My Classic Movie Pick: The Major and the Minor

Cover of "The Major and the Minor (Univer...

Cover via Amazon

1942’s hit movie, The Major and the Minor is one of my favorite romance/comedy films.  It was written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, based upon the play Connie Goes Home, by Edward Childs Carpenter.   Wilder also directed, and  this was  his first American movie to direct.  The film stars Ginger Rogers, as the Minor, and Ray Milland as the Major.   Supporting players in the cast are Robert Benchley, Rita Johnson, Diana Lynn, Norma Varden, Frankie Thomas and Lela Rogers, Ginger’s own mother, as Mrs. Applegate.

Ginger is Susan Applegate, an Iowa native, who has tried to live on her own in NYC.  She has given herself a term of 3 years to make it there, and if she can’t, she will take the train back to Iowa.  At her current job, as a scalp masseuse for the Revigorous System, her client for the evening(she has to make house calls) Mr.  Albert Osborne(Robert Benchley), makes a pass at her and that is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Susan gets away from Mr. Osborne, quits her job, packs up her belongings and heads for Union Station and a ticket out of town.  Unbeknownst to her, train fares have gone up, and she doesn’t have enough money for an adult fare.  She overhears a mother buying train tickets for her two children, and after studying what some girls in the station are wearing, Susan heads to the nearest ladies room and transforms her adult outfit into a child’s ensemble.  She redoes her hair into two braids, and scrounges up some of her change to buy a balloon from a nearby vendor.  With the change made, Susan goes to the ticket agent and buys a child’s fare for a trip to Iowa.

On board the train, Susan decides to venture out on the back platform of the train for a cigarette break.  A suspicious conductor follows her and sees her smoking.  Susan realizes she’s been caught but manages to evade the conductor  and jumps into the nearest compartment to hide in.  This compartment happens to belong to Major Philip Kirby(Ray Milland).  He is surprised and startled to have an unexpected visitor and Susan quickly thinks up a lie, that she is Susan, age 12, and everyone calls her Su-Su.  She explains she is very frightened  traveling by herself back to Iowa, and he agrees that she can stay in his compartment until he reaches his stop.  Major Kirby is an instructor at a military academy and he is engaged to Pamela Hill(Rita Johnson).  Pamela is beautiful and very ambitious about her future husband’s military career, but she doesn’t want him to be on active duty.  Major Kirby is frustrated at the academy, and wants nothing more than to be called into active duty.  This subplot will involve Su-Su to quite a degree.

As luck would have it, there is a terrible rain storm overnight,  the tracks flood, and the train has to stop.  Pamela and her father, the commanding officer at the academy, drive to meet the train where it is stopped to bring Major Kirby back to the academy.  Pamela is shocked to find Su-Su sleeping in the lower berth in the Major’s compartment.  She accuses him of being unfaithful to her and tells her father about this  outrage.  Major Kirby quickly explains that the girl in his compartment is 12 year old Su-Su, scared to travel alone, and that he simply let her share the compartment for the night.  Still worried about Su-Su with the train being unable to continue to its stops, Major Kirby insists on bringing her with them back to the academy and then they’ll call her parents to drive there to pick her up.  Pamela and her father, meeting Su-Su properly,  agree to let her stay at their house, sharing a bedroom with Pamela’s younger sister, Lucy(Diana Lynn).   Lucy is in high school, and she sees through Su-Su’s disguise.  She promises to keep Susan Applegate’s secret if Susan will help her ruin her older sister’s plan to keep Major Kirby out of active duty service.  Susan agrees, and pretending to be Pamela, calls a Washington D. C. connection of the Hill’s, and gets Major Kirby’s status changed.

There is another sub-plot, where 5 of the cadets are ordered by Major Kirby to spend an hour each with Su-Su, to give her a tour of the academy, and to help her enjoy her visit.  What Major Kirby doesn’t seem to realize is that these cadets, at seeing Su-Su, have one thing on their minds -to get her alone for some kissing!  It is quite funny seeing how each cadet tries to do this, and Su-Su, being in her twenties and not really 12, is quite wise to what they are up to.  There is also a ball planned for the weekend of Su-Su’s visit, which she has to go to, and a funny scene where all of the girls invited to the ball from a neighboring girl’s school are all imitating actress Veronica Lake’s iconic one-eye showing hairdo.   Cadets’  parents have also been invited to the ball and Su-Su is in for a surprise when Mr. Osborne attends, he being the older man who tried to make a pass at her when she was trying to massage his scalp!  Su-Su’s real identity is revealed to Pamela, who threatens to reveal Susan’s real identity to one and all and that that will hurt Major Kirby’s career.  At this point in the movie, we know Susan has fallen in love with Major Kirby, but she agrees to Pamela’s threat and quietly sneaks away from the ball, packs, and leaves the academy.  I won’t go on to reveal the ending, as I want the readers of this blog to seek out the film and see the ending for themselves!

Ginger Rogers shines in this movie, doing a pretty good job at acting like a 12 year old, yet having to hide her growing feelings of love for the Major.  Rogers had recently won the Best Actress Oscar for the drama Kitty Foyle, so appearing in this light-hearted comedy appealed to her, and in fact, when she was a struggling young dancer and singer, traveling with her mother and being low on train fare, Rogers had actually pretended to be 12 in order to get child-priced train fare.  Paramount Pictures originally wanted Cary Grant to play the Major, but director Billy Wilder, stopped in his car at a traffic light one day, saw actor Ray Milland in the next car over, and asked him if he’d like to be in the picture he was getting ready to direct.  Milland said,”Sure!” and that’s how he got the part over Grant.  Milland does a great job in his part too, acting mannerly and concerned about a 12 year old’s well-being, and he’s deft at handling the comedic timing necessary in a film such as this.  Wilder came to Hollywood in 1934, after directing his first film, the French film Mauvaise Graine.  He worked on 8 screenplays for  his first career efforts in Hollywood, but was really wanting to direct again.  Producer Arthur Hornblow Jr., agreed to give him that chance with The Major and The Minor.    The film proved to be a box office hit with audiences of 1942, and if you want to view a delightfully funny, touch of romance movie, then seek out The Major and The Minor.  It is available at Amazon, Turner Classic Movies airs it now and again, and some kind soul put up a video tribute to it on You Tube.


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