The Major and the Minor
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In the early 1940's, Billy Wilder was half of a very successful screenwriting team. He and his partner Charles Brackett had written such hits as Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), Ninotchka (1939), and Hold Back the Dawn (1941). But Wilder had always wanted to direct, and had in fact done so in France before coming to the United States. He kept nagging Paramount executives to give him the chance, and in late 1941, they finally agreed that he could direct the next Brackett-Wilder screenplay. The canny Wilder, along with producer Arthur Hornblow, selected a play that could be acquired for a pittance and filmed for not much more. It was a fluffy comedy with commercial potential, and if it failed, there would be no harm done to Wilder's career.
The "minor" in The Major and the Minor (1942) is Susan Applegate, a young woman in her 20's who's fed up with New York and decides to go home to Iowa. But when she tries to buy her train ticket, she finds she doesn't have enough money. Undaunted, she disguises herself as a child and buys a half-price ticket. On the train, she meets a handsome major who takes her under his wing, but can't understand his growing attraction to this "child."
To play Susan, Wilder, Brackett and Hornblow wanted everybody's favorite All-American Girl, Ginger Rogers. Then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, she had recently won an Oscar® for Kitty Foyle (1940). Rogers was intrigued by the story, and even more so by the promise that the script would be tailored to her talent. And she and Wilder had the same agent, Leland Hayward. Rogers agreed to meet Wilder. Over dinner, Rogers decided that "he had the qualities to become a good director. He knew just how to order in the restaurant, but remembered to ask me what I liked. I felt that he would be strong, but that he would listen. He certainly understood how to pay attention to women." During production of The Major and the Minor, Wilder also endeared himself to Rogers when he offered the role of Susan's mom to Ginger's own mother, Lela Rogers. Not surprisingly, The Major and the Minor became one of Ginger's favorite films.
Another reason Rogers liked the film so much was because the plot shared some similarities to her own life. In the book, Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler, Rogers admitted, "I loved The Major and the Minor because it was my story, as if they knew my life. 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!"
Getting Ray Milland to agree to play the major was even easier. Milland and Wilder knew each other casually from the Paramount lot. Driving home from the studio one day, Wilder pulled up at a stop light next to Milland. Wilder called out, "Would you like to work in a picture I'm going to direct?" Milland assumed he was joking, and replied, "sure!" When Milland got the script a few weeks later, he liked it, and that was that. Like Rogers, he had no problem with the fact that it was Wilder's directing debut. Milland would later win an Academy Award for his portrayal of an alcoholic in Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), which also earned Wilder two Oscars, for directing and screenplay.
As a novice director, Wilder was smart enough to know what he didn't know. He asked veteran film editor Doane Harrison to be on the set with him, to give suggestions on how to set up the shots. Wilder was attentive to the actors, and jovial with cast and crew. Rogers remembered that when he finished a scene that had gone particularly well, Wilder would shout, "champagne for everybody!" Eventually, the crew began to anticipate the remark, and would chime in. It was a happy set, and the production went remarkably smoothly. Wilder brought the film in more or less on time and on budget.
In Nobody's Perfect, Charlotte Chandler's biography of Wilder, the director shared some insights on The Major and the Minor: "Everybody was sure I was going to do some German Expressionist thing sure to fail, and that crazy Wilder would go back to his typewriter and stop bothering everybody. But I was very careful. I set out to make a commercial picture I wouldn't be ashamed of, so my first picture as a director wouldn't be my last...I wrote the part of the major for Cary Grant. I always wanted him in one of my pictures, but it never worked out...It wasn't too difficult for Ginger to imitate a girl of twelve, especially in those days. Now it seems a little foolish. To think a thirty-year-old could play a twelve-year-old girl and be believable! Well, she couldn't, but it didn't matter. The audiences were very generous in those days. They had come to have a good time and they went along with you."
The Major and the Minor was a critical and box-office hit, launching Wilder's long and successful directing career. The only problem had been with the censors, but Wilder refused to back down, and when the Production Code Administration saw the finished product, they had no objections. Ever the iconoclast, however, Wilder would later say that The Major and the Minor was "the first American movie about pedophilia."
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Screenplay: Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett, based on the play Connie Goes Home, by Edward Childs Carpenter, & the story, Sunny Goes Home, by Fanny Kilbourne
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Editor: Doane Harrison
Costume Design: Edith Head
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Roland Anderson
Music: Robert Emmett Dolan
Principal Cast: Ginger Rogers (Susan Applegate), Ray Milland (Major Kirby), Rita Johnson (Pamela Hill), Robert Benchley (Mr. Osborne), Diana Lynn (Lucy Hill), Edward Fielding (Col. Hill), Frankie Thomas (Cadet Osborne), Raymond Roe (Cadet Wigton).
BW-101m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri