The enthusiast Michaela from Love Letters to Old Hollywood and Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood are hosting together an event celebrating one of the most iconic on-screen duos to mark the history of classic films: The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Blogathon. This dancing duo surely deserved this accolade and to be honoured among various pieces of writing. The participants are free to write either about a film they made together or not. I went with the second option as my choice was The Major and the Minor, a comedy directed by Billy Wilder and starring Ginger Rogers. However, her male partner in this picture was not Fred Astaire, but the elegant Ray Milland.
I saw this film for the first time last summer when I decided to do a Ray Milland movie marathon (he definitely became a favourite of mine since). As I loved the film, I saw this blogathon as a good opportunity to tell you more about my appreciation for this film. Recently, with Lawrence of Arabia and Rebel Without A Cause, I discussed more profound movies, but, even if this one is lighter, I think you’ll spend a lovely time reading my article and me, to write it.
The Major and the Minor was Billy Wilder’s break in Hollywood as a director. Indeed, this was the first film he directed on the Californian territory. But, Billy Wilder was a multitalented man and had already made his proofs in Hollywood as a screenwriter with important classics such as Ninotchka (Ernst Lubistch, 1939), Midnight (Mitchell Liesen, 1939) or Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941). The Major and the Minor was co-written with Charles Brackett but this film surely had the Wilder touch and none of those made after lost it. Billy Wilder proved to be a great master of film noir with Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard, but he also had the reputation to be one of the best comedy directors of the talkies era. The best example would be Some Like It Hot (which happens to be my favourite film, in case you didn’t know), but The Major and the Minor fits this category perfectly as well.
Ginger Rogers plays Susan Applegate. After various small jobs in New York, she finally comes to the point to be a scalp massager for the Revigorous System. After a client, Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley), tries to take advantage of her, she decides to quit the city to go back home to her parents in Stevenson, Iowa. She has saved enough money for the one-way ticket. Well, that’s what she thinks. As she arrived at the station to buy her ticket, she is informed that the price augmented and there’s no way to make an exception for her. But Susan isn’t ready to give up. Inspired by a little girl next to her, she decides to transform herself into a 12 years-old child. Thus, she manages to obtain a half-price ticket. In the train, the conductors are suspicious and when they surprise her smoking, a chase in the train starts as they are definitely sure she isn’t who she pretends to be. Trying to find a place to hide, she is led to a room occupied by a handsome and charming gentleman, Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), who is certainly surprised to see this little girl appearing in his private room. Seeing nothing but a frightened child and believing her story of stomach hurting, he suggests her to sleep in his room for the night. Oh, what a situation!
The train has to stop due to flooding on the tracks. But they are not far from the Military school where the Major works and live. His fiancée, Pamela (Rita Johnson) is here to welcome him back with her father, Philip’s commanding officer. But when they discover he is not alone in his compartment (and with a woman of all things!) panic ensues. However, after a few explanations and realizing she is just an innocent 12 years old child, Susan (known by them as Su-su) is welcomed to their place before her mother can come from Stevenson to take her home. Susu is to share a room with Pamela’s younger sister, Lucy (Diana Lynn) who happens to be very brilliant and is not fooled by Susan’s masquerade. She is a brilliant girl, passionate by sciences. If she first confront’s Susan and seems cold towards her, it doesn’t take long for the two ladies to become good friends despite their age gap.
All seems to go for the best but what would be a film without some problems. Well, the major (!) one is that Susan has fallen in love with Philip. Only, he thinks she’s only 12 and he’s engaged. Oh, poor Susan. What a situation! And things don’t get easier when she has to spend days with young boys from the military school and constantly play a role. But, she hasn’t said her last word…
When she starred in The Major in the Minor, Ginger Rogers already had won an Oscar (for Kitty Foyle) and, at 31, she was an established star. Beautifully wearing darker hair, the actress his introduced to us in the film as a woman with confidence and produces an enormous aura around her. You know she is that type of person everybody notices in a room of 100 people. She shows an impressive assurance but also adds the necessary touch of vulnerability when transformed as Susu. Her acting reminds simple in the right way and fits a movie that doesn’t need any extravagances. As reported on IMDB, Rogers herself appreciated the simplicity of the plot and accepted to play a character with whom she could connect. She herself, as a young woman, once had to pretend she was a young girl in order to obtain a cheaper train ticket. Ginger also saw Billy Wilder’s potential as a director and, therefore, the man who was to become one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors made his American directional debuts with an already highly celebrated star. I haven’t seen a ton of Ginger Roger movies but I’ve seen enough to say that she definitely is one of my favourite actresses. Her energic performance in The Major and the Minor helped to build this admiration. We also have the chance to see Ginger execute a few tap dance steps in a scene of the film. She hadn’t lost her swing! Actually, that’s what really makes her looks younger, more than the costumes!
Fun fact: Susan’s mother in the film was played by Ginger Roger’s own mother, Lela Rogers!
And Ray Milland
Ah, Ray… After I did this movie marathon I mentioned previously, I became obsessed with him. What an actor! In The Major and the Minor, he is both charming and funny. We understand perfectly how Ginger Roger’s character can’t resist his charm! It’s very easy to like him. Ray’s chemistry with Ginger Rogers in this film is a lovely and believable one. A few years later, he starred in another Wilder movie, The Lost Weekend, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar.
A feminist film?
This is not the type of things I often write about on my blog, but I couldn’t help myself making a few interesting observations while I was watching the film. Despite a plot where the woman plays the role of a child so, therefore, has to obey a certain authority, The Major and the Minor has a lot to teach us about the evolution of female characters in classic films. First, the main character, Susan Applegate, is a woman who is presented to us as a leader instead of a follower or a damsel in distress. From her first on-screen appearance in the film, we can’t help noticing Ginger Rogers assurance and independence in the way she talks and behave. She, therefore, enters in the same league of the strong female characters portrayed by the Dietrichs and the Stanwycks of this world. She’s not fooled by the men who flirt with her in an impolite way (her customer Mr. Osborne and the elevator guy at Osborne’s apartment), and win the battle by breaking an egg on both their heads. Also, by playing the role of a young girl in order to obtain a cheap train ticket, she is shown as a woman who has a strong mind telling her not to give up. [SPOILER] She will even go further by disguising herself as her own mother and this is all part of her plan to obtain what she wants: the man she loves. [END OF SPOILER]
Another character who is presented to us as a fairly interesting young woman is Pamela’s younger sister, Lucy, played by Diana Lynn. She is clever, loves science and isn’t afraid to do what she judges best even if it’s to defy authority. She also is lovely looking and isn’t presented to us as the caricatural nerd girl, which proves us that women can be both beautiful and clever! Susan and Lucy make a terrific and winning duo.
The Wilder touch
“The Wilder message is don’t bore–don’t bore people.” (Billy Wilder)
And he was never boring! The Major and the Minor is both clever and entertaining as any of Wilder’s films are.
When we watch this movie, we can easily realize how “Wilderian” it is. One particular scene that reflects perfectly Billy Wilder touch is when Susan, back home, is seen lying in an hammock on her balcony. She looks at butterflies bumping into a lamp. Lost in her thoughts, she’s thinking about what the Major told her when he saw the little boys from the military school flirting with her. That a woman is like this lightbulb and the boys are like these crazy butterflies who are attracted by her. Touches of nostalgia, simplicity, and subtle humour like this one can be found in other Wilder movies such as Sabrina or Love in the Afternoon.
The Wilder touch also resides in the dialogues. Well, I don’t know who between Wilder and Bracket wrote which line, but they worked as a team more than once after all. Some of the best examples would be the following ones:
1- Conductor #1: You’re from Swedish stock, eh?
Susan Applegate: Yes sir.
Conductor #2: If you’re people are Swedish, suppose you say something in Swedish.
Susan Applegate: I vant to be alone.
This is, of course, a reference to Swedish actress Greta Garbo’s famous line in Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932), “I want (vant) to be alone”. Billy Wilder brilliantly used the reference!
2- Mr. Osborne: Really, Miss Applegate, you shouldn’t be so business like. First, we’re going to have a little drinkie-poo, then a little bitie-poo, and a little rumba-poo.
I think the use of this particular vocabulary is very Wilderian. Spontaneous and straight to the point!
3- Major Kirby: Call me Uncle Philip. Do you have a nightie with you?
Susan Applegate: Yes, Uncle Philip.
Major Kirby: Well, then, suppose you go in there and get changed.
Susan Applegate: You really think so?
Major Kirby: Why, sure! And just sing out if you have any trouble with your buttons.
Susan Applegate: Oh, I haven’t had any button trouble in a long, long time.
4- Major Kirby: Oh, if Miss Parrot could only see me now!
Susan Applegate: Miss who?
Major Kirby: Miss Jean Parrot, my dancing teacher. I was 12 and she was 40. I had a terrific crush on her.
Susan Applegate: That’s an awkward situation.
Major Kirby: Ah, the poetry in Miss Parrot’s feet demonstrating the tango.
Did you say tango?!
5- Major Kirby: You know Su-Su, you’re a very peculiar child.
Susan Applegate: You bet I am.
And of course, there’s the idea of transformation or role changing. The Major and the Minor isn’t the only movie where a character adopts a new role, a new identity or a new personality in order to go forward. We can think of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis who become girl musicians in Some Like It Hot in order to hide from a gang of gangsters. There’s also Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon who pretends she has a ton of lovers. There’s Jack Lemmon who becomes an English gentleman at night in Irma La Douce. Oh, and without revealing anything, there’s also THE SPY in Stalag 17. And these aren’t the only examples.
If you haven’t seen The Major and the Minor, don’t miss it. It might not be Wilder’s most discussed film, but that only makes it a good enough reason to discover it. We don’t see the time passing when watching it as its humour, fun acting and pep captivate us.
A huge thanks to Crystal and Michaela for hosting this blogathon. Don’t miss the other entries here.