Few directors got a chance to direct “A” pictures with a top-notch cast for their first go around at the helm. This was particularly true at the height of the studio system in Hollywood. That is, unless you’re clever, charming, incredibly talented and anti-establishment. In other words, unless you’re Billy Wilder, director and co-scripter of the 1942 comedy The Major and the Minor.
Billy Wilder often played bridge with friend Joe Sistrom, who was a rising executive at Paramount in 1939. Sistrom was an avid reader who always shared new books and stories he came across with Wilder, particularly those he thought would translate well onto the screen. One day Sistrom brought Wilder a Saturday Evening Post story from May 7, 1921 titled “Sunny Goes Home” about an Iowa woman who comes to Manhattan to make a career and returns home because she is constantly objectified by men. Not having enough money for the train fare the woman disguises herself as a child to pay half price. Wilder liked the story and thought it had possibility for great comedy but his long-time writing partner, Charles Brackett disagreed. Still, at Wilder’s insistence, the two began to work on a screenplay.
Wilder had a successful career as a writer in Hollywood with 70 screenwriting credits on his resumé before he ventured forward into directing, which he said he did as a defense mechanism. The writer was tired of having his screenplays “butchered” (his word) by others. Wilder also wanted to push back against studio heads at Paramount who were sure he’d fall on his face as a director. They reluctantly agreed to let him direct because they were sure he’d fail, which would ensure he’d return to writing exclusively – what they wanted.
Also encouraging Wilder were the stories relayed to him by Sistrom about how everyone was snickering about the story idea of his latest project – a women who disguises herself as a child. But he ventured forward and upped the stakes when to everyone’s shock he insisted on casting none other than Ginger Rogers to play the lead. That would be the glamorous, sexy, huge star Ginger Rogers, who’d just won the 1940 Best Actress Academy Award for a dramatic role in Kitty Foyle. If they were laughing before, they were surely sent to hysterics now. Needless to say ,Billy got the last laugh. And it was a good one.
Those who didn’t believe in Wilder had forgotten several things when Ginger’s name came up for the lead. The first is that Rogers’ Oscar-winning role in Kitty Foyle included flashbacks that required the actress to play a young girl. Another is that Rogers and Wilder shared the same agent, Leland Hayward, who would no doubt put in a good word. Yet another is that Rogers, despite her latest show of dramatic flare, had more than proven she could play comedy with the best of ‘em. And finally, they also apparently underestimated Wilder’s talent and charm. In her book, Ginger Rogers: My Story, the star recalls requesting to meet the prospective director for lunch before she made up her mind about the picture. She said that after talking to Wilder for an hour she was sold by “his wonderful sense of the ridiculous.” Rogers also immediately fell in love with the story after hearing the first 15 minutes because she had lived through similar circumstances in her own life, having had to disguise herself as a child as she traveled on trains with her mother because they couldn’t afford the full fare. So Ginger Rogers was on board to star in Wilder’s Hollywood directorial debut almost immediately.
Wilder’s ambition was hardly less impressive with regards to who he wanted as his leading man for The Major and the Minor: one of Paramount’s hottest contract players, Ray Milland. Billy Wilder in Hollywood author Maurice Zolotow recalls the story of how Milland came to star in the film as told by the actor himself: “I was driving home from Paramount after work. I was exhausted. In the rear window I saw a green car trailing me for miles. Finally it caught up with me at Melrose and Doherty. I heard somebody yelling at me, ‘Would you work in a picture I’m going to direct?’ It was Billy.” Millan recalled he was too tired to consider whether Wilder was serious or not, but a few weeks later he received the script and loved it.
Wilder proved with his insistence on casting his first picture with first-rate actors what he believed to be true for the duration of his career, “if you’re running a football team get yourself Heisman Trophy winners.” Of course it didn’t hurt that his screenplay collaborations with both Charles Brackett and, later, A. L. Diamond offered first-rate roles any actor would love to play. So, all set to direct his first Hollywood film, the story goes that Wilder suffered from severe anxiety, which manifested itself through stomach troubles. For confidence and reassurance he went to see “The Master”–his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, who put his arm around him and said, “I have directed 50 pictures and I’m still crapping in my pants on the first day.”
The Major and the Minor began filming on March 4, 1942 and on hand (sent by Lubitsch) to lend moral support and advice to Wilder were all the German directors in Hollywood–including William Wyler, William Dieterle and Michael Curtiz–with the side benefit of one Preston Sturges, the perfect example that a great writer can become a great director. By all accounts, however, the moral support and sheer genius present on set resulted in little more than a great Hollywood story because what resulted was chaos on the set with not a single foot of usable film shot.
Obviously Billy Wilder got his act together, and The Major and the Minor was completed without a hitch and, by all accounts, on a very satisfied and happy set. Wilder shot the film as he would all others for the rest of his career, in sequence. Just like Lubitsch used to do. And from the first few moments it is easy to recognize that the film is a memorable classic when one of filmdom’s great lines is spoken… “No matter what the weather is, I always say – why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?”
Susan Applegate (Rogers) has been in New York City trying to make a career for herself when she steps into the apartment of Mr. Osborne (Robert Benchley), who suggest she slip into said martini. It turns out to be her last job in the big city. Desperate to get home, Susan heads straight for the train station to buy her ticket home, having saved just enough for a one-way fare. Or so she thinks. It turns out ticket prices have increased in the last year and she doesn’t have enough, so she digs into her suitcase and manages to disguise herself as a 12-year-old so she can pay half the price.
Once on the train, however, the two conductors are mighty suspicious of her disguise and finally convinced she’s lying when they catch her smoking. In trying to get away Susan hides in the private compartment of Major Kirby (Milland), who buys her age lock, stock and barrel and decides to protect poor Susu (as the child Susan calls herself) by offering her a bunk for the night. One thing leads to another, the train is stuck due to floods and Susu ends up going home with the Major and his fiance, Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) for the weekend until she can get home to her mother.
It doesn’t take long before Susu falls in love with Major Kirby and some may perceive that the Major falls for the minor. But he never acts upon it because well, that would be illegal. But Susu is determined to get the Major away from snobby Pamela and is assisted in devising a plan by Pamela’s younger sister, Lucy (Diana Lynn). Lucy is a real twelve-year-old who’s not very fond of her older sister, so she’s eager to assist Susu despite the fact she discovers Susan’s charade almost immediately.
The plot Susu and Lucy come up with is to ensure Major Kirby is transferred to active military duty, which is what he wants and which would also get him away from Pamela. Unfortunately, Pamela catches on to the charade (or charades,) figuring out that Susu is really Susan and after her fiance. Once discovered by Pamela Susan returns to Iowa with her mind and heart focused on the Major. Then one day as she lies on her porch the phone rings. It’s Major Kirby calling to check in on Susu while on his way to the West Coast before he’s shipped off to active duty, his wedding plans to Pamela cancelled. Once in Iowa the Major discovers Susu is really Susan, the one he’s been in love with all along and the two go off to wed before he ships out.
The Major and the Minor is a delight with too many memorable scenes to recount. The film’s script, which features a theme that none of us should buy, is completely believable and, as is the case with all Wilder/Brackett collaborations is still fresh and lively. As far as the performances in the movie are concerned they’re top-notch, humorous and tasteful. Ray Milland is as charming and warm as I’ve ever seen him and Rita Johnson plays Pamela with just the right amount of coldness so that we dislike her just enough as the nemesis, Robert Benchley is hilarious as a cad, Diana Lynn is also good as Lucy Hill who, despite being the true child, plays the perfect accomplice in Susu’s deception. Even the several young men who play cadets in the Military Academy where Susu ends up as a result of staying with the Hills are wonderful. Incidentally, Diana Lynn was the only cast member to appear in the 1955 remake, You’re Never Too Young starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, wherein Lewis plays a male version of Susu and Lynn plays a female version of Milland’s role.
It’s worth mentioning that also playing a small role in the movie as Susan’s mother is Ginger Rogers’ mother Lela, who got the part because Wilder’s first choice, Spring Byington, was not available. And–although it need not be said–as good as the other players are The Major and the Minor wouldn’t work if not for the terrific performance of Ginger Rogers. And she is great in this movie. Rogers plays the young girl believably enough so that we as the audience believe the other characters believe her charade. Does that make sense? At the same time Rogers adds enough spice and sauciness here and there throughout the movie to keep the romance a possibility without that possibility ever feeling inappropriate. And I could easily go on and on. The bottom line is I don’t have to speak out for Ginger Rogers as far as her being one of the major talents the silver screen has ever seen. Suffice it to say she proves it yet again in this movie. Ginger could do it all and do it all well.
Ginger Rogers recalled working on The Major and the Minor as one of the best experiences of her career, in large part due to Billy Wilder, who she referred to as “a wonderful traffic cop for this film and couldn’t have been more enchanting.” One of her career regrets was to not have been given the opportunity to be in more Wilder movies.
The Major and the Minor was one of my favorite movies as a fledgling classics fan many eons ago. I must have watched it dozens of times before I reached the age of 12 as it was on television on a pretty regular basis. I remember being mildly annoyed back then by the baby talk the Major uses to speak with Susu, but as I’ve gown older it bothers me less so. I’ve come to recognize over time that the baby talk plays an important role in convincing us that the Major doesn’t have any inappropriate motives/feelings toward a child. I suspect it played a similar role with regards to censors at the time the film was released because they didn’t object to the scenes on the train between Susu and the Major, which could have easily be deemed distasteful. Of course the kudos for that must be given to the writing genius of Wilder and Bracket,t who wrote scenes with humor so balanced between adult sensibilities and childish understanding that they cannot be misinterpreted. By the way, that balance is what makes The Major and the Minor’s a brilliant screenplay and the film itself a perfect vehicle to introduce young fans to classic film.
Billy Wilder said he never made a picture in which he was ashamed of the content, which means he never sold out. This bears true from The Major and the Minor on forward. Some may discount it as an important part of this director’s impressive line-up; It was, according to the director himself, his most commercial film. But The Major and the Minor is the film that started the trend toward unforgettable cinema treasures and is a gem in its own right. Those treasures, however, total 25 that bear the signature “written and directed by Billy Wilder” – all films that make him one of the greatest directors of all time. Wilder was a man with a highly developed sense of the human condition demonstrated by way of those movies and the many others he penned during his six decade long stint as a screenwriter. “You’re only as good as the best thing you’ve ever done” the director once said, which in his case is cause for serious debate because man, was he ever good!
Aurora is a classic film fan and blogger. By day she works in higher ed. administration and teaches mass media. By night she watches movies. You can read more about what she watches at Once Upon a Screen.