Director: Billy Wilder
Writer: Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett; Connie Goes Home by Edward Childs Carpenter; Sunny Goes Home by Fannie Kilbourne
Cinematographer: Leo Tover
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
by Jon Cvack
Like any great filmmaker, Billy Wilder’s diversity of story is one of his most admirable qualities. Film noir, war film, rom-com, slapstick, adventure - he did it all; taking a rightful position as one of cinema's all time greats. The film follows Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers), working as a scalp massages who had big dreams of stardom when arriving in New York, only to discover that the path to success is fraught with disappointment. Broke and alone, she decides to try and head back to her hometown of Stevenson, Iowa and return to a life of rural living. At the train station, she finds she’s short on the train fare, and decides to dress up like a little girl - adorable dress, balloon, and all - to get the discounted ticket price. The plan works and she boards the train, dealing with suspicious conductors who aren’t buying the adolescent costume. Susan escapes to Major Philip Kirby’s compartment (Ray Milland), who believing she’s just a scared twelve year old, let’s her stay in his room. Thus, the Major and the Minor.
Watching this movie you can’t help wondering who in their right mind would actually believe that Ginger Rogers (who was 29 years old at the time of filming) could ever look like a twelve year old girl, leaving you to wonder why Wilder didn’t just write the character as a 16 year old, or even a college student (as students too could receive discounted fare).
Even stranger is that the general public didn’t seem to find any of this weird, as the film was so successful that it was remade thirteen years later as You’re Never Too Young (1955) with Dean Martin. Perhaps it’s the simply the world we live in, where the media loves the bleeding headlines of an attractive teacher having relations with one of her younger students, but between the comedy, this movie contains countless numbers of uncomfortable moments. For instance, upon Susan meeting Major Kirby, and a thunderstorm breaks out, Kirby joins Susan in bed, holding her tight as the storm rages, rubbing her back and trying to comfort her, and it only got more bizarre from there.
When the train is stopped due to flooding upon the tracks, Major Kirby takes Susan back to his military academy where he’s an instructor. This isn’t before his fiancee Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) greets him at the abandoned train, seeing Kirby massaging Susan, who she assumes is the age she looks, though later discovers - and buys - that she’s only a twelve year girl.
Susan is put up at Kirby’s house, where he meets his daughter; the precocious and aspiring scientist Lucy (Diana Lynn) who was about 14 years old when the movie was filmed, therefore - according to the film’s logic - older than Susan, but isn’t tricked by Susan’s game. Why Lucy is able to see what no one else is able to see is beyond me, but that’s just what’s needed to maintain the story.
Of course, Susan is falling hard for Major Kirby, but given the fact that she’s at an all boys military academy - and given that it’s Ginger Rogers - she’s accosted and arguably assaulted by some of the boys who, amongst themselves, figure out some strange schedule that allows a bunch of cadets to take Susan out on dates in an orderly fashion. Given that all of these men are uptight, too-quick-to-grow-up children, the situation (aside from the weird assaults) provides some laughs. One awesome scene involves Susan and a student serving as the switchboard operators for the entire school, as Susan attempts to lure him away with music and sexuality in order to call Washington D.C. and prevent Kirby from being offered a new job. The mixture of using the frame’s depth, a switchboard, and Susan doing her best to maintain her act is Wilder at his finest, serving prelude to what we would see later on with his work.
However, most disturbing is when Susan gets in trouble, having to sit down in Major Kirby’s office in order to get some discipline. In a scene that would never even make the script today, let alone the screen, Major Kirby struggles to avoid taking Susan in his arms and kissing her, expressing his undying love.
Of course, Susan’s discovered by one of the cadets, who tells Kirby’s fiancee Pam, who admonishes Susan to leave immediately. Susan agrees and finally reaches her hometown. And yet, with Kirby still thinking that Susan is only twelve, he tracks her down. Believing he’s talking to Susan’s mother, who’s actually Susan (no longer dressed like a twelve year old), Kirby explains that his engagement to Pam is over and is heading back that night. Susan follows him to the station, and while some describe what happens in the closing moments as Susan’s confession, I didn’t see it that way. Although it was clear that the Major Susan was older, she didn’t explicitly admit she wasn’t twelve, which makes the point where Kirby finally kisses her the apex of uncomfortability.
Although weird, the movie is entertaining. Not Wilder’s best, but definitely a preview of his talents to come.
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