Fed up with how his screenplays were treated by other directors (Mitchell Leisen specifically), in 1942 Billy Wilder convinced Paramount to let him direct next script he wrote with partner Charles Brackett. Wilder landed Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland to star in the picture, titled The Major and the Minor, and despite a potentially disastrous premise made a completely charming film that hinted at the greatness he would achieve throughout his nearly 40-year career as a Hollywood director.
Rogers plays Susan Applegate, a young woman fed up with New York after working 25 different jobs over the course of her first year in the city. She decides to return home to Iowa, but at the train station finds she doesn’t even have enough money to pay for a ticket. In a moment of inspiration, she changes her outfit and hairstyle, and passes as an eleven-year-old girl (“Twelve next week!”) so she can buy a child’s priced ticket instead. Once aboard the train she’s forced to keep up the charade in front of the conductors, which leads Milland’s friendly Major Philip Kirby to offer himself as a chaperone. She begins to fall for him, and he conflictingly does too, despite Susan’s supposed age and his fiance (Rita Johnson) waiting for him at their destination. When the train breaks down Susan tags along with the major to the boy’s military academy he teaches at, where she’s forced to fend off the teen recruits and keep her act up in front of even more people.
The premise has an inherent creepiness to it—Wilder would later call it “the first American movie about pedophilia”1—but for the most part the script skirts past the more troubling possibilities of the scenario (Milland also walks the line carefully never letting his character come off as sinister). Brackett and Wilder were already expert writers, with scripts like Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, and Midnight to their names, but to become an expert director, Wilder made sure to ask for help from his colleagues. “I went to [Ninotchka director Ernst] Lubitsch,” Wilder told Cameron Crowe. “I said, ‘Look, you have made fifty pictures. I have made none. This is gonna be my first picture, what can you tell me?’ And Lubitsch said, ‘All I can tell you is, after sixty pictures, I still shit my pants on the first day.’”2 To try and avoid that particular sensation, Wilder asked editor Doane Harrison to assist on set and with setting up shots. “He had the qualities to become a good director,” Rogers remembered. “I felt that he would be strong, but that he would listen.”3
Ultimately it isn’t Wilder’s writing or direction but Rogers’ performance that dominates the film. She began shooting right after winning Oscar for Kitty Foyle, but her task here was the far more daunting one. The idea that the 30-year-old actress could ever convince anyone she was pre-pubescent is completely absurd, but she manages to pull it off, in part because it wasn’t far from reality. “I loved The Major and the Minor because it was my story, as if they knew my life,” she said. “Mother and I often didn’t have enough money when we traveled, so I carried my stuffed doll named Freakus, which made me look younger, especially when I hugged it and talked with it, and then, at night, I could just use it as a pillow. Just like Sue-Sue, I often pretended I was younger than I was, so I could travel half-fare. I was Sue-Sue!”4 On top of that, she delivers Wilder and Brackett’s lively dialogue with ease, and even when pretending to be a child is clearly the smartest person in the room. The film was a hit, reaffirming Rogers as a star even without Fred Astaire, and launching Wilder to a long and successful career as one of the most respected directors in the industry.
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