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.
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.