Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) knew she might not like New York City. What she didn’t plan on was ticket prices going up, so when her forward thinking comes up short by five dollars, Susan hatches a cockeyed scheme to get home in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor.
In what would be Wilder’s first Hollywood picture directing (he previously directed Bad Seed in France), Susan poses as a twelve-year-old girl in order to afford train fare. Children only have to pay half price so Susan transforms into Su-Su and is able to convince a stranger to play her dad until she’s on board. The trouble doesn’t stop there, though, and if Susan thought she’d be in the clear, after taking a seat, the conductors decide to make it their mission to expose her until she ends up in the car of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland)
Kirby has a bad eye, so he doesn’t suspect her but, in the process, Susan ends up having to keep up her charade. Wilder co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator, Charles Brackett, and it’s the kind of scheme you’d imagine Lucy getting into on I Love Lucy. It’s also the premise of the TV Land series, Younger, except on that show Liza (Sutton Foster) is trying to pass as a woman in her 20’s (which is a lot easier to believe than a woman passing for a kid, and avoids the uncomfortableness of pedophilia, which Ronald Bergan talks about in his booklet essay).
Considering all that, Susan does a lot better than she should (as do Wilder and Brackett at keeping the tone light instead of creepy). She doesn’t convince everybody, but Edith Head’s costumes are remarkable, and Rogers (best known for her musicals with Fred Astaire) demonstrates terrific comedic timing and vocal dexterity, for not sounding her age. What’s great about Wilder’s direction, too (and Adrian Martin talks about this in his commentary track), is that he knows when to show and when to tell (something the one-hour radio play doesn’t have a choice about, so you get to hear the difference).
Like any Wilder film, this one has an edge, and a forward that dates the film as taking place before Pearl Harbor turns the rivalry between Susan and Kirby’s fiancée, Pamela (Rita Johnson, who starred with Milland in The Big Clock) into one for America joining or staying out of WWII. Kirby wants to return to active service (his eyesight got him reassigned), but Pamela’s been secretly sabotaging his efforts. Can Susan interfere without breaking her cover?
Additional bonus features on Arrow’s Blu-Ray include:
- a trailer reconceiving The Major and the Minor as a fairy tale
- an audio interview with Ray Milland where he talks about his career, what it was like working with certain directors, and how he felt about acting versus directing
- a video appreciation of the film by film critic, Neil Sinyard, that’s exceptional and filled with tidbits not covered by the other features
Today it’s big to promote STEM for girls, celebrate chosen families, and denounce sexual harassment in the movies, but Wilder was doing that in 1942 (which means he can also make a Veronica Lake joke and have it kill). The Major and the Minor is a film that’s proved ageless and is available on Blu-Ray starting September 24th from Arrow Academy.