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Major and the Minor, The
The Major and the Minor is the first film Billy Wilder directed in Hollywood. Following in the footsteps of the popular writer-turned-director Preston Sturges, successful screenwriter Wilder knew he had to hit a home run the first time out. This consistently hilarious, effortlessly diverting show is the kind of comedy that would lighten the spirits of someone on death row. The fast-talking charmer Billy Wilder left no room for error, winning the trust of star Ginger Rogers and surrounding her with his own brand of Ernst Lubitsch-inspired whimsy, topical jokes and funny turns of phrase. Only ten years before, Wilder's knowledge of English was limited to the lyrics of his favorite pop songs. With the help of writing partner Charles Brackett, the Viennese expatriate showed Paramount that he could equal Preston Sturges any day of the week.
Starting with the word play of their title, Wilder and Brackett made sure that The Major and the Minor had everything wartime audiences needed. Their source was a 1921 Saturday Evening Post story called Sunny Goes Home, completely reworked for 1942. Ginger Rogers' imitation of an adolescent works not because it's believable but because the actress has so much fun with it. 'Su-Su' hikes up her skirt, puts on a big hat and walks slightly pigeon-toed, a routine that fools most of the people most of the time. Susan was sick of being pawed by obnoxious jerks (Benchley's Osborne even uses the line, 'Why don't you slip out of your wet coat into a dry martini?') but her ruse backfires when she meets the charming Major Kirby. She's encouraged when 'Uncle' Philip begins to see her as attractive, a development that Wilder and Brackett exploit for all it's worth. Major Kirby is clearly being turned on by what he thinks is an adolescent child, but since we're perfectly aware that Susan is a mature 25, the naughtiness is censor-proof. Wilder must have wracked his brain reverse-engineering the Production Code. Imagine, a 1942 movie with a (sublimated) theme of pedophilia!
This theme comes to a head when Kirby tries to lecture Su-Su on the birds and the bees, comparing girls to light bulbs and boys to curious moths -- which sounds like a lyric to the Falling in Love Again song from The Blue Angel. Su-Su at first tells Philip that her family uses screen doors to keep the moths away, but when she sees that he's having difficulty with the analogy, she lets him off the hook: "I'll try and be a better light bulb Uncle Phillip."
More hilarity ensues when America's young military cadets prove to be budding Casanovas, trying out corny strategies to steal a kiss or otherwise score points on Su-Su's weekend relay date. The irony is that Susan ditched the Big Apple to be free of unwanted advances, only to be mauled and chased by a bunch of girl crazy shave-tails.
Wilder's first studio feature holds nothing back; his personal brand of comedy emerges confident and fully formed. Punch lines pay off because of Ginger Rogers' expert delivery: "I spit." "You bet I am." Running gags are a core constituent of the Wilder style. He uses the idea of throwing coins into the hat of a bronze statue to help his comedy change gears, from funny-ha-ha to funny-bittersweet: "You know, General Wallace owes me 51 cents." On the other hand, the picture smartly avoids obvious farce plotting: Mr. Osborne shows up at the military school with his wife ((Norma Varden), but never directly confronts Su-Su with her 'adult' version back in New York.
Wilder loves topical jokes, some of which may have to be explained to movie fans sixty years removed from their context. A joke about a girls' school obsessed with Veronica Lake's hairstyle always gets a big laugh, and Wilder pays off another gag with a funny reference to Greta Garbo. We're supposed to get those references but Wilder indulges some in-jokes as well. The main reason he claimed he wanted to direct was to protect the integrity of his scripts. Star Charles Boyer once refused to play a scene he didn't like, which made Wilder furious. So The Major and the Minor has a moment where a precocious girl pulls a movie magazine from a sales rack and quotes the title of one of its articles: "Why I hit women, by Charles Boyer." Touché.
Brackett and Wilder extend their premise to allow Susan Applegate to impersonate her own mother, thereby letting Ginger Rogers play Susan as a charming woman at three distinct ages. Susan's mother is played by Rogers' real mother Lela. Rita Johnson does well as the selfish fiancée who wants to Major Kirby for herself and away from the service of his country. Wilder clearly cast Robert Benchley for comedy insurance, but strikes pay dirt with Ray Milland. Then a rising star at Paramount, Milland projects the right blend of decency and farce-approved cluelessness required for the film's pretzel plot -- and its risky jail bait romance concept. Wilder reportedly first talked to Milland about doing the movie by chasing him down Melrose Blvd and yelling car-to-car: "Would you work in a picture I'm going to direct?"
The film's secret weapon is Diana Lynn as the delightfully direct and intelligent Lucy. Many farces lose their grip because we grow weary when nobody sees through impossible impersonations. Wilder and Brackett short-cut that by having Lucy, the only really rational person in the story, spot the phony Su-Su right off the dime. Diana Lynn is even more adorably straightforward in Preston Sturges' comedy The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.
Universal's DVD of The Major and the Minor is a good B&W encoding of a transfer element in fine condition. The film is part of the Paramount library sold to MCA in the late 1940s, which accounts for its distribution by Universal. Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies provides an optional introduction, and an original trailer is included.
The list of Billy Wilder films still not on DVD is growing shorter; we're eager and ready for restored editions of unheralded classics like Five Graves to Cairo and A Foreign Affair.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Major and the Minor rates:
Supplements: Trailer, intro by Robert Osborne
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 2, 2008
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