It is perhaps wise to consider that the role of the director is one of risk. Arthouse drama, big-budget multiplex filler – whatever the case there is always an element of hazard involved when it comes to making movies. It is perhaps that ability to negate risk which made Billy Wilder such a prominent and vibrant writer/director. His deft engagement with subjects which would falter in the hands of a lesser filmmaker is sometimes more remarkable than modern film writers would like to address. Here in The Major and the Minor, Wilder’s directorial debut, we’re subjected to an idea which makes one think of the cliché “you just couldn’t make this today”.
Ginger Rodgers plays Susan Applegate, a woman already tired of the New York rat race after countless jobs which haven’t worked out. After a mishap in a hotel, which would almost certainly be considered a sexual harassment case these days, she decides to take her homesick self back to middle America, far away from the duff jobs and prying hands. Little does she know that the train fare has gone up since her time in the Big Apple, and she dodges paying the full fare by disguising herself as a child. Circumstances arise and Susan is soon taking refuge in the compartment of one Major Phillip Kirby (Ray Milland) who, thanks to a bum eye, really believes that Susan is a minor. Soon after the train is detained, more mishaps occur involving raging fiancées, wise-ass sisters and (to put it quite frankly) horny, prepubescent cadets.
The risk here is of course that with the Hays Code in full effect and with the main conceit about a young woman pretending to be a younger girl while eying up a major and being chased by frisky teenagers, can this film work without the very idea of it being in bad taste?
Quite frankly – yes it can. It’s easy to say that a film made in the 1940s wouldn’t rattle any cages today, but it’s difficult for some to consider a film such as this being made today without the idea of it being somewhat crass and vulgar. The beauty of a filmmaker like Billy Wilder as a writer and a director is his ability to handle the conceit with such delicate charm that even the most risqué moments are chucklesome over cringeworthy. The innuendo and inference are all there both visually and verbally. You sense the repression in the way older men look at Susan as a “kid” or how the younger boys fawn over her. Wilder toys with it. Plays with it. Almost indulges in it. But essentially, he gets away with it. Keeping the dialogue fizzy and keeping the air light. There aren’t many directors who can deliver such a carefree farce in which a man’s eyes glimmer with delight when he gets the chance to have a woman pretending to be a girl hold his hand and call him “papa”. You may be surprised where that used to go in the Tumblr universe.
But this is Wilder’s way, and here in The Major and Minor he’s just beginning. Consider the driving plot point of The Seven Year Itch (1955) in which Tom Ewell’s nerdy husband character considers a light spot of adultery with one Marilyn Monroe. Casuals remember the visual: Monroe standing over the subway grate in the white dress. They don’t talk about the fact that she’s set up as the temptress. Wilder makes these ideas watchable without feeling scummy. Also, in films such as this, we were given women with sass, wit, and confidence, although it’s clear the Hays Code possibly made some knottier aspects of the plot left tangled. Note how rushed this film ends.
It will still perhaps be a tougher sell to an audience of today because it wouldn’t be unsurprising to see people finding it difficult to bypass the darker undertone that the film may not seek to give off, yet still can be perceived. It is still a film in which a young woman, while pretending to be a teenager, is somewhat pawed at by younger boys who are none the wiser. Led by something other than their hearts or minds perhaps. However, Wilder mines humour in the absurdity, highlighting the difficulty of making a film that could easily overstep a dozen lines. It is a film of clear ludicrous farce and looking at the film 77 years on, it still plays.
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Arrow doesn’t disappoint with their special features, and while the audience’s desire for extras is on the wane, The Minor and the Major still manages to give us a 30 minute video appreciation with film writer Neil Sinyard, who notes of the film’s riskiness as well as how characteristic the film is of Wilder’s body of work. We also receive an hour-long radio adaptation of the film, featuring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland; an interview with Milland; and audio commentary to go with the film. The Major and the Minor may not be the first title on people’s lips when we think of Wilder, but Arrow’s disc package ensures that Wilder’s directional debut is not short shrifted.
The Major and the Minor will be released on Arrow Academy Blu-ray on 23rd September.