The Major and the Minor: Classic Movie Review

The Major and the Minor starring Ginger RogersGuest blogger Brandie Ashe presents a look at 1942′s 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 Billy 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 store clerk-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 39-year-old Rogers plays Susan Applegate, a woman who dresses up as a 12-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 play 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 Boulevard (1950), Sabrina (1954), Some Like It Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960).The Major and the Minor starring Ginger Rogers

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).

Brandie Ashe is a freelance writer and editor from Alabama. Brandie and her co-authors Carrie and Nikki run True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film, where they share their love of Alfred Hitchcock, screwball comedies, Katharine Hepburn, and all things old-school Disney. Visit their Facebook page here.

  • Blair Kramer.

    Didn’t Dean and Jerry do a re-make of this film? What was it called…?

  • http://www.moviesunlimited.com Gary Cahall

    You’re right, Blair. The story was revamped for Martin and Lewis in 1955 as You’re Never Too Young. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you’re a Ginger Rogers fan), it’s not currently available on DVD.

  • Blair Kramer.

    A lot of older films aren’t available on DVD. It’s often very frustrating.

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    Actually technically Wilder’s debut is Mauvaise graine (1934) (available on Kino) where he is co-director though some (Danielle Darrieux) have stated that he was the main director on it.

    I liked this movie though I’m not sure I would put it as a must see with Wilder’s mass amount of great films that you mention (I would add Stalag 17 as well).

  • Adler

    A gem of a film with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland perfectly suited for their roles. Musis plays a big role too. Favorite scene and there are many, Ginger convincing cadet to leave switchboard unmanned. It’s fun from start to finish!

  • Jack Lundy

    One spooky aspect of the film is its timing. In it, Ginger Rogers’ character persuades the leading man, an army officer, to do the right thing and get himself assigned overseas. The assignment is in the Phillipines, right before World War 2 broke out. I wonder if his character was forced to surrender, or, like my uncle, faded into the jungle and fought as a guerilla until liberation.

  • Classic Movie Lover

    Actually the Major and the Minor is available on DVD at Amazon.com and TCM.com

    Never Too Young is available on DVD but it is in a $150 box set from Paramount.

  • Craig Stockton

    Actually Ginger was born in 1911 and would have been 31 in 1942.

  • Helen

    You left out a very good movie with Ginger Rogers. She played the First Lady, Dolly Madison. The name of the movie is Magnificent Doll. Burgess Merideth played President Madison. Ginger played Dolly Madison. Good movie.

  • Pat

    Wilder hit a home run with his first directorial effort. In an interview Wilder talked about how Ray Milland who was a big star on the Paramount lot at that time agreed to do the film to help the first time director out. Ginger Rogers is great even though she hardly looks 12 years old, but that’s part of the fun. Diana Lynn who also worked with Preston Sturges is terrific as well. And Ginger’s real mom plays her mother. A great comedy that still holds up today.

  • jefferson_thomas

    No matter how you slice it, there is some FUNNY stuff in this film:
    He (leaving their compartment for the dining car): would you like me to bring you back anything?
    She (groggily): Just coffee. (Remembers she’s supposed to be 12): I, I mean a glass of milk with a few drops of coffee in it! Mom always called it coffee!

  • Doug

    Major and the Minor is a great Ginger Rodgers film,
    and I think she actually brought out the best in Milland as his co-star in this movie. And sometimes it even appears as if she shrinks in age as she does her little girl act.

    But, I think Vivacious Lady has got to be her crowning moment in comedy. She is so dam funny in that movie, especially during the cat fight scene on the balcony. I urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to look for it on TCM. You won’t regret it.

    Btw, Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball were related to each other.

    Wilder is in my top 3 favorite directors. It’s a shame the movie industry turned on him in his later years and he found it hard to get work. We would have had quite a few more of his films to enjoy.

  • Susan Peran

    Too often I have been disappointed to find that DVD’s have been discontinued, when I have the desire to add them to my collection. But I’ve been able to find some gems (including this one) in some of the DVD bins at discount stores. I found most of my Bogart/Bacall, Clint Eastwood, and John Wayne copies at these stores. There were films like Mutiny on the Bounty, with Clark Gable, The Maltese Falcon, Lassie Come Home & many others. Dig deep and often. They seem to be available in spurts with long waits between availability, but the waits are worthwhile. Get together with friends who will call you (as I do others

  • Susan Peran

    ……pardon the false message ending… (as I do with my friends). There are several major chain retailers who sell new and previously viewed DVD’s for $2.50-$7.00. It’s worth the effort.

  • marjorie

    While Ginger didn’t look 12 through the whole movie, I still love the transformation scene when she comes out of the train station rest rooms walking pigeon toed and swipes the little kid’s balloon.

    It should be noted that the only person she fooled before Ray Milland vouched for her was the Major, and The Major has vision issues. If someone you know says “this is my niece” and you think “hmmm, she looks a little old for 12″ you don’t say “what a load of hooey!” because you figure they’d know their own niece… so you chalk it up to her being one of those kids that grows faster.

    Also unlike a real girl trying to pass as a 12 year old, Ginger was the pretty female lead in a movie, made up and groomed to be 12-ish looking some of the time but always the beautiful starlet underneath.

    FYI – Sue-sue didn’t convince the Major to go fight, he was already exercising his eye because it galled him to have been rejected. It was his fiance that wanted to keep him home, by any means necessary.

    And I for one enjoyed the cadets turning the Maginal Line into a line…

  • Paige

    Actually this wonderful film was made in 1941 before the start of WWII and not released until after we got into the war. There are references about us getting involved in the film. Ginger was 29 when she made this film and said it was one of her favorites because she didn’t have to wear so much makeup. One of the funniest parts is the girls the cadets use as women from Miss Shackleford’s school and their tribute to Veronica Lake. The double standards of the day are evident in this film but it’s such a sweet story and very beguiling. And of course Su Su wins her hero in the end. One of my favorites too and on a rainy day there’s nothing better then a glass of milk/coffe and The Major and the Minor.

  • Char

    Cute, cute movie. Ginger was so versatile and proved to be a great actress as well as great dancer. One of my favorites was “Once Upon a Honeymoon” with Cary Grant and Walter Slezak.

  • Roger Phillips

    I love “The Major and the Minor”. Ginger Rogers does it all well. Billy Wilder’s first directed movie and he got Ginger who was really hot right after winning an Oscar. Everything in this movie is funny and I love the dialogue.

  • John Quinlan

    Love Ginger. One of my very favorites is ‘Roxie’, the story that became the big hit ‘Chicago’. Ginger is great in that one.

  • John

    Ginger was so great that it seems to be that even today some actresses-Jennifer Aniston comes to mind -seem to be channeling her,though not with the original’s success rate.Fred was lucky to be paired with her because it was Ginger who had the personality.I still search TCM for any of her old films that I haven’t seen,ruing the day when I have seen them all.

  • VKMfanHuey

    …Great review, y’all! Cool to see a fellow Alabamian on the classic blogosphere!
    This film is one of Ginger’s top 5, for sure… love it when Ginger’s real-life mom, Lela Rogers, plays…well, her mom! The ‘outtakes’ from those scenes were probably hilarious!
    There’s so many great scenes in this one…and while it’s hard to imagine Ginger (31 at the time) as a 12 year old, I think Marjorie above nails it, as the Major is the only one who really can’t ‘see’ well enough to notice… and the ending is perhaps my fave of all Ginger films.
    Thanks for the review!
    Not sure if this is ok to do, but for all things Ginger, please stop by at Gingerology.com!

    KIG!
    VKMfanHuey

  • Raif D’Amico

    Ginger Rogers was one of the pretiest and excellent actress of her time but is more now that she is appreciated more than Fred’s dancing partner, and even that she was his best! I love Ginger and all her films.