Stars Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson, Diana Lynn, Robert Benchley.
Standard histories have it that Billy Wilder decided to become a director to “protect his screenplays” (which, at that time, were co-written with Charles Brackett) after he didn’t like what Mitchell Leisen did to 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn. The latter, which Arrow released on Blu-ray this past summer, is actually a fine picture, but Wilder was agitated enough to take the directorial plunge and thereby searched for the most surefire property gathering dust on the Paramount lot at a time when the studio expected him to fall on his face by attempting something arty.
Something, however, to think about is the fact that The Major and the Minor couldn’t have been all that surefire in 1942 due to its premise about a grown woman posing as a 12-year-old meets and gradually falls for a kindly and thoroughly aboveboard Army major — who probably isn’t even aware that he’s on the road to reciprocating her feelings. British critic and academic Neil Sinyard (a film history teacher I would have loved to have had) hits this point on a half-hour M&M interview included on Arrow’s new Blu-ray, noting that this was a decade or more before the publication of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Even momentarily leaving industry censors out of it here for the purposes of discussion, Wilder (who continued writing with Brackett through 1950’s Sunset Boulevard) would have to walk a fine line — something, turns out, that he did for almost the entirety of his directorial career.
It’s a feat he pulled off here without (to the eye, at least) a hitch, and M&M doesn’t look like any director’s first outing. Though, to clarify, Wilder had previously co-directed a 1934 French comedy with Danielle Darrieux about a hot car ring (Mauvaise graine) that I liked better than expected the only time I saw it. For Wilder’s Hollywood debut here, he and Brackett even managed to open with a long establishing scene that’s topically relevant today — one where we see the degree to which Ginger Rogers’ character has been pawed, pinched and otherwise sexually harassed during a year in New York after escaping the hinterlands. The latest transgressor is a married wolf (Robert Benchley) who hires her to massage his scalp, sparking one of the more famed lines of dialogue from a vintage Hollywood comedy: “Why don’t you get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?”
Having reached her rope’s end after the episode that follows, Rogers elects on a dime to return home for good with the exact train fare she’s saved in an envelope, only to discover that the cost has gone up during the year. Disguising herself as youngster (complete with a balloon) so that she can score a cheaper fare, Rogers ends up in the drawing room of the title major (Ray Milland), who has just been in Washington trying to wangle World War II combat service despite a tricky eye that helps make it at least a bit more credible that he could fail to see that she’s no burgeoning adolescent. As Sinyard notes, there’s also the fact that Milland somewhat specialized in playing mildly dim characters early in his career — before Wilder later won both of them Oscars for the alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend.
At this time, Milland is stuck at a military school supervising a lot of horny male pubescents — a gig his snooty fiancée (Rita Johnson) is secretly scheming with higher-ups for him to maintain. For reasons that make perfect sense yet are no less funny for that, Rogers ends up at the school herself for a long weekend where she’s sexually harassed all over again — this time by boys who are 40 or 50 years younger than Benchley.
These latter scenes are still laugh-out-loud funny, thanks in huge measure to the world-weary expressions on the face of Rogers when she’s out on dates with these cadets (one to an hour) and enduring supposedly foolproof seduction patter from guys who barely shave. There’s also a fun subplot involving her temporary roomie/wannabe future scientist played by Diana Lynn in her first significant role (Lynn was a real-life piano prodigy who turned out to have a distinctive speaking voice and screen personality). As Johnson’s sister, she’s such a non-admirer that she’s not above steaming open the older sibling’s letters if it’ll help Milland get his transfer.
Already, we see the familiar Wilder virtues and even some themes. For starters, the performances are all first-rate, with Milland an appealing foil and even Rogers’ real-life mother Lela in a cute cameo playing the same role on the screen, momentarily dispelling Lela’s much written about notoriety as one of Hollywood’s most motor-mouthed political reactionaries. What’s more, the story construction is flawless, and there’s a fair share of Wilder’s trademark topical humor, including a hysterical gag involving girls’ hairdos at the big school dance. We also have the disguise theme, to which would Wilder would return in Some Like It Hot (though I also appreciate Harvey Lembeck’s attempts to temporarily palm himself off as Betty Grable in Stalag 17). What’s different, though, is an overall sweetness that we wouldn’t see from Wilder many more times. In the taut and nicely crafted voiceover commentary here from film scholar Adrian Martin, we’re told that Brackett used the word “enchanting” — which the movie certainly is. And never more than in the final scene.
The other main bonus feature to go along with a decent transfer is a 30-minute Milland interview conducted by two youngsters or relative youngsters who don’t seem to know his career as well as they might. The actor is personable, though, and covers a lot of decades for such a compressed running time — from the actor’s unplanned entry into pictures (quite a story) and the pressures of both TV acting when you might be shooting three episodes of a series a week and the perils of directing modestly budgeted features when the money may run out. Milland made it clear more than once that directing was his true love as far as movies went, and at least two of the films he did (The Thief and A Man Alone) are skillfully put together. I’m leaving Panic in Year Zero off this list because it’s been so many decades since I’ve seen to that I’m not even positive that I have, despite the fact that a lot of revisionist types have good things to say about it. In 1962, I wasn’t all that in the habit of catching post-apocalyptic Frankie Avalon movies.
It’s probably worth noting that M&M was remade in 1955 as You’re Never Too Young, which is one of the few Martin & Lewis comedies to capture the team tension of their live appearances. Though containing a surprising number of the same situations, it obviously made some major alterations, starting with Jerry Lewis playing the Rogers role. It was after totally different game than M&M, and taken on that level (which most dim-bulb-ish 1955 film criticism didn’t), it was pretty funny despite the always marginal Norman Taurog direction. Rainer Werner Fassbinder even paid homage to its wildest musical number in In a Year of 13 Moons.
Definitely worth re-emphasizing is the greatness of Rogers’ performance when she has to play two major roles (her character’s real and fake self) and two or three more minor ones, including a climactic scene where she pretends to be her own mother. I always use Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth as my yardstick by which to gauge the perfection of Golden Age comic performances by attractive actresses, but this recent viewing made a persuasive case to me that Rogers just might come in second here. Brackett and Wilder give her a dream role (which doesn’t mean an easy one), and the movie has so much showmanship that it even finds a legitimate way for the character to break into a tap dance.