Su-Su, you’re a very peculiar child.

Tonight, TCM will air one of my favorite comedies of all time, 1942’s wonderful, underrated The Major and the Minor, starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland.

The film is a must-see, if only for the slightly disturbing sexual undertones that inevitably make the uninitiated viewer squirm the slightest bit. Setting pedophilic nuances aside, however, this picture is an utter delight from start to finish, held together by Wilder’s witty script and Rogers’ canny comedic performance.

There are some people who only associate Ginger Rogers with dancing partner extraordinaire Fred Astaire, and that does Ms. Rogers a great disservice. Though I love the Astaire-Rogers pairings as much as the next film fan, and though I appreciate her Oscar-winning work in the sentimental melodrama Kitty Foyle (1940), I think Rogers’ strongest work comes from her “solo” work as a comedienne. Just see her turn as a wisecracking wannabe stage actress in 1937’s Stage Door (where she more than holds her own with the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball)

or as the dance hall girl who marries staid professor Jimmy Stewart in 1938’s screwball comedy Vivacious Lady (also featuring one of the most hilarious catfights ever captured on film) …

or as the harried single storeclerk-turned-overnight-adoptive-mother in 1939’s Bachelor Mother.

And The Major and the Minor provides Ginger with perhaps the best comedic role of her career, as thirty-year-old Rogers plays Susan Applegate, a woman who dresses up as a twelve-year-old girl in order to score a half-priced train ticket back home.

I's a good girl.

Forget that the disguise is completely unbelievable; the joy of this film comes from Rogers’ deft ability to make you laugh while shaking your head at the incongruity of a “preteen” with a penchant for cigarettes, martinis, and attractive “older” men in uniform. And Milland meets her step for step as the clueless “straight man,” a military school teacher who longs to join the active front and takes little “Su-Su” under his wing. The two leads play their roles without an ounce of irony, preventing the material from sliding into lasciviousness, and the ending, though predictable, has an uncynical sweetness about it that is wonderful to watch.

Perhaps the film’s most notable footnote in cinematic history is its importance in the career of its director. The Major and the Minor marks Billy Wilder’s directorial debut, and he co-wrote the screenplay (based on the Connie Goes Home by Edward Carpenter). Beginning with this film and continuing through Double Indemnity (1944) and The Lost Weekend (1945), Wilder rivaled Preston Sturges as the premier writer/director of the 1940s. But Wilder’s career would go on to last much longer than that of Sturges, highlighted over the next two decades by such classics as Sunset Blvd. (1950), Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960).

In The Major and the Minor, you can see the hallmarks of Wilder’s directing style taking root. He eschewed flash and grandiose cinematography in favor of highlighting the nuances of story and dialogue, and his work became more about the performance than the visual effects. It’s no wonder that actors like Jack Lemmon clammored to work with Wilder repeatedly, and that he would become the second-most nominated director, behind William Wyler, in Academy Awards history (and he won two, for 1945’s The Lost Weekend–which also brought a Best Actor award for Milland–and 1960’s The Apartment).

The Major and the Minor airs at 8PM EST tonight on TCM, and it is available on DVD through Amazon right now for the very reasonable price of $9.49. The DVD does not provide many extras, but it does include an introduction to the film by my debonair hero Robert Osborne. However you decide to catch this wonderful little film, it really is an unparalleled comedic treat.

6 thoughts on “Su-Su, you’re a very peculiar child.

  1. I saw part of this a few weeks ago and was sure that I had missed something. Surely this guy did not ACTUALLY think this woman was only 12. No way. Well I watched the beginning tonight (up to the part where I came in before) and I have two things to say:
    1. I refuse to believe that he didn’t eventually figure it out but went along with it to make things easier for her.
    2. Either military school cadets spent too much time in history class or they were not creative enough to come up with better pick up lines 😉

  2. But the point of the movie is that he DOESN’T figure it out. Remember when Kirby is doing his eye exercises on the train? We’re meant to believe that his vision is impaired enough that he really doesn’t “get” that she’s an adult (and the only reason others believe it is because Kirby is so staunch in that belief–at least until Pamela goes sticking her bitchy nose in it). He does show glimmers of understanding at times, but his shock on the subway platform at the end of the movie is evidence enough that the man was completely clueless about her real age throughout. Which begs the question … do we REALLY want this guy on the front lines of a freaking war if he can’t see worth a damn? But I digress. 🙂

    I once read that the Maginot Line pick-up line was actually a really popular pick-up line at the time the movie was made. Gotta love those 1940s pop culture references.

  3. Very true. Perhaps there’s a very good reason why he didn’t have active service earlier 😉

    I do want to say that I did like the movie despite the whole 40 something having a thing for a 12 year old thing. Ginger Rogers was wonderful and I love Pam’s sister.

  4. I’m glad you liked it! It really is precious. And if you liked Diana Lynn (the sister) in this, you should see the remake of this film, You’re Never Too Young, with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. In that one, they reverse the gender: Lewis plays the one pretending to be a kid, and Lynn is the teacher who takes him under her wing. It’s cute!

  5. Pingback: March is a month of Ginger and spice. « The ABCs of Classic Film

  6. Pingback: Screwball essentials. | True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film

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