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Major and the Minor, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A funny movie from a strange premise."
4 stars

The next time some old person starts loudly complaining about how movies today are just strange or perverted compared to the old days, just turn around and remind grandpa that he (or his parents) probably paid money to see "The Major and the Minor", a romantic comedy in which a thirty-year-old Ginger Rogers plays a character in her mid-twenties who potentially becomes a rival for a man's affection by making him think she's a twelve-year-old girl.

That's not her goal, of course - as the movie starts, Susan Applegate (Rogers) is a small-town girl who has given New York City her best shot and now just wants to go back home. Unfortunately, the money she has set aside for her train ticket back is no longer enough, but seeing a girl not much smaller than herself pay child's fare gives her an idea. Circumstances lead to her hiding out in the cabin of one Major Kirby (Ray Milland), and when the train stops because of a flooded track, Kirby and his fiancée Pamela (Rita Johnson) offer to put "Su-Su" up at the military academy where he teaches for a few days - and while the adults and many of the cadets are fooled, Pamela's sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) isn't buying it at all.

In the wrong hands, The Major and the Minor could become something really grotesque, but that's what makes it so much fun: Even though it was a little more acceptable for a young man to court a teenage girl when the movie came out in 1942, Billy Wilder makes sure the apparent age difference is enough to be creepy when looked at from most any perspective, and has a fine time stepping over the line just enough to make the audience squirm before dancing back again. The script (by Wilder and Charles Brackett, from a story by Fanny Kilbourne by way of a Edward Carpenter's play) is well-balanced between Susan being placed in uncomfortable positions and doing so to others, which keeps things from straying into really uncomfortable territory.

Even with that care taken, things could still have gone far wrong without Ginger Rogers and her performance. Even though the movie starts with Susan deciding to retreat from the big city, it quickly becomes apparent that she's no sort of meek country girl; she's got a devilish streak a mile wide that pretending to be Su-Su lets her act on. Rogers never fails to hit the right note, able to sell her jokes as both the instigator and victim of the movie's uncomfortable situations. She's at her best when finding ways to show us both the fear of getting caught and excitement of trying to get away with something that makes Susan the exact right combination of abrasive, mischievous, brassy, and sweet for the movie to work.

It would be nice if Ray Milland's Kirby were a more compelling match for her; the situation calls for him to be a guileless innocent who complicates things with his good intentions, but his bland nobility makes him a less-compelling pairing with Rogers (and even given what we know that he doesn't, a couple compliments to Su-Su come off more pervy than the intended innocent). He's the straight man, but even straight men need comic timing, and he doesn't compare to the youngsters broadly playing the cadets in that regard. Rita Johnson is passable as Pamela; it's a pretty thankless "villainous other woman" role. Diana Lynn, meanwhile, benefits from getting the best material next to Rogers; her Lucy is a kick for kind of being a little monster, smarter than the adults around her and not terribly worried about societal niceties.

"The Major and the Minor" is a weird little flick: Lots of screwball comedies are skilled at stringing bits of innuendo together, but basing a whole movie on this sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge and having it work more often than not is kind of amazing.

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originally posted: 01/18/12 11:55:21
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  DVD: 22-Apr-2008


  N/A (G)

Directed by
  Billy Wilder

Written by
  Charles Brackett
  Billy Wilder

  Ginger Rogers
  Ray Milland
  Rita Johnson
  Robert Benchley
  Diana Lynn

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