’s a little girl? Hell yes. But that’s the enjoyment of The Major and the Minor, in that it’s a feature that could only pass in 1942. Really, Susan’s motivations always seem logical. She’s struggled to make her way in New York only to be pawed at, molested, and asked to “get out of that wet coat and slip into a dry martini” by every man she meets. But she has no idea what’s in store for her till she meets the next generation of young men.
Through a series of hijinks, Su-Su ends up accompanying Kirby back to the military academy he works at. He seems to think that it’s less nefarious to be caught with a child not your own than a grown woman because, again, 1942. Once Su-Su is there the film transitions to examining how masculinity transitions from one group to another. All the young boys who meet her, believing her to be 12, act like mini-adults, detailing their knowledge of WWII and their interest in the growing war. (There’s an unspoken streak of black comedy that runs through the movie considering that several of these boys, in theory, would have gone to war and might have died after.)
But there’s no child smarter than Lucy (Diana Lynn), the teenage daughter of Philip’s wealthy fiancee Pamela (Rita Johnson). You might recall Lynn as the equally intelligent younger sister to Betty Hutton’s Trudy Kockenlocker in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944). In that film, Lynn’s character was a smart aleck and one of the more responsible people around. Here as Lucy she’s smarter than the adults. It takes all of five minutes with Su-Su for Lucy to say “cut the baby talk” and become instant friends with the woman. More importantly, there’s no blackmail or sass between the two characters. Lucy becomes a friend, regardless of age.
Ginger Rogers is so wonderful in this movie, even if you never buy that she’s 12 (but that’s the movie’s point). You also buy that she’s genuinely interested in Ray Milland. Sorry, you’ll never get me to ever find Ray Mi-Bland fascinating. He’s playing a character different than some of the cads I’ve seen him play, but he’s still not a charismatic presence. Rogers does the heavy lifting in all respects.
Arrow Video has been putting out some amazing discs this year and The Major and the Minor is no different. Outside of the brilliant transfer there are rare vintage interviews with Ray Milland as well as a radio production of this with Milland and Rogers. There’s a great essay booklet included that inspired my review. If you don’t own The Major and the Minor already or want to upgrade to the best version possible, this is it.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.