The Major and The Minor is available now on Arrow Academy Blu-Ray
Is she a kid… or is she kidding? says the tagline of Billy Wilder’s first American film, The Major and The Minor, perfectly encapsulating the plot. Being known as one of the most versatile and brilliant directors of the classic Hollywood era, his American directorial debut is worth exploring for its strange choice of topic alone.
Based on an Edward Childs Carpenter play Connie Goes Home, the film follows Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers, 31 years old at the time of filming) as she disguises herself as a 12-year-old girl, ‘SuSu’ to be able to purchase a train ticket home half-price. The premise is obviously absurd, but that very absurdity is the main source of humour, working well for the most part.
The film is quite possibly the most farcical one in Wilder’s filmography. However, disguised identities are a fairly common element in comedy, going back to Shakespeare. With Wilder exploring this later on in his undoubtedly most well-known film, Some Like It Hot, classic examples also include Tootsie or Mrs Doubtfire. At the same time, children finding themselves in adult bodies due to a magical wish, for example, Big! or 13 Going On 30 are a mainstay of Hollywood. Providing us with light-hearted and enjoyable comedies, almost always including fantasy elements.
The Major and The Minor, however, portrays a different type of disguise. No magic included; Susan willingly turns herself into a 12-year-old schoolgirl. She gets rid of her make-up, puts on a school uniform, knee-high socks and hair in pigtails. While her clothes and voice are on point, she can’t hide her height or refuse a cigarette which easily blows her cover. Conductors start suspecting the sham, so she hides in Major Kirby’s compartment (Ray Milland). Hilarity then ensues when the Major turns out to be the dullest character she could have stumbled upon, taking her for a 12-year-old girl without question while never realizing she is an adult.
Due to a sequence of comedy errors, the Major’s fiance Pamela (Rita Johnson) finds her in Kirby’s bed on the train, taking her for a grown woman. Therefore SuSu must take Kirby’s invitation to spend several days at the military academy he is working at to clear him of any suspicion. SuSu soon finds herself in a position where she cannot reveal her true identity yet starts falling for him. Romantic plotline aside, the comedic elements function hilariously well even by today’s standards. The plot opens up several opportunities for great situational comedy that allow Ginger Rogers to shine by switching between her adult- and preteen-persona in a heartbeat, and it is undoubtedly her film. Wilder also jokes about Greta Garbo’s loneliness and Veronica Lake’s popular hairstyle; such intertextual references weren’t common in 1940s cinema.
In the finale, the Major decides to visit SuSu on his way to be assigned to active duty. At this point, it feels like the film is parodying itself, as Susan – not yet ready to face him as herself – pretends to be her own mother (fun fact: Susan’s actual mother is played by Ginger Rogers’ real-life mother, Lela. E Rogers). As the Major is about to depart, Susan finally reveals her true identity at the train station and the two kiss and embrace.
Here we see two characters kiss passionately even though one of them was 12 years old mere seconds before. However, with the audience aware of the sham from the beginning, it is quite easy for us to accept that there is nothing wrong with Susan’s and the Major’s romance. However, if we look at the story from the Major’s point of view, it gets trickier: He randomly stumbles upon a frightened 12-year-old who he promises to keep safe while effectively kidnaping her before taking her to a military academy. He does not suspect her true age, apart from calling her a “very peculiar child” and telling her she’ll be “a knockout one day”. It is more than a bit strange to say things like this to a preteen girl, although, in truth, we have heard less acceptable lines in films from the 1940s.
From his perspective, by the end, he revisits a young girl he had a fatherly relationship with, only for her to reveal herself as an adult woman who has been in love with him and is willing to marry him immediately. Instead of questioning the situation or trying to make sense of everything, he goes with it happily, as this 12-year-old girl suddenly and miraculously becomes a legal adult. Thankfully, Wilder’s film does not allow for any inappropriate attraction from the Major towards SuSu while he believes her to be 12. However, the question certainly arises: was the ending supposed to suggest he had feelings for her all along?
Being the only “girl” at the military academy, SuSu is also at the centre of the boys’ attention at all times who do not suspect anything. They continuously try stealing kisses from her, with more or less success. Once we look behind the cuteness on the surface, we find ourselves faced with an interesting dilemma once again. The situation not working out morally either way. On the one hand, we have teen cadet’s desperately trying to kiss a 12-year-old girl or a grown woman trying (quite badly) to prevent teen boys from kissing her. Wilder himself said:
“It wasn’t too difficult for Ginger to imitate a girl of twelve, especially in those days. Now it seems a little foolish. To think a thirty-year-old could play a twelve-year-old girl and be believable! Well, she couldn’t, but it didn’t matter. The audiences were very generous in those days. They had come to have a good time and they went along with you.’’
Anthony Balducci: I Won’t Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present, p.71
This quote perfectly encapsulates the strange ambivalence of the film. The main issue is that the film’s inner logic does not work according to our own logic. Susan’s disguise can’t be taken seriously by the audience because we are made aware from the beginning it is well-known actress Ginger Rogers. Certain characters can only see through her disguise if it is in favour of forwarding the plot. For example, SuSu quickly befriends Pamela’s younger sister Lucy (Diana Lynn), a cynical teenager who immediately picks up that she is lying about her age. There is no agreement within the film’s universe if she passes as a 12-year-old or not.
This strange aspect is what differentiates the film from the aforementioned “disguise comedies”. In those, there is a silent agreement between the audience and the characters that they should play along with the concept. It would be interesting to see the same film without the extra information about SuSu’s real identity. After all, what would the audience reaction be if we were to find out the “trick” alongside Major Kirby in the last scene?
Without a doubt, Wilder’s film was made to be watched as an innocent, lighthearted piece without any deeper meaning or problematic subtext. While the intention was certainly purely comedic and overly silly, we can’t help but feel uneasy at the subject matter. Wilder, being the screenwriter, heavily relies on the suspension of disbelief by the audience more than a typical joyful romance would require. Therefore, we are made aware of the dissonance between the film’s inner logic and our moral standards. Even with the farcical elements considered, it feels like the story crosses a line of inappropriateness that eventually takes away from its enjoyability.
Wilder is known for pushing the boundaries of censorship, and to his credit, he is going the furthest here. The scene where SuSu and the Major first meet is probably one of the most clever plays on the Hays Code rules. SuSu, running from the conductors, bursts into Kirby’s compartment and claims she is afraid of the thunderstorm. Kirby tries calming her down by climbing in bed with her, hugging her. Obviously, this scene would not have passed the Code if it wasn’t for SuSu’s disguise, as censorship even prohibited married couples from being shown in the same bed. According to the censors, Rogers posing as a child had no sexual meaning to it. Therefore the scene passed – only to make it so much more questionable by audiences today.
Wilder also includes the underlying plot of the Second World War in the background, which certainly gives the story a darker and more serious undertone. It is quite certain the filmmakers had no ill-fated messages in mind as the film has some old school charm and innocence to it. However, this is a film that would never be greenlit today due to its risque subtext. In fact, even a 1955 Norman Taurog, gender-swapped, musical-heist version of the film titled You’re Never Too Young was not well-received. The Major and the Minor remains an enjoyable and silly comedy if not examined too closely. And If nothing else, it jump-started Wilder’s fantastically versatile career, something we can only be grateful for.