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The Major and the Minor

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Some Like Them Young in Wilder’s “The Major and the Minor” (1942) | Blu-ray Review

Some Like Them Young in Wilder’s “The Major and the Minor” (1942) | Blu-ray Review

Billy Wilder became an indelible fixture of American cinema with his iconic noir masterpiece, 1944’s Double Indemnity, going on to direct some of the studio era’s finest crafted films. A trio of films just prior to that seem to have been obscured or forgotten, such as the WWII Franchot Tone headlined thriller Fives Graves to Cairo (1943), which was Oscar nominated for Art Direction and Cinematography, and his 1934 French language comedy Bad Seed, a debut which featured Danielle Darrieux. But it’s his 1942 sophomore film and English language debut The Major and the Minor which seems like the sterling Wilder comedy we’ve all been missing out on, which provides a template for the identity crisis semantics which would later be utilized to subversive maxims in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. Starring a post-Oscar winning Ginger Rogers and a rather stodgy Ray Milland, it’s a light-hearted comedy of deception which eventually becomes a bit troubling in its reconciliation of ‘mistaken’ identities.

Susan Applegate (Rogers) is a young woman struggling to make ends meet. When her latest job opportunity goes bust after she declines the advances of a smarmy boss, she tries to take a train back home only to discover she’s miscalculated the rising cost of the fares. To board the train, she disguises herself as a 12-year-old girl for a less expensive ticket, but trouble ensues when the conductors catch her smoking at the caboose. Stumbling into the compartment of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), the gentleman takes pity on the rambling minor and allows her to sleep in his compartment. More complications arise when his fiancée (Rita Johnson) unexpectedly boards the train and discovers the young girl in his bed. Susan, now Susu, must continue the charade for the weekend upon an invitation to the Major’s military academy to prove theirs was not an insidious exchange. But as the weekend wanes, Susan discovers she’s caught feelings for the affable Major.

Sure, she has her requisite moment to show off her dancing abilities, but what The Major and the Minor really showcases is Roger’s dexterity for comedic timing. On the heels of her Academy Award nominated turn in the melodrama Kitty Foyle (1940), her work with Wilder is on par with her turns in Bachelor Mother (1939), Roxie Hart (1942) or in Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952). Indignantly charming, Rogers towers above co-star Milland and a coterie of horny youths she’s forced into entertaining for a weekend thanks to the absurd situation her deception has gotten her into, while her scenes with Diana Lynn (here playing a hip-to-the-game teenager though well into her twenties) plotting to overthrow the Major’s impending marriage to the rigid Pamela (played serviceably by Rita Johnson) are among the film’s best. Meanwhile, Wilder throws in references to both Greta Garbo and a great gag on the famed hairstyle of Veronica Lake.

Disc Review:

blu-r presents The Major and the Minor as a brand new restoration from the original negative. Presented in 1.37:1 with uncompressed 1.0 PCM audio soundtrack, the transfer looks and sounds superb. An audio commentary track from film scholar Adrian Martin is included among the extra features.

Half Fare Please!:
Film Critic Neil Sinyard filmed this thirty-minute new video appreciation for The Major and the Minor.

Ray Milland Interview:
A rare archival twenty-nine-minute audio interview with Ray Milland from 1975 finds the actor discussing his career as an actor and Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor.

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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