Arrow Heads Vol. 71: THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR

Wilder’s 1942 romp is out from Arrow Academy

Made in 1942, The Major and the Minor takes place in the summer of the previous year (before the attack on Pearl Harbor). This romantic comedy with a bizarre premise comes from the fantastical mind of writer/director Billy Wilder. Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) has run out of money after her attempt at career girl life in New York City. She’s tired of the cat-calling, the leers from strange men, and the sexual harassment from customers.

She can’t afford a full-fare ticket home, so dresses like a kid in an attempt to get a half-fare on the train. Then she has a meet-cute with a handsome guy (Ray Milland) on the train, who thinks she’s 11 years old. It’s preposterous and hilarious.

Milland’s Major Kirby takes little “Susu” with him to his military academy after a storm washes out the tracks to her small town. She meets his fiancee Pamela and shares a room with Pamela’s teen sister Lucy. Lucy and Susan share a rapport and honesty that the young girl lacks with her older sister. The boys at the school fall over themselves to have face time with the new girl, so Susan trades one uncomfortable situation for another.

“You know, Susu, you’re a very peculiar child.”

“You bet I am.”

There are a number of ways in which this premise shouldn’t work, but Wilder (and his co-writer Charles Brackett) pull it off. Rogers plays Susan with a dry wit (her constant strength as an actress), and even though we can’t buy her as a pre-teen, she does appear younger and fresh-faced. Kirby feels paternal to the charming “youngster,” yet also confused by his attraction to her. When she comes seeking advice after another come-on from a male teen student, he tells her, “You’re a knockout!”

Kirby wants to serve in Europe (America isn’t involved in the war yet in this timeline). Fiancee Pamela wants him close to home, but Susan attempts to help him on his way. In a short accompanying the Arrow Academy Blu-ray release, critic Neil Sinyard contrasts the women’s hopes for Kirby: Pamela represents the isolationism favored by a number of Americans at that moment, while Susan’s viewpoint is more of the need for America to get involved in the war across the ocean.

A decade plus before Some Like It Hot — which revisits the masquerade theme, on a train, no less — The Major and the Minor was Wilder’s Hollywood directing debut. His use of humor to push boundaries is evident in this film, making the viewer hope that Susan can win Major Kirby, somehow. The end is patriotic without being jingoistic, a sweet finish to a zany caper.

The Arrow Academy Blu-ray of The Major and the Minor includes special features such as:

  • A 30-minute featurette with critic Neil Sinyard on Billy Wilder, Half Fare Please!
  • A 1975 audio interview with actor Ray Milland
  • The hour-long radio version from 1943 starring Rogers and Milland
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Film commentary from scholar Adrian Martin
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