The Major and the Minor (1942)
“Nobody thinks much of it when little girls use mama’s clothes to play dress-up. But when a full-grown young lady dons a kid’s clothes to play a little girl, it makes a delightful idea for a very cunning film…mainly because Ginger Rogers is the lady who dons the clothes, and also because Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett are two fast boys with a script.”
So begins Bosley Crowther’s review of The Major and the Minor (1942) in The New York Times. This movie is indeed a “cunning film,” that could have gone terribly wrong (you’ll understand why in a moment). But Wilder and Brackett pull off the plot, and Rogers is wonderful as the adult woman masquerading as a twelve-year-old.
The Major and the Minor was inspired by a 1923 play called “Connie Goes Home” by Edward Childs Carpenter. The play was based on the short story “Sunny Goes Home” by Fannie Kilbourne, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1921. It took two decades to bring the tale to the screen, but after The Major and the Minor it was re-made in 1955 as You’re Never Too Young with the genders reversed. In that film, Jerry Lewis plays the “kid,” Diana Lynn is the kindly but confused adult, and Dean Martin is her fiancé. There is also a jewel theft added to the plot, so it’s not a strict re-make…
But let’s pause for a moment before we get any deeper into the film and talk about the Classic Movie Blog Association‘s Fall Blogathon “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” running from October 19-24th. The blogathon features posts about movies and scenes featuring any of these modes of transportation.
This post on The Major and the Minor is my entry in the blogathon because crucial action takes place aboard a train. Be sure to check out all the entries!
The Major and the Minor is especially noteworthy because it was Billy Wilder‘s solo directorial debut. (He had co-directed a French film in 1934, but had spent most of his career writing screenplays.) Wilder had found great success in Hollywood writing with Charles Brackett: the duo was responsible for Midnight (1939), Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), and Ball of Fire (1941), among others. They would go on to work on thirteen films together between 1936-1950.
But Wilder was itching to get into the director’s chair. He especially wanted to direct his own screenplays because he was sick of directors and studios messing with his words. In late 1941, Paramount finally agreed, promising that he could direct the next screenplay that he and Brackett wrote. Wilder chose “Connie Goes Home,” a smart choice because it was a cheap property to acquire, wouldn’t be terribly expensive to make, and seemed to have plenty of commercial appeal.
Wilder wanted Ginger Rogers to play the lead from the beginning. Today she is best known for the ten films she made with Fred Astaire, but those films make up a tiny percentage of her overall career. She made 73 films, including several dramas, and in the early 1940s she was one of the top stars in Hollywood. She starred in a string of hits and won a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle (1940).
When Wilder came calling for The Major and the Minor, Rogers had recently left RKO and become a free agent, an unusual move at a time when most stars were under contract to individual studios.
Rogers and Wilder went to dinner to talk about The Major and the Minor, and Rogers paid special attention to the novice director. She decided that Wilder “had the qualities to become a good director. He knew just how to order in the restaurant, but remembered to ask me what I liked. I felt that he would be strong, but that he would listen. He certainly understood how to pay attention to women.”
Rogers was satisfied with Wilder and also very intrigued by the film’s story. She later told Charlotte Chandler in Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, that
I loved The Major and the Minor because it was my story, as if they knew my life. Mother and I often didn’t have enough money when we traveled, so I carried my stuffed doll named Freakus, which made me look younger, especially when I hugged it and talked with it, and then, at night, I could just use it as a pillow. Just like Sue-Sue, I often pretended I was younger than I was, so I could travel half-fare. I was Sue-Sue!
Instead, when he pulled up next to Ray Milland at a stop light, he casually asked the actor if he would like to star in his next film. Milland, who knew Wilder from working at Paramount, thought that he was joking and shouted back, “Sure!” But the Brackett-Wilder script arrived for Milland a few weeks later. Milland liked it and agreed to do the movie. And that’s how Milland and Rogers came to play the Major and the minor.
To the film! After a joke about New York City…
…the movie finds Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) pounding the pavement with a big case, a weird looking lamp, and a slightly exhausted air. We learn that she is a scalp treatment technician with the Revigorous system. She is on her way to an appointment with Mr. Osborne in a fancy apartment building.
On her way to his penthouse, she tolerates the obnoxious elevator boy’s leers and innuendo about what she’s doing visiting Mr. Osborne’s apartment alone. Apparently pretty young ladies often stop by when Mrs. Osborne is out. But Miss Applegate isn’t one of them! She’s serious about her scalp treatments.
But Mr. Osborne (Robert Benchley) isn’t. The elevator boy was right; Mr. Osborne loves entertaining young ladies, and his intentions are definitely not innocent. Mr. Osborne is delighted to see Miss Applegate, especially because she is so much prettier than the last girl. Apparently, the previous technician was rather “earnest looking.” Crowther called Benchley’s character “another genial numskull,” which sums it up pretty well.
The Rodgers and Hart song “Isn’t it Romantic?” plays as Susan enters the apartment, but she’s not feeling it. Unfortunately, just about anything makes Mr. Osborne feel romantic.
Fun fact: Wilder used that song frequently in his films. You might remember its role in Sabrina (1954), for example. Wilder claimed that he didn’t particularly love the song, but the first time that he licensed it he got a great deal so he used it over and over because it was cheap.
As Susan prepares her equipment, Mr. Osborne lecherously suggests, “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?” Susan refuses.
As Mr. Osborne mixes a healthy portion for himself, he explains that Mrs. Osborne is always out on Wednesday nights for an “air raid precautions” meeting and drill. “She keeps telling me we’re going to get into this war!” he says cheerfully as he stirs his drink.
This movie was filmed between March and May 1942, so the US was already in the war, but Mr. Osborne probably means “getting attacked.”
Even her determined professionalism doesn’t keep Mr. Osborne from trying to fondle her as he sits there, though. And that’s the final straw. She gives his face a good massage before stepping away and removing her apron.
Meanwhile, this jerk starts telling her that he will have to make a report to her company because she has been so unfriendly. Never mind that he has been harassing her from the moment she walked in!
But Susan doesn’t care about this job anymore. She rather cynically explains to Mr. Osborne that she has had twenty-five different jobs in the year since she came to New York from her home in Iowa.
This scalp job was her last chance. She took the two-week course, hocked her things to join the union, and Mr. Osborne was her first client. But after this unpleasant fiasco, she’s done.
It’s been a very tough, humiliating slog for Susan in the Big Apple. Besides the difficulty finding jobs, she’s also had to fight off more than her share of men like Mr. Osborne who think they can have her just because they want to. She has decided that it’s time to give up and go home.
This movie thus tells an unusual story of New York City failure. Most Hollywood films follow the protagonists as they succeed beyond their wildest dreams, but this movie goes for a different story. And it certainly doesn’t present a rosy-vision of New York for young, single ladies.
Mr. Osborne assumes that the “one thing” the city didn’t get out of Susan was her self-respect. But Susan is much more practical than that. She’s referring to a sealed envelope containing the exact sum of money for a train ticket back to Stevenson, Iowa.
And she’s going to use it tonight. Susan leaves her scalp equipment in the apartment and storms out. In the elevator on the way down, the elevator boy continues with his vulgar insinuations and harassment. Susan tolerated it on the way up, but she’s not going to take it anymore. She smashes her remaining egg in his face, which shuts him up quite nicely.
Unfortunately, this kind of harassment is still very present today. Some people seem to think that just by being in a public space, a woman has asked for comments, leers, and even physical contact (we haven’t.) Maybe we should all carry around eggs. It worked for Susan.
As I mentioned earlier, this was Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood film as director. He was very aware that second chances don’t come around very often, and that Paramount would be happy to “send him back to his typewriter” if he failed. “But I was very careful. I set out to make a commercial picture I wouldn’t be ashamed of, so my first picture as a director wouldn’t be my last…” (Nobody’s Perfect).
Wilder was smart enough to know that he didn’t know everything, and he took steps to compensate. Perhaps his best decision was asking veteran film editor Doane Harrison to hang out on set and offer suggestions, an unusual move as most editors stayed in the editing rooms. Wilder later remembered, “I worked with a very good cutter, Doane Harrison, from whom I learned a great deal. He was much more of a help to me than the cameraman. When I became a director from a writer my technical knowledge was very meagre.” (Quoted in Sam Stagg’s Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream.)
Fun fact: Wilder and Harrison would continue their close working relationship on every Wilder film through 1966’s The Fortune Cookie. Their collaboration spanned twenty-five years and twenty films. Harrison edited Wilder’s first ten films, and then worked as producer on the second ten before passing away in 1968.
Wilder was also careful to pay attention to the actors and crew, and tried to keep things light on set. Rogers recalled Wilder yelling “Champagne for everybody!” after wrapping scenes that he was pleased with. His attitude was contagious, and it was an enjoyable shoot. More importantly for the front office, though, the production stayed on schedule and on budget.
Anyway, cut to Grand Central Station, or really rear-projected footage with Rogers in the foreground.
She marches to the ticket counter with her envelope of $27.50 and joyfully asks for a ticket to Stevenson, Iowa. But she gets a nasty surprise–in the year since she came to New York, the cost for a ticket has gone up to $32.50.
This is terrible news, since Susan only has the $27.50 she’d saved. She turns away, shocked and defeated, but hears a woman buy half-fares for her two children. And Susan gets an idea.
She is desperate to get home, even if it means pretending to be a twelve-year old kid (the cutoff for half-fares). So Susan heads for the women’s lounge for a reverse makeover. She scrubs off her makeup, rolls up her skirt, changes her heels for brown oxfords, and cuts stockings into socks. Then she braids her hair, rips the veil off her hat, and tilts it way back on her head. Ta-da!
It’s quite a transformation from elegant woman to shiny-faced kid. You can watch it here.
Fortunately, Rogers wasn’t afraid to look less than glamorous. She refused makeup for her role in Primrose Path (1940), for example, and spends most of this movie as a twelve-year-old tomboy.
Paramount’s designer Edith Head designed the costumes for this film. That’s Head with a Susan doll posing with Rogers in her dressing room.
Head was careful to ensure that Rogers’ transformation into a twelve-year-old was convincing but not too complicated.
After all, the audience has to believe that Susan could effect the makeover quickly and easily with only the items she had in her suitcase. But we also need to believe that she could pass as a twelve-year-old.
Anyway, Susan emerges from the lounge, spots the woman with two kids at a newsstand, and swipes the little girl’s balloon. In an odd detail, the girl is asking her mother for a copy of the fan magazine Movie Parade with the headline “Why I Hate Women” by Charles Boyer.
Armed with her balloon, Susan asks a shady character (Tom Dugan) to pretend to be her father. He agrees and takes her to the window to buy her ticket. But he pockets the change, leaving Susan completely broke. She kicks the shyster in the shins but can’t make a fuss because otherwise he’ll spill the beans.
Despite that betrayal, Susan’s plan is going pretty well. She gets settled on the train, and survives a tense meeting with the suspicious staff. They question her half-fare ticket, so she claims that she is of Swedish stock and also has a gland problem to explain her exceptional height and not exactly childish figure.
They punch her ticket, though they don’t seem entirely convinced.
Rogers does a wonderful job with this role. She transitions almost magically from cynical, fed-up adult woman to a kid. Playing a twelve-year-old is a bit of a stretch, but she could pass for fifteen, no problem. Wilder later said that the whole premise of the film seems silly now, but it worked then:
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.
Anyway, things are going well for Susan. But then she makes a dumb mistake and takes a smoke break on the observation car. The two suspicious conductors see her and venture outside to catch her red-handed.
They think they’ve got her trapped, but Susan refuses to give up. She hides her still-burning cigarette in her mouth, but that doesn’t last long. She eventually runs away back through the train with the conductors on her heels.
She stumbles into the first open compartment she can find and thinks she’s safe. But the compartment isn’t empty. The handsome man in the bathrobe is Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland). He thinks that Susan is just a frightened kid, and she encourages that impression, telling him that she ran from the conductor because he scares her. She also claims that sitting up has made her queasy and so she just can’t go back to her seat! (Clever Susan!) You can watch the scene here.
Kirby is kind and patient, and says that of course she can stay in his compartment! He’s a very sweet man who is just trying to help a frightened little girl who’s all by herself. He’s not a creep, and obviously the audience knows that Susan is not really a child, but it’s still really weird. Men should not invite strange little girls to spend the night with them…
There’s plenty of comedy in this scene, mostly deriving from the fact that Kirby has no idea how inappropriate all of this is. After all, Kirby would never have invited grown-up Susan to sleep in his compartment. He’s an honorable man! But as it is, the film can get away with their behavior because Kirby thinks that Susan is a child. For example, Susan tells Kirby he can call her “Su-Su,” and he asks her to call him “Uncle Philip.” Part of the joke is that claiming one’s sugar daddy is one’s “Uncle” was quite common in old films.
Su-Su is enjoying the masquerade and seems utterly charmed by how sweet Philip is, but she almost chokes when he says things like, “Just let me know if you have any trouble with your buttons” and “Do you have a nightie with you?”
The two go to sleep in their (separate) berths, but a crack of thunder makes Su-Su jump and bang her head on the bed. Philip assumes that dear little Su-Su is frightened of thunder and lightning, so he climbs into bed with her (!) to rock her back to sleep.
Su-Su accepts his kind attentions, but it’s getting more and more difficult to play this game.
This scene reminds me of the conflict/comedy in Some Like it Hot (1959), another Billy Wilder comedy. It’s especially reminiscent of the train scene when Marilyn Monroe climbs into Jack Lemmon‘s bed (he is masquerading as a woman), and he can barely keep himself together. You can watch that scene here.
Anyway, Su-Su feigns sleep and Philip returns to his berth. This is getting weird, especially because Susan likes this man…
The next morning, Su-Su and Philip chat while he performs his eye strengthening exercises. He explains that he is currently teaching at a military school, but now that the war is on he wants to get back into active duty. He is on his way home after meeting with officials in Washington to see about getting a transfer.
Uncle Philip may not guess the truth about Su-Su, but he’s no dummy. At one point in the conversation, he looks at her appraisingly and says:
He leaves to get Su-Su some breakfast, and she decides that she will tell him the truth once he returns. Susan starts undoing her braids and transforming back into Susan Applegate, adult.
Meanwhile, the train is stuck due to some flooding further ahead. At the station where the train was supposed to arrive, Kirby’s fiancee Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) pulls up in her car with her father, Colonel Hill. He just happens to be Kirby’s boss at the school.
Pamela decides not to wait for the train and drives to meet it. Naturally, she arrives when Kirby is in the dining car. She is astonished to find Susan in Philip’s compartment! Without the braids and the clothes, Susan doesn’t look so childish!
Pamela assumes the worst, screams, and flees. She runs into Philip outside of the compartment and flips the tray he is carrying into his face. Then she runs back to her car.
Philip is understandably confused, plus his nose is bleeding. Susan, who is back in her Su-Su character, puts ice down his back to stop his nose bleed. (A trick I’d never heard of.) Pamela and Colonel Hill watch it all through the window, though they think that Philip is flirting and laughing, not reacting to an ice cube dropped down his shirt by his twelve-year-old ward.
Philip knows he is in trouble, so he asks Su-Su if she will come to the school to help him explain everything to Pamela and her father.
Susan knows she shouldn’t…but she likes Philip and she doesn’t want her masquerade to ruin his life, so she agrees. Once Philip explains the situation, Pamela says that the whole thing is “utterly beguiling,” her favorite and oft-used expression, and declares that all is well again! The wedding is back on!
Philip and Pamela are reconciled, but Pamela is not a nice lady, and she’s not a good match for Philip. Susan dislikes her immediately. Susan is anxious to return to the train station, but Pamela invites her to stay at her house for the next few days. Susan wants to get out of this tricky situation, but there’s not much she can do besides run away, so she stays. You can watch the scene here.
Fun fact: the exterior scenes at the school were filmed at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin.
Susan has managed to fool everyone so far, but she meets her toughest opponent yet when she’s introduced to Pamela’s sister, Lucy (Diana Lynn).
Lucy knows right away that Su-Su is not what she pretends to be. In a memorable scene, she explains to Susan that she might be able to fool the grown-ups, but she can’t trick her. Lucy is a biologist in training, so she knew that Susan wasn’t a twelve-year old by her musculature. Plus, she opened her suitcase and found Susan’s very adult wardrobe…
But instead of blowing Susan’s cover, Lucy offers her a cigarette instead! When Susan asks, “Why didn’t you tell your sister?” Lucy answers, “Because she’s a stinker.” It seems that Lucy wants Susan’s help breaking up Pamela and Philip. She needs an ally, and Susan fits the bill.
Lucy is especially driven to break up Philip and her sister because she suspects that Pamela has gone behind Philip’s back to ensure that he will not be assigned to active duty. Pamela likes her comfortable life as queen of the school, and she wants Philip to stay where he is instead of going overseas. But Philip is desperate to fulfill his patriotic duty, and he feels wasted at the school. Lucy sides with Philip, as does Susan when she hears about Pamela’s dastardly machinations.
Pamela’s scheme is selfish, but understandable, though the film plays it as though her desire to keep Philip on the sidelines is an utterly villainous plan. Good American women support the war effort by happily sending their sons and husbands away.
Fun fact: you might remember Diana Lynn’s name from earlier in this post when I said that she played Milland’s role in the gender-reversed Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis remake. Lynn, who was a piano prodigy, first appeared in films under the name Dolly Loehr. Lucy was her first acting role. She appeared in several more films and TV shows, and occasionally performed as a pianist after The Major and the Minor.
Here she is in 1950 on television:
Anyway, Susan agrees to help Lucy, so she is stuck playing a twelve-year-old. This gets weirder and weirder since Susan has to deal with a bunch of aggressive cadets who are delighted to have a girl on campus. She only has eyes for “Uncle Philip,” though.
After lunch, Susan has her hands full fending off one cadet after another. The most popular move starts with the cadet demonstrating the faults of the Maginot line and sneaking closer and closer until Su-Su is encircled. It’s a little troubling to watch, especially after Susan’s unpleasant time in New York City. Adult Susan was harassed by men, and now Su-Su is getting harassed by boys.
Even more disturbing than Susan’s afternoon is that Philip watches it happen with one boy but doesn’t step in. Susan has to twist the kid’s nose and push him away before he will let her go. And Philip just stands there with a “boys will be boys attitude!”
Even worse, later he calls Susan to his office to have a very awkward talk about the birds and the bees. He basically slut-shames her by explaining that she needs to be careful about how she’s acting. She’s a pretty girl, so naturally boys will be attracted to her–even Philip wanted to take the afternoon off to show her around! Philip uses a lightbulb and moth analogy where Su-Su is the lightbulb and boys are the moths…it’s up to her to moderate her “light” because the moths just can’t help swarming around. Yikes. It’s played for comedy, but it still seems very dated and disturbing.
Susan finds the whole thing, especially Philip’s awkwardness, hilarious because she’s not really twelve (an easy fact to forget because Rogers is so good). She plays along, though, and all the time falls harder for Philip.
Susan returns to the house where Lucy is steaming open a letter from Pamela to a friend who is married to a powerful man in Washington. Pamela told Philip she was writing to ask for a transfer to active duty, but actually she begs her friend to make sure that Philip stays at the school. Pamela writes that Philip is utterly indispensable there and really isn’t suited for active duty, anyway.
Lucy was right. Pamela is a stinker. Fun fact: In Crowther’s review of the film, he amusingly wrote that “Rita Johnson is something of a cat” and “Diana Lynn is a frightening younger maiden.”
Lucy and Susan destroy the letter and decide to give Pamela’s friend a phone call, instead. Susan will pretend to be Pamela, and she will ask that Philip go back on active duty.
That evening, Su-Su takes advantage of her “lightbulb” and convinces the cadet on duty at the school switchboard to show her how it works. Then she turns on her Ginger Rogers charm and begs the cadet to go get his radio so they can dance together. It works. He scurries off and she places a long distance call to Pamela’s friend.
I always get a thrill when a brilliant dancer like Rogers goes into a “casual” routine in a non-dancing film.
Susan performs a convincing Pamela impersonation with plenty of “utterly beguilings.” Pamela’s friend is totally convinced, and she says she will be happy to speak to her husband about getting Philip transferred to active duty. But Su-Su gets in trouble when basically the entire school is thrown into chaos because of her inexpert work at the switchboard.
Nearly all the teachers descend on the switchboard to see what in the world is happening to the lines. That dance-crazy cadet regrets his radio-run…
The next evening the school holds a dance, and Su-Su is the belle of the ball. She borrows Lucy’s frilly dress and the cadets provide an honor guard escort. Susan isn’t the only girl; the ladies from Mrs. Shackleford’s School have come over to provide dancing partners for the cadets. One of the boys delivers a topical joke about the Veronica Lake hairstyle that was all the rage:
Anyway, Su-Su is the most sought-after girl at the ball. One of the cadets excitedly introduces her to his parents, and his father thinks she looks rather familiar. Oh, dear! It’s Mr. Osborne, the scalp treatment guy. He spends the whole evening trying to figure out why he recognizes little Su-Su, which adds an unexpected wrinkle to Susan’s evening.
In other news, Philip receives a telegram notifying him to his immediate transfer to active duty. Philip is absolutely thrilled, as is Su-Su, but Pamela can barely conceal her fury. She knows that someone has undermined her plans. She heard about the long distance phone call to Washington, and she has a strong suspicion that little Su-Su has been busy messing with her plans for Philip.
Philip and Pamela go outside for a private chat which immediately devolves into an argument. Philip finally realizes that Pamela is the worst, and he gives her an ultimatum: they can get married immediately and she can come with him to his new posting, or their relationship is over. Unsurprisingly, she opts for a total breakup.
After the fight, Susan finally gets a dance with Philip. She uses the time to arrange a meeting after the ball, telling Philip that she has something important to say to him. She has decided to reveal her true identity…
While they dance, Pamela mopes furiously in the corner until Mr. Osborne (who finally made the scalp connection) approaches to ask about Su-Su.
That’s all the ammunition Pamela needs.
When Su-Su returns home after the dance, Pamela listens at the door while Susan quickly sheds her Su-Su persona and transforms back into a glittering, lipsticked lady. She tells Lucy about her secret meeting with Philip, and Pamela hears everything…
Susan hurries back to the ballroom, absolutely giddy that she can finally show her true self to Philip. But Philip isn’t there. Pamela told him that Su-Su has a stomachache and wouldn’t be able to make their meeting.
Pamela has a new evil plan. She can’t keep Philip out of active duty anymore, but she can make sure that Susan doesn’t get him. She explains that if Susan reveals herself as an adult, Pamela will make sure that an enormous scandal erupts over Philip and Susan’s situation. Pamela will do everything in her power to get Philip thrown out of the service, ruining his reputation and his career. But if Susan leaves quietly that night and Philip never finds out that Su-Su is really an adult, everything will be fine.
Susan has no choice. She loves Philip and won’t do anything to jeopardize his career. But she makes sure that Pamela knows how she feels:
Costume appreciation break. Pamela’s butterfly dress is a great “evil queen” look with its sharp, rigid lines. It contrasts perfectly with Susan’s soft, sheer, sparkly dress and feminine hair net. Well done, Edith Head! Characterization achieved through costume.
Back to the film. Susan returns to Lucy to pack up her things. She has to leave immediately.
But guess who appears beneath their window to check on the ailing Su-Su? Philip wants to make sure she is feeling alright, and re-schedule their “date” for the next day. He’s going to take the afternoon off and spend it with her. Susan barely holds back her tears as she wishes him goodnight, knowing she will never see him again.
Cut to Susan’s home in Stevenson, Iowa. Susan has been back for a few days, but she’s driving her old boyfriend crazy because all she does is lay in the hammock and stare at the porch light. It’s the lightbulb/moths thing.
Susan hasn’t told anyone what happened to her on the way home from New York, so they aren’t sure why she is so melancholy. After the boyfriend breaks the lightbulb and stomps off (yikes!), the phone rings. Susan is shocked to hear Philip on the other end!
He is in Stevenson waiting for his next train, and he would love to stop by and see Su-Su. He has a present for her from Lucy, and he won’t take no for an answer!
What is Susan going to do? She tries to explain things to her mother, begging her to pretend that she has a twelve-year-old daughter named Su-Su. But Susan’s frenzied explanation makes no sense. That plan definitely won’t work.
Fun fact: Susan’s mother, Mrs. Applegate, is played by Ginger Rogers’ mother Lela! Spring Byington was the original choice, but she was busy making another film so Ginger suggested her mom for the part.
This was Lela’s first onscreen role and gives us an adorable mother-daughter moment. Lela’s appearance in the film is apparently one reason this movie became one of Ginger’s favorites.
Lela and Ginger were famously close, and Lela was a driving force behind Ginger becoming a star. She was a stage mother but in the best sense of the term, instilling a great work ethic in her talented daughter, and making sure that no one took advantage of Ginger on her way to stardom.
Anyway, Susan realizes that her mother will never be able to pull off the Su-Su act. So she sends her upstairs and quickly transforms herself into “Mrs. Applegate.” Susan is as good at adding decades as she is at dropping them.
And look at how much “old” Ginger resembles her mom!
Susan is settled in her Mrs. Applegate character on the porch when Philip shows up. He is terribly disappointed not to see Su-Su, but he’s delighted to meet her mother, and they have a nice chat.
“Mrs. Applegate” is surprised to hear that Philip didn’t marry Pamela after all. She’s less surprised to learn that Pamela married someone else a few days ago…
Their discussion moves to Philip’s new posting, and he tells her that he is heading for San Diego before shipping overseas. He happens to mention that there is a soldier on the train with his girlfriend, and they’re going to stop in Nevada because “You can get married there in five minutes, you know.” (You can read more about Nevada’s notoriously easy marriage/divorce laws here, and about the prevalence of very fast marriages here.)
The wistful tone in Philip’s voice gives Susan hope. After Philip leaves, she sheds her Mrs. Applegate costume and heads for the train station.
Now, one would assume that Philip would have a lot of questions. But instead they just jump into this new paradigm where Susan is the perfect age.
Philip tells Susan that he can’t ask her to marry him because he is shipping overseas in a matter of days, and who knows what will happen. But she delivers a stunningly patriotic answer: “Perhaps all a woman wants is to be a photograph a soldier tacks above his bunk.” She says that she totally supports him because he is “going to war so that this country will be spared what happened to France.”
Philip worries no more. He just looks at her with his good eye as she performs the “Maginot line” move that she learned from the cadets. It seems that there will be another couple stopping off in Nevada!
The patriotic ending feels propagandistic after the otherwise whimsical tone of the movie, but it isn’t surprising, given that this film was in production in March through May, 1942, just as the U.S. was mobilizing. Susan’s attitude is the ideal; she’s an example of how a woman should let her husband/son/boyfriend go off to war. And Pamela’s selfishness is how a woman should not behave. How dare she conspire to keep a soldier out of the war zone?!
One can imagine that the Production Code Administration watched the progress of this movie very carefully. Indeed, Wilder had to battle the PCA over this film, but he won. After all, there isn’t anything technically objectionable that the PCA could complain about. Everything is entirely innocent, just with a strange, almost indecent twist. Bosley Crowther summed up the conundrum nicely in his review of the movie in The New York Times:
You’d never dream the Hays office would permit a scene of rather intimate proximity between Miss Rogers and Ray Milland in a Pullman car. Yet youth is the age of innocence, as the Messrs. Wilder and Brackett know. And so they have managed to put by a deliciously risque contretemps—and a continuously teasing complication—by simply passing the lady off as a little girl. “Don’t worry,” says Mr. Milland, “it’s just like traveling with your grandfather or uncle.” But it isn’t—not by a long shot. And that is the devilish charm of this film.
Wilder would later say that this film was “the first American movie about pedophilia,” but he kept that to himself at the time…
The Major and the Minor premiered in September 1942, and was a hit with critics and audiences. Crowther wrote that the film is a “bountiful comedy-romance” and:
…Miss Rogers and Mr. Milland have played it with spirit and taste. Never once does either permit the suggestion of a leer to creep in. Dogged out in pig-tails and hair-ribbons, with her face shiny and her legs crossing swords, Miss Rogers gives a beautiful imitation of a Quiz Kid imitating Baby Snooks. And in those moments when romance brightly kindles, she is a soft and altogether winning miss. Put this down as one of the best characterizations of her career. Credit Mr. Milland, too, with making a warm and nimble fellow of the major, and all the rest of the cast for doing very well with lively roles.
Fun fact: Milland and Rogers reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast in May, 1943. You can listen to the performance here.
Rogers would always maintain that this was one of her favorite movies. She later said, “I’ve never been sorry I made the film. The Major and the Minor really holds up. It’s as good now as it was then.”
This was the only film Rogers made with Billy Wilder, but he worked with Ray Milland a few years later on The Lost Weekend (1945). Their work on that movie garnered a Best Actor Oscar for Milland, and Best Director and Best Screenplay Oscars for Wilder.