Wilder at heart

The Major and the Minor

Feeling outpaced by the abrupt, rude rhythms of New York City, Ginger Rogers disguises herself as a 12-year-old girl to score a cheap train ticket back to her Iowa hometown. On the train, she swiftly wins the favor of Ray Milland, an Army major who finds himself feeling compelled to watch over her—and also, to his dismay, to look her over. The major’s fiancée (Rita Johnson) will not be pleased.

If anybody could manage a fizzy romantic comedy of sexual repression in 1942, it was Billy Wilder, already with three screenwriting Oscar nominations under his belt and making his American directorial debut, with The Major and the Minor. Co-scripted with former New Yorker drama critic Charles Brackett, with whom he wrote 13 films, it’s hardly as perfect as Wilder’s later pictures. But The Major and the Minor was an important proving ground for Wilder to practice, among other skills, his Shakespearean flair for disguise as a sexually charged dramatic catalyst (see also Some Like it Hot).

And it is rather delightful how somehow dignified this whole ridiculous enterprise seems. Never mind that Rogers doesn’t look a day under 20 here (not bad; she was 30 at the time). She’s fantastic, a picture of wit and control who won’t let her little-girl act grate for even an instant—just as Milland never lets his put-upon avuncular decency stoop to leering.

On the other hand, when he finally figures her secret out (oh, like that’s spoiling anything), nor is there even an instant of horror and sickness and confusion about the discovery, like, “OK, so, yes, what this means is that I did indeed just spend these many weeks repressing my arousal for someone I thought was in the seventh grade. Wow. OK. That’s messed up.” Instead it’s just a big kiss and beaming smiles and a mad dash to board a train and go off together. But in the movies of that era, boarding a train meant a lot.