Arrow Video: The Major and the Minor (1942) - Reviewed

After emigrating to the United States, Austrian-born legendary auteur Billy Wilder never forgave actor Charles Boyer for nixing a pivotal scene involving a cockroach from his screenplay for the film Hold Back the Dawn and vowed there and then to start making his own films with a strong emphasis on retaining final cut.  His first English language feature as a director was the screwball romantic comedy of disguise and mistaken identity: The Major and the Minor.  Starring Academy Award winner Ginger Rogers, fresh off of her recent win for Kitty Foyle and future The Big Clock star Ray Milland, the film is a mixture of Wilder’s trademark snappy dialogue, bity wit and visual panache which takes a straightforward story and transforms it into a wildly entertaining romp.  

After quitting her job as a scalp massager, Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) decides to return from New York City to her home in Iowa.  Upon arrival at the train station, she discovers she’s just short of the ticket price with only enough to afford a child fare ticket.  Thus begins her wild plan to disguise herself as a child in order to afford the ticket, creating ample room for a variety of screwball and slapstick comic gags that will remind modern viewers of the antics unleashed by Martin Short in Clifford.  Soon however she meets with a military man, Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland) and takes refuge within his boxcar, leaving ample room for comically awkward sexual tension and jealousies from his fiancĂ©e Pamela (Rita Johnson) as well as an unlikely alliance with her teenage sister Lucy (Diana Lynn).

An early precursor to the provocative comic antics unleashed in Billy Wilder’s later works with Marilyn Monroe such as The Seven Year Itch and hiding out in disguise ala Some Like It Hot, Wilder’s first swing at Hollywood is a still riotously funny comic romp with more than a few delightful sight gags peppered throughout.  Based upon the stage play Connie Goes Home by Edward Childs Carpenter and adapted for the screen by Wilder and frequent collaborator Charles Brackett, the film wound up being semi-autobiographical for Ginger Rogers who herself feigned her younger age when she was doing vaudeville to afford the fare. 

Rogers, who is in top comic form here, employs everything from her expressionistic face and deer-in-headlights eyes as well as even pulling out some of her tap-dance routines seen in her pictures with Fred Astaire.  Ray Milland, who would soon win an Academy Award for his future collaboration with Wilder on The Lost Weekend, is equally animated and delightfully silly with a signature cross-eyed gaze.  

Given director Wilder’s background in German cinema, visually for a screwball comedy the film looks stunning.  Photographed by Hold Back the Dawn cinematographer Leo Tover, Wilder employs a variety of innovative visual techniques and specific lenses to create a dynamic looking picture with carefully placed visual information on all sides of the frame.  Wilder would eventually master this technique with later ventures including Sunset Boulevard and The Apartment yet watching him hone his craft in the early stages is an exciting sight to behold.

A straightforward and unpretentious crowd pleaser showcasing the comedic talents of its two leads and filmmaker Billy Wilder’s masterful command of the cinematic medium, The Major and the Minor still is one of the funniest films of its era and proof positive Mr. Wilder was one of the truly gifted visual artists in the act of figuring things out.  Moreover, after his dismaying experience working on Hold Back the Dawn, Wilder vowed he would make the most commercially appealing picture he could think of so he would never be at the mercy of a typewriter for the rest of his life ever again.  While it isn’t near the heights reached by his later masterworks that would make him a household name in the film community, The Major and the Minor as it stands is one Hell of a solid debut!

- Andrew Kotwicki