After writing the screenplays for several hit films, including the classic NINOTCHKA, Billy Wilder finally began his directing career with the romantic screwball farce THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR. It starred Ray Milland as an engaged military man and Ginger Rogers as a cash-strapped young woman who pretends to be twelve years old in order to get home on a half-fare train ticket. Needless to say, the two meet up on the train, complications arise and wackiness ensues.
Leave it to Billy Wilder to create a screwball comedy in which, at one point, the 40-ish Major Kirby (Milland) realizes, rather uncomfortably, that he has, even for a moment, found a 12-year-old girl sexually attractive. Of course, the 12-year-old girl is actually a beautiful 20-ish woman played by a beautiful 30-ish actress (Rogers), a circumstance Wilder uses to great effect.. On the surface, Milland believes Rogers is actually twelve, but subconsciously he can't possibly believe such a thing. The idea of a knockout like Rogers passing herself off as someone that young is preposterous, since she clearly isn't. Yet, like everybody accepting Groucho Marx as a competent doctor or famous African explorer when all evidence points otherwise, almost everybody in the film accepts Rogers as a pre-teen because who on Earth would pretend to be one if they weren't? Wilder doesn't expect you to believe everybody believes, he just asks you politely to believe everybody believes so that he can get on with his film. And because Ginger Rogers is so perfect in the role, who are we to argue with Billy Wilder anyway? There is a touch of Lucille Ball in Rogers' performance, or, rather, a touch of Rogers in Lucille Ball's magnificent portrayal of the scheming yet lovable housewife in I Love Lucy. The two were close friends whose film careers started about the same time and it is not a stretch to assume when Lucy's big break came on television, she remembered her friend's performance in this film and thought to herself, I'll do the same, only broader.
I am not a big fan of farce (witness my complete abdication of the Screwball Comedy section of this site to my co-webmaster, or my argument that SOME LIKE IT HOT is not the greatest comedy ever made) but I do appreciate the performances and the classic lines found in so many comedies like this. Wilder comedies are filled with fast and furious dialogue, an amazing achievement considering that he could hardly speak English when he first came to Hollywood. So I thoroughly enjoyed Rogers, as well as Ray Milland and Robert Benchley, who actually utters the deathless line "How about slipping out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?" about five minutes into this film. It's just that, for me, most of these movies go on too long, often based on one contrived situation that, as Buster Keaton once said, could be cleared up in a heartbeat if people just stopped for a moment and explained themselves. I prefer comedy that naturally arises out of situations, not unnatural situations created in order for comedy to arise. Laurel and Hardy playing with hammers and nails is always more appealing to me than Laurel and Hardy getting confused for their own identical twin brothers.
Yet Billy Wilder, the man who directed such great farces as SOME LIKE IT HOT (I do love the movie, but with reservations) and THE APARTMENT (unreservedly splendid) is one of my favorite directors. How come? I suppose it is because of the cynical heart that beats inside of nearly all his great films, coupled with the fact that, even inside the misanthropic and mocking worlds he creates, put upon schnooks like Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine can still rise to the top like sweet cream out of curdled milk. Tony Curtis can seem like a completely conniving heartless creep and yet be revealed as the ultimate romantic. And Ray Milland can suddenly discover that the young girl he found so captivating is actually a young woman who has been lying to him, and it means nothing to him as he kisses her just before the fadeout. Oh, she's not really twelve? All the better for me! Meanwhile true bastards like Kirk Douglas in ACE IN THE HOLE and Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY get all the punishment they deserve. Wilder's world may be sardonic and sneering, but there is morality. The good usually get rewarded, the bad punished, and everybody gets great lines.
One of the tag lines for THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR is "A Bedtime Story for Grownup Children", a phrase that aptly describes just all the films of Billy Wilder, of which THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, a major breakthrough in Wilder's career, is a somewhat minor, if engaging, example. ½ - JB
ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND AND MAKE IT A GALLON
"My brother Olaf is 6 feet 2 and he's only in the second grade."
You're Never Too Young (1955 - Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis)