Based on Fanny Kilbourne’s ‘Sunny Goes Home’ – later translated into Edward Childs Carpenter’s play ‘Connie Goes Home’ – Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942) is an immensely charming light comedy of errors that continues to delight, primarily due to Ginger Rogers’ convincing central performance as the adult revisiting her second childhood out of necessity.
In retrospectives, Rogers’ career has often been primarily – and rather unfairly - relegated almost exclusively as the ‘other half’ of Fred Astaire’s galvanic tenure at RKO. In truth, Rogers had a lucrative career before and after her teaming with Astaire. The dancing duo split in 1939. Afterward, Rogers continued to regularly work, though rarely in musicals, turning in a fine dramatic performance in Kitty Foyle (1940).
In The Major and The Minor, Rogers is New York scalp massage treatment therapist, Susan Kathleen Applegate. Assigned to a private session at the apartment of wily middle-aged playboy, Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley), Susan quickly discovers that Al wants more than his scalp massaged. After assaulting him with some raw eggs, Kathleen makes haste to Grand Central Station – resigned to give up the big city and go back home to Iowa. One problem, the original fare she saved for this rainy day has since been increased by the railroad.
However, Susan gets the bright idea to impersonate a child of twelve, thereby only having to pay half fare for her trip. Cleverly disguising herself sans makeup and with pig tails, bobby-socks and a balloon no less, Susan convinces a conman (Tom Dugan) to impersonate her father and buy her train ticket. He does – then absconds with the remainder of Susan’s money leaving her penniless.
After some awkward business with the train conductors, Susan hides in the traveling compartment of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland at his most handsome and charming) who, believing Susan to be a 12 year old child, takes pity on her and offers his lower berth for the night. Philip even encourages Susan to call him ‘uncle.’ However, when the train becomes stranded in the middle of nowhere, Philip is retrieved by his fiancée, Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson), who first ‘mistakes’ Susan for his love interest, then accepts ‘Su-Su’ as a child and moves her into her home until suitable transportation can be arranged.
Pamela’s home is conveniently located on a military training academy base run by her father, Colonel Oliver Slater Hill (Edward Fielding) where Philip is one of the school’s instructors. Hence, ‘Su-Su’ quickly finds herself at the mercy of adolescent testosterone kicking into overdrive. She is fawned over and pawed by the cadets in some truly inspired hilarity.
While the adults are fooled by Susan’s baby talk, Pamela’s younger sister, Lucy (Diana Lynn) isn’t buying the act for a minute. Confessing the truth to Lucy, Susan becomes involved in Lucy’s plan to free Philip from her sister’s clingy reserve that has thus far stifled his desire to travel the world as part of the Armed Forces.
The Major and the Minor marks Billy Wilder’s directorial debut at Paramount. Wilder reportedly chose the project because of its commercial viability – a ploy to win points with the studio’s top brass so that he could pursue more ambitious projects later on. Indeed, in retrospectives of Wilder’s career, this film is often only briefly mentioned or entirely overlooked – a shame, since the script by Charles Brackett and Wilder is a winning succession of twists and surprises, freshly blended into one effortless narrative.
Ginger Rogers excels so completely at faking adolescence that she easily turns back the clock as ‘Su-Su.’ Ray Milland has never been more charming as a leading man – with few exceptions, an underrated actor of considerable scope and depth. The supporting cast all perform with agility. Watch for a glimpse of Rogers’ real mother, Lela cast as Mrs. Applegate. In the final analysis, The Major and the Minor is a movie to be revisited over and over – a rare gem from a vintage when such gems were plentiful indeed.
Universal Home Video’s DVD transfer is adequate rather than exceptional. The B&W image exhibits an acceptably balanced grayscale. Slight edge enhancement intrudes frequently as do age related artifacts including dirt and vertical scratches. A hint of film grain creates a less than smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Once again, Universal scrimps on the extras; only a brief introduction by noted film historian and TCM host Robert Osbourne. Again, for the record, this critic continues to find Universal’s uniform lack of including a menu for Chapter Stops on their classic releases irksome. Otherwise, this title comes highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)