Universal // 1942 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // April 22nd, 2008
The Major: You're a very peculiar child.
The Minor: You bet I am.
You're already familiar with The Major and the Minor, although you may not know it. Billy Wilder's directorial debut gave the world the line that launched a thousand bad pick-ups: "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?"
That's more than I can say for Universal, which delivers this classic comedy with only a hint of gristle to cover the bare bones.
Small-town girl Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers, Stage Door) has spent exactly one year in the Big Apple, and she's had enough. Unfortunately, the railroad has raised their rates, and she no longer has the money to get home. Susan's time in New York hasn't been a complete waste; city life has taught our heroine a few tricks, and the resourceful Susan becomes 11-year-old "Su-Su" to get her ticket at half-price.
When Susan runs afoul of the railroad employees, she takes cover in a compartment belonging to the kind, but rather innocent Major Kirby (Ray Milland, Dial M For Murder), who really believes she's 11.
Naturally, misunderstandings ensue.
To clear the Major's good name "Su-Su" has to follow Kirby back to the military academy, where his snippy fiancée, Pamela, and 300 frustrated, underage cadets are waiting, and that's when Susan's troubles really begin.
It's amazing, isn't it, how something completely harmless can take on an icky tone as time and society change? The Major and the Minor is one of those movies whose subject matter will raise a few eyebrows. It's the product of a more innocent cinematic time, when telling your boss that you were sharing your sleeping car with a strange little girl and not an adult woman would actually get you out of trouble, and not into a 3'x5' cell. Fortunately, the comedy dodges any retroactive pedophile overtones because the romantic interest is only coming from the legal side. Susan has a yen for Major Kirby and the cadets have eyes for someone they think is their own age; older characters never return the affections of the underage ones, although it does lead to more than a few sexually suggestive misunderstandings.
At its core, The Major and the Minor is a fluffy comedy that hides a sharp tongue and more depth than you'd think. Sure, the comic set-ups are a little creaky and the outcomes never in doubt, but it's such a breezy little film that I didn't really mind. Wilder and Charles Brackett's script stays focused, and some unexpected touches give the far-fetched plot a grounding in reality.
A 30-year-old successfully passing for 11 is a stretch, so streetwise characters see right through Susan's disguise while the less jaded ones take her story at face value. Once you hit a certain age, there's no difference between 7 and 10, so Susan overdoes the baby talk, but the rest of the adults don't know any better than she does. The kids, of course, are older and wiser than the grown-ups give them credit for. The only girl on campus can spot Susan's hoax a mile away ("You're not 12 just because you're acting like 6"), while the boys are too hormone-charged to question or care.
The thing that keeps The Major and the Minor from sinking into total absurdity is the cast's ability to play it absolutely straight. Ginger Rogers again plays the tart-but-likable dame but isn't afraid to look gawky. The same character who coolly deals with lecherous men flounders under the attentions of teenaged boys. When it comes to delivering a smart line, nobody can match her, although Diana Lynn (Bedtime for Bonzo) gives her a run for her money as Pamela's younger sister, the budding biologist. Ray Milland keeps Major Kirby a viable love interest by playing him as trusting rather than dim and not laying the fatherly attitude on too thick.
If time makes it a more uncomfortable movie in some areas, in others it makes it a better one. In a year that gave us Mrs. Miniver, Across the Pacific, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, the machinations of Pamela (Rita Johnson, My Friend Flicka) to keep her suitor off active duty mark her as the baddie but, removed from an era of brazen patriotism, her concerns about keeping her soon-to-be husband whole and healthy take the character from one-note villainess into more sympathetic territory.
The transfer for The Major and the Minor is a slightly grainy full frame, accompanied by a surprisingly good mono track. Scenes in the sleeper car suffer the worst scratches and debris, but the rest stands up well for its age. Included extras are an original trailer and an intro from film historian Robert Osborne, who gives a presentation only slightly longer than the ones he delivers on TCM.
You'd think with Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, and script and direction provided by Billy Wilder that someone, somewhere could be bothered to provide some meatier material. Production notes, text bios, even the trailer for the '50s remake with Martin and Lewis would have been a nice touch. This sort of thing is irritatingly par for the course for Universal, whose "Universal Cinema Classics" all sport similarly anemic extras, as do most of their classic television sets.
One of The Major and the Minor's biggest weaknesses is its reliance on pop-culture references for punch lines. This is fun for classic movie buffs but will frustrate everyone left out of the joke. The other drawback is the actual romance between Kirby and Susan, which has to remain unrequited and undeveloped for most of the movie, for obvious reasons.
The Major and the Minor is good move-night material, and not just for fans of old Hollywood. It's a frothy flick that's better than your average rom-com by leaps and bounds because there's enough authenticity to forgive the sillier story elements and enough originality to overcome the formulas of the genre. It's also refreshingly devoid of sticky sentiment. The only thing keeping the disc from being a must-have is Universal's token effort at extra content. It's a step up from nothing, but not by much.
Universal should be court-martialed for this latest in a string of lazy classic releases. Luckily for them, this case belongs in a tribunal, not a courtroom, and is out of my jurisdiction.
Review content copyright © 2008 Kristin Munson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1942
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Introduction by Robert Osborne
* Theatrical Trailer