The Major and the Minor Review

There are probably two ways to best look at Billy Wilder's first time behind the camera in Hollywood. The Major and the Minor can be a light and fun comedy with some romance on the side, the kind Paramount specialised in during its heyday of the '30s and '40s. It could also be seen as a tricky and borderline subversive take on the relationship between an older man and a younger...girl, a full thirteen years before Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was published. They're not mutually exclusive, of course. Part of the popularity Wilder would later enjoy was due to this extreme shrewdness of being able to both please an audience and wink at them simultaneously. His American debut as director already foreshadows how keenly Wilder would divvy out placating indulgences like playing cards. "Here's a broad gag for you. Have something a little more subtle, please ma'am. I've saved this bit just for you, sir." In any of his best films, either as just a writer or director too, these pieces of tiered humour shine brilliantly. Without condescending to anyone, Wilder could please nearly everyone.

Before he would be able to make pictures, he knew it was Paramount that had to be convinced first and foremost. One has to think that Preston Sturges probably paved the way for Wilder to ascend from co-writing films like Midnight and Hold Back the Dawn at the studio to being entrusted with his own A-list job. Sturges had kept the screenplay for The Great McGinty in his pocket until Paramount finally let him direct, in 1940. He ended up winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his perseverance. This certainly wasn't an era when screenwriters were rising up the ranks to direct with any frequency and, in fact, Sturges is largely considered the trail blazer in this regard. So Wilder must have known that he was fortunate to get the promotion into the director's chair. Taking full advantage of such an opportunity, Wilder and his writing partner Charles Brackett fashioned a highly commercial comedy, with a modest budget and high return potential. He also was incredibly lucky to have Ginger Rogers, coming directly off winning an Oscar for Kitty Foyle, as his star. Coincidence or not, Rogers and Wilder happened to have the same agent, Leland Hayward, who was apparently in the midst of an affair with the actress (despite his marriage to Margaret Sullavan). Based only on this film, Rogers would later declare Wilder as her favourite of all directors with whom she worked.

You can see a little of that in the movie, actually. She's so perfect in a role that few other actresses of the time could have been been as good in, and even fewer could have been as believable. Ginger plays Susan Applegate as a woman in her mid-twenties, a twelve-year-old girl, and a middle-aged matron and she does them all with perfect pluck. She begins as browbeaten Miss Applegate, humiliated from the come-ons by an older man (Robert Benchley) whose wife is absent and expects more than just a scalp massage from his scalp masseuse. Miss Applegate has had enough of New York City after scavenging through 25 dead-end jobs. She's defeated and ready to return to the small town Iowa life she'd once given up on. Just before the film starts Wilder inserts a biting little screen of text about the Dutch purchasing New York from the Indians in 1626 and, by 1941, nary an Indian regretted the sale. It's Wilder as cynic thrust upon the audience right from the get-go of film and career.

That common sense version of cynicism that Wilder practised with aplomb rears its head again, to some extent, when Susan approaches a Grand Central ticket window to purchase a ride back home. She's ready with her $27.50 when the man behind the glass informs her that a ticket will instead be $32.50. "Well that's a fine thing for a big railroad to do, get you to come here for $27.50 and then when you want to go back raise the ante," she protests when told of the rate hike. Ah, but what do we have here? A little girl in pigtails with a balloon is eligible for the 12 and under half-fare discount. Idea conceived, plan hatched. Susan will visit the ladies room, candycane her appearance and swipe a balloon, and have someone help her get a children's ticket. The problem with this strategy, it turns out, isn't in the execution, but the follow through. She makes it onto the train fine, but is soon hounded by the ticket checker (though we do get a pretty funny scene with Ginger as annoying, balloon-fingering brat). Things really kick off plotwise when she encounters Ray Milland's Major Philip Kirby, still posing as a twelve-year-old, and he ends up taking her back for a few days to the Indiana military school where he works.

By this point, Miss Applegate has morphed into precocious and pigtailed Su-Su. The only one of the bunch even suspicious, much less willing to call her out, is Lucy, the sister of Major Kirby's fiancée. This theme of concealed identity was another Wilder favourite, mined repeatedly in his earlier screenplays, including Midnight and Ball of Fire. The added twist of Susan masquerading as an underaged little girl while also having romantic feelings towards Maj. Kirby wasn't the kind of thing that had been previously explored, however, and still remains a fairly daring dip into a pool rarely, if ever, ventured into during the studio system. This was tightrope territory for Wilder and, to a lesser extent, Brackett. On the one hand, he was staking his directing career on a commercially viable project, but, on the other, it was a story about a girl pretending to be twelve who develops a romance with a man in his thirties, someone who obviously toes the line between interest and merely innocent affection. The possibilities for failure were tremendous. Just one little inappropriate sidestep could have resulted in unforgivable awkwardness.

Of course, Wilder plays it all perfectly and without a hint of that palpable creepiness. Any inclinations towards reading more into the Milland-Rogers relationship come at the cost of finger-waggers determined to dispel any scintilla of pedophilia. Fair or not, Ginger Rogers actually being thirty years old helps quell most reservations. Her character posing as a juvenile, however, opens up a full line of analysis. Why does Maj. Kirby warm so quickly at the very end? And how could he dance with Su-Su without realising his partner is a full-fledged woman? Milland helps Wilder here tremendously. The director would later classify him as totally lacking a sense of humour, but it makes for really good cinema by having the character be cluelessly good-natured. He's basically playing a less suave version of Cary Grant, who was originally desired for the part, but that's okay, too. The end result is Milland maintaining his dignity while still pretty obviously warming to and falling in love with a twelve-year-old girl. Susan, of course, isn't twelve and she reveals herself as a woman before Kirby reciprocates, but any feelings he's had have been based on her as being that little girl. It's nigh-on impossible to interpret Kirby as knowing Susan was a full-grown woman before he meets her at the train station.

As for the pure comedy reading of the film, The Major and the Minor is a triumph of situational misunderstanding. There are lots of laughs here, scattered throughout levels of recognition and ambition by Wilder. The cigarette scene on the train maintains an audible display of enjoyment from the viewer. The young cadets at the military academy always seem so ridiculously proper and lecherous as to elicit hearty chuckles, as well. Perhaps the best in-joke of all Wilder's films occurs when Susan is still at Grand Central, just about to grab the little girl's balloon, and we overhear the youngster express interest in a movie magazine wherein Charles Boyer, a sworn enemy of Wilder from the actor vetoing a scene in Hold Back the Dawn, has fictitiously written a piece entitled "Why I Hit Women." Really not a good idea to cross a writer.

And thus a career of quietly pissing people off was born. When watching The Major and the Minor, it's important to remember that Wilder was always a commercial filmmaker. He dealt in happy endings laced with nitroglycerin. At one point, with Ace in the Hole, he tested the waters for a more darkly abrasive method, but immediately realised audiences, who were his lifeblood, wouldn't accept such a wholly charcoal-stained film where no one wins or loves or laughs. For the most part, though, he delivered pictures that could be easily enjoyed, digested, and revered while still being fortified with unrelentingly uneasy questions about the characters. Though it remains highly enjoyable, I don't particularly think The Major and the Minor is a great film. Many of the scenes at the academy drag too long and Wilder, per usual, didn't trim the picture as much as he could have, but it's obviously an auspicious debut for someone who a decade earlier could hardly speak an intelligible sentence worth of English. More to the point, it's an important film that established Billy Wilder as a Hollywood director and it still works today as a very entertaining movie with a great Ginger Rogers performance, regardless of what else you choose to read into it.

The Disc

After a good long wait, North American audiences are finally able to enjoy Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor on DVD alongside the rest of the English speaking world. Universal has included it in their latest Cinema Classics wave of releases, joining Easy Living, She Done Him Wrong, and Midnight in modest editions. The R1 disc is dual-layered with a robust bitrate. It's been transferred progressively and looks fairly good, though not without a bit of dirt and grain. It's the most recent of these four comedies and, appropriately, it also looks the best. Black levels are adequate and the picture boasts fine detail. The image overall doesn't look cleaned up a great deal, but it's thus not manipulated into artificiality either. Quality plus price equals a reasonably high value.

An English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is the only audio option, but it does the trick. A faint crackle is audible at times. Otherwise, the audio is largely of standard quality and can be heard quite clearly. It's consistent in terms of appropriate volume level. Subtitles, white in colour, are provided in French and English for the hearing impaired.

Robert Osborne provides a short introduction (2:19) that's similar to what he does on the Turner Classic Movies channel. It takes you right into the feature. The only other extra included is the film's theatrical trailer (2:13).

Some more bonus material, a featurette perhaps, would have been nice, but that just doesn't seem to be Universal's budget-conscious style. I'm still thrilled to have an affordable and competent release of Billy Wilder's Hollywood directing debut. Only Five Graves to Cairo and A Foreign Affair are now missing in R1 among Wilder's Universal-controlled films.

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