Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 9, 2019)
One of Billy Wilder’s earliest directorial efforts, 1942’s The Major and the Minor introduces us to Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers). An Iowa girl, she moves to New York City, but after a year, she tires of the Big Apple and its relentless assaults on her dignity.
As such, Susan wants to move back to the Midwest. Alas, her savings don’t cover the train fare.
Desperate to escape NYC, Susan pretends to be an 11-year-old girl to get a discount ticket. Before long, though, the train’s conductors learn of her ruse.
Susan takes refuge in a compartment occupied by military school instructor Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland). The two develop a relationship complicated by Philip’s engagement to Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) – and his continued belief that Susan is a pre-teen.
I believe art needs to be seen through the prism of its era. That said, as much as I try to view movies through “period eyes”, I find it difficult at times.
This issue comes to the fore with the wholly icky theme of Minor. Did 1940s audiences really think the idea of a romantic relationship between an adult man and a pre-teen girl was A-OK?
Maybe not – perhaps the “out” that Susan was actually an adult made the concept acceptable. Still, the film concentrates on a grown man who falls in love with an 11-year-old, and even 77 years ago, it seems tough to swallow that this was kosher.
To be fair, Minor doesn’t make Philip’s romantic interest in Susan overt. While we can read between the lines, the film dodges the issue well enough that one could ascribe him with benevolent, non-sexual motives.
Maybe. It takes an awful lot of suspension of disbelief to accept that Philip solely views Susan as a paternal figure until the inevitable reveal of her adulthood. At that point, Philip eagerly embraces romance with Susan – wouldn’t he need some time to adjust mentally if he didn’t already view her that way?
If you can get past the movie’s inherent ickiness, you’ll find a reasonably engaging comedy, one enlivened by Wilder’s trademark acerbic wit. While the story could go down a slew of mushy paths, Wilder’s inherent cynicism and biting humor manage to ward off the worst of those tendencies.
Wilder also winks at the audience enough to let us know we shouldn’t take the whole thing very seriously. Clearly he understands no one would ever accept 30-year-old Ginger Rogers as a pre-teen, so he just rolls with the material.
How well does the audience accept the absurdity? Better than one might expect, especially since the presentation of Susan as a youngster seems so ridiculous.
I don’t mean just because Rogers looked way too old for the part. Minor tries to get around her obviously aged visage via Philip’s “lazy eye”, but can’t his good eye tell she’s an adult? And what about all the others with 20/20 vision who accept Susan as a kid?
The weirdest scenes happen when Philip treats Susan like she’s 5, not 11. Granted, Rogers occasionally plays Susan as a Kindergartner, but that doesn’t explain why Philip feels the need to baby her.
All of this leads to arguably the movie’s creepiest scene, when Philip “comforts” Susan during a thunderstorm. He gives her a childish explanation of the meteorological phenomena and then holds her close to him against her protests.
Of course, then it makes no sense when Philip tries to get her a date at the military academy. One minute Philip treats Susan like a toddler and the next he thinks she should canoodle with teen boys?
Yeah – I know I need to ignore logic, and as I alluded, if you can toss sanity out the window, you’ll enjoy Minor much more. These bizarre choices occasionally annoy me, but they really don’t encompass enough of the movie to severely damage it.
As I mentioned, Wilder’s wit allows the film to go by pretty painlessly. Minor runs too long, especially because it’s more concept than story, but Wilder’s screenwriting talents ensure we won’t mind too much.
Rogers provides a solid lead performance. We never buy her as a pre-teen, of course, but she still handles all Susan’s changes well.
Ultimately, Minor doesn’t compare favorably with Wilder’s better films, but it’s a decent diversion. With just enough humor and charm to sustain us, it becomes a moderately engaging affair.