Billy Wilder: The Major and the Minor

The USPS recently issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We shall explore the lives and work of these directors. In this post LR Simon discusses The Major and the Minor (1942).

The Major and the Minor was the first American film Billy Wilder directed. Wilder learned about filmmaking from editor Doane Harrison while making this film. Harrison taught Wilder about editing in camera to prevent the studio from making changes.

Ginger Rogers plays Susan Applegate, a scalp massager for the “Revigorous System,” who quits after a client makes a pass at her. She wants to take the train home, but she only has enough for a child’s fare, so she tries to make herself look like a 12-year-old in order to get a ticket. She ends up hiding in Major Philip Kirby’s (Ray Milland) cabin when she’s seen smoking. She convinces Kirby, who has poor vision, that she’s a frightened child, and he allows her to stay with him in his cabin. The train stops for flooding on the tracks and Susan is diverted from her journey home to stay with Kirby’s fiance’s family until her own family can pick her up. As with any screwball romantic comedy, the story makes the audience want the leads to get together while simultaneously throwing obstacles in the way of the desired end.

Although the story presented Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett opportunities to push the limits of the Hays Code, there seem to have been no issues with the story’s content.

Critical reception at the time was generally positive, but it is one of Wilder’s lesser and less well-remembered efforts. Rogers’s performance was perfectly suited to the film—she’s fun to watch without trying too hard. Milland was an excellent choice for Kirby; he’s likeable enough to allow the audience to overlook his obliviousness, both when it comes to Susan’s age and to his fiance’s character.