The Major and the Minor (1942)

Synopsis:

Tired of hustling in The Big Apple, Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers, Kitty Foyle) decides to return to her hometown in Iowa. Susan doesn’t have enough money for a train ticket, so she disguises herself as an 11-year-old child in order to pay a reduced fare. After the train conductor discovers Susan’s scheme, she hides out in the car of a soldier, Major Kirby (Ray Milland, The Uninvited), who doesn’t suspect Susan isn’t a child.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”

I readily admit that I’m not a big fan of comedies. The thing is that it’s hard for me to find the kind of dark humor I like best. That’s why I was dreading the thought of sitting through The Major and the Minor, which sounded like a silly puffball. But being the first American movie directed by Billy Wilder, I couldn’t pass up the chance to watch it. To my utter shock, this is a smart social farce with an edge.

The film pretends to be brainless entertainment when, in fact, it tackles very serious issues. I was in complete awe of writer-director Wilder’s uncanny ability to make astute and pertinent social observations under the appearance of a knuckleheaded comedy. This amiable and wacky wartime farce is, among many things, a fascinating commentary on the thin line between flirtation and sexual harassment.

“I got myself stared at, glanced over, passed by, slapped around, brushed off, cuddled up against,” says our heroine Susan, bitterly. The big irony is that Susan escapes the lecherous men of the city only to end up as the toy of oversexed young boys at a military school. And mischievous Wilder has more surprises for us. He jokingly flirts with the idea of pedophilia (between Susan and the Major, and between Susan and the young cadets) without crossing the line. This is a perfect example of what Wilder does throughout the entire movie — the director makes you laugh and then makes you think.

The Major and the Minor is also poking fun at American naiveté. Perhaps Wilder, an Austrian who had witnessed first hand the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, found Americans too naïve, too innocent. Susan is able to fool most people not because she’s clever, but because the majority of people aren’t really paying attention. This might be a critique of American complacency in the face of a global threat.

All in all, satirist par excellence Wilder proves here that you can engage viewers with important issues in a way that doesn’t feel like a dry classroom lecture. The Major and the Minor says a few important things about the American culture while it makes us laugh. Wilder was an incorrigible naughty boy and cynic — he doesn’t even bother to give an answer to the questions he raises — but his points are well taken.

Towering above all is the superb performance by Ginger Rogers as Susan/Su-Su. The Major and the Minor allows Rogers to display the full range of her talents. Ray Milland is perfectly adequate as Major Kirby. Diana Lynn (My Friend Irma) is funny as a cynical teen. Humorist Robert Benchley (Foreign Correspondent) plays a nasty businessman. Rogers’s real-life mom, Lela E. Rogers, plays her mother in the movie.

And this movie is funny! I loved the joke about French actor Charles Boyer’s then reputation as a matinee lover. The joke about actress Veronica Lake’s famous hair style is great too. The bit about Greta Garbo was hilarious! There are many other gags, most of them of a sexual nature. I still don’t know how Wilder got away with so much at a time when movies were heavily scrutinized by the censors.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Major and the Minor is a razor-sharp essay on sexual mores in America. What’s most interesting about the movie is that I’m completely sure Billy Wilder had no intention of making a message movie — he is clearly being subversive for the sake of being subversive. Whether you believe an artist’s intentions are important or not, it’s hard not to leave The Major and the Minor with the nagging thought that we need to reevaluate sexual behavior in America. B&W, 100 minutes, Not Rated.

6 responses to “The Major and the Minor (1942)

  1. I love this movie. Each time I see it I see another sly trick of Wilder’s. The thing is, if you’re not paying attention it does come across as a bit of fluff. I think Wilder pushed the line but didn’t cross it (or did you say that already?). Anyway, great review.

    Liked by 2 people

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