If you can buy Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as women in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, it’s probably not too big a stretch to accept Ginger Rogers as an 11-year-old girl in the same filmmaker’s The Major and The Minor, even though the actress was in her early thirties when she made the movie.
Presented here for the first time in high definition, Wilder’s first film as a Hollywood director (his second overall) is a thoroughly charming comedy, buoyed by a winning performance from Rogers, who takes on three roles in all. In fact, the film is such an entertaining tour de force, you end up forgiving its occasionally dubious subject matter.
Rogers plays Susan Applegate, who has moved to New York from her sleepy Iowa hometown, only to be chewed up and spat out by the big city’s sleazy, hardscrabble ways. When Susan can’t afford to buy a train ticket home, she dresses up as a child – named Su-Su – so she can travel for half-fare. Hiding out from ticket inspectors, she meets nice-but-dim soldier, Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), and ends up spending three days at a military academy under the suspicious eye of his fiancée, Pamela (Rita Johnson). Backed into a corner, Applegate is forced to continue her ruse, even as she becomes the amorous target of teenage army recruits and starts to fall in love with kindly Philip.
If the premise sounds a bit inappropriate, that’s because it is. Rogers may have been a fully-grown woman in the early 1940s, when she made the film, but the romantic frisson (I can’t bear to use the phrase “sexual tension”) in several scenes between Su-Su and the man she calls ‘Uncle Philip’ barely stays the right side of creepy. Seeing a supposed 11-year-old girl pursued romantically by a band of older army cadets, who try to paw and kiss her, is similarly uncomfortable. There are times when you fully understand why, in Italy, the film was known by the more salacious title of Frutto Proibito or Forbidden Fruit.
But Wilder was a master at taking contentious subject matter and spinning it into gold. After all, this is the man who made A Foreign Affair, his criminally underrated 1948 comedy set in the ruins of post-WWII Berlin. Starring Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich, it’s a film that acknowledges the horrors of the conflict, but somehow still manages to tell a story stuffed full of romance and jokes. His challenge here isn’t quite as tricky as that and, what could have been an offensive misfire, instead becomes a lesson in perfectly constructed farce, as Susan battles to preserve her big secret, keep at bay the handsy teens, and devise a way of showing Philip how she feels about him.
Wilder’s greatest directorial triumphs – Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Apartment – may have still been ahead of him but, with a variety of collaborators, including this movie’s Charles Brackett, he had been an accomplished screenwriter for years. Those finely-polished storytelling skills are brought fully to bear here. There’s a superb bit of foreshadowing early on when we first meet Susan in New York, some nice wordplay (“How do you feel, Su-Su?” “So-so”), a laugh-out-loud sight gag at the expense of Veronica Lake, and a heart-warming ending that is purest Hollywood. We even get to see Rogers – who’d famously starred with Fred Astaire, in the 1930s, in the likes of Swing Time and Follow The Fleet – dance a bit, and her mother (Lela Rogers) in a cameo role as… Susan’s mum.
The director was at his best when mixing comedy with harder-edged drama and a subplot which sees manipulative Pamela scheming to keep her soldier husband-to-be away from active service is played for laughs, for the most part, but is actually an exploration of whether the US should enter the Second World War. Pamela is very much the villain of the piece (played with relish by Johnson), so it’s easy to see where Wilder and Brackett’s sympathies lay. The Major and The Minor might be a ditzy comedy on the surface, but darker, richer themes bubble away beneath that reward repeat viewing.
Film scholar Adrian Martin’s audio commentary is a treat because it doesn’t just talk about Wilder, but spends quite a bit of time exploring the contribution of his collaborators, too, including co-writer Brackett, who didn’t like Milland’s performance in the film; and the movie’s editor, Doane Harrison, who advised Wilder on making the leap into directing and his “cutting in the camera” method of working.
Half Fare Please! (30 minutes) is an appreciation of the movie by critic Neil Sinyard. In it he discusses why Wilder started directing in the first place (to prevent the quality of his screenplays being compromised by other filmmakers) and how themes of “masquerade” and “deception” were near-constants in his work. It’s fascinating stuff.
There’s also a 30-minute interview (audio only) with Milland, from 1975, in which the late actor/director – then pushing 70 – looks back over his career. Perhaps most celebrated for his role in Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, the Wales-born star offers interesting/amusing titbits about the likes of Claudette Colbert and Fritz Lang, but it’s the stuff covering his early career and uneasy relationship with his craft that I enjoyed the most.
The hour-long radio adaptation of The Major and The Minor, from 1943, which also stars Rogers and Milland, is an enjoyable curio but little else. Once you chuck out the cornball ads for Lux Toilet Soap (“9 out of 10 screen stars use it!”), you’re left with a breathless 45-minute version of the story which leaves out a lot of the best material.
Additionally, there’s an image gallery, a trailer, and a reversible sleeve, featuring both original and newly commissioned artwork. Get hold of the Blu-ray’s first pressing and you also receive a collector’s booklet with an essay on the film by author Ronald Bergan.
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