Blu-ray Review: The Major and the Minor (1942)

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There's hoping you look younger and then there's hoping you look twelve. And as it turns out, twelve is exactly how old Ginger Rogers — then age thirty — was going for in screenwriter Billy Wilder's American directorial debut, The Major and the Minor.

Tired of being propositioned in one dead end job after another (totaling twenty-five in a single year), and unable to pay the full adult fare for a train ticket home, Rogers loses the makeup, braids her hair, and adjusts her clothes to pass herself off as a child to get the cheaper rate from New York back to Iowa.

Sliding into Ray Milland's private sleeping car when the conductor catches onto her act, Rogers gets more than she bargained for when she begins to fall for the handsome major. Stranded in Indiana after a storm, the Major she calls Uncle Philip brings Susan (Rogers) home to where he's currently working as an instructor at a military academy while waiting to return to active duty.

Though she's stuck living with his fianceé Pamela (Rita Johnson) who grows suspicious of her fiancé's devotion to the startlingly womanly adolescent, the cadets make Susan feel right at home, delighting in her company so much that they actually create a schedule to see who gets to spend time with the "girl" from dawn to dusk.

A May December romantic comedy that plays out under the guise of a Shakespearean style masquerade, while The Major and The Minor has the added risk of what without the pretense would be a love story between an adult and a purported adolescent, the film was a surprising hit at the 1942 box office. Billy Wilder's first time out at bat as a Hollywood director and based upon Edward Childs Carpenter's 1923 play based on the 1921 story by Fannie Kilbourne, Major helped establish some of the main themes and plot devices of mistaken identity that Wilder would revisit throughout his career in films such as Some Like it Hot and Love in the Afternoon.

Playing up their bond as a wholesome uncle-niece or mentor-mentee style relationship while blurring some of the risqué edges in Susan's interactions with the overeager hormonal cadets, while there's absolutely no mistaking Ginger Rogers for a tween, she's utterly dynamite in Major, which was written by Wilder and Charles Brackett with the newly minted Oscar winner in mind.

Responding strongly to the inciting incident at its premise as she'd occasionally posed as a younger child to save fare money as a younger woman when traveling with her mother, in the film that would become one of her personal favorites throughout her career, Rogers stars alongside her real-life mother Lela E. Rogers in a memorable sequence in Major's final act.

Yet where it was Rogers' job to let us in on the joke, Ray Milland nobly avoids the temptation many in his position might've felt to deliver his lines with a wink by instead playing everything on the level. Further lending the work some gravitas, in a role originally intended for Cary Grant that was later spontaneously offered to Milland by Wilder while shouting out of his car at a stoplight, the actor turns in an impressively controlled yet altogether sunny leading man performance.

A great reminder of not only Ginger Rogers' versatility as an actress in all genres beyond musicals but also a fascinating jumping off point from writing to directing by a screenwriter hoping for more control over his scripts, The Major and the Minor has been given a stunningly clear transfer to Blu-ray in this new Arrow release. Arriving shortly after their gorgeous restoration of Hold Back the Dawn, which, like Major, was also penned by Wilder and Brackett, this Arrow edition comes complete with an archival interview with Milland, an hour long radio play with the original leads reprising their roles, as well as a feature length critical commentary, essay, and featurette sure to be of interest to classic film buffs.

Largely overlooked in Wilder's legendary career, The Major and the Minor might be in comparison a minor entry in his enviable filmography but the featherlight romantic comedy still sparkles today, thanks to the jovial turns by its committed leads as well as a trademark Wilder style that's half 1930s screwball and half slightly twisted fairy tale, suitable — Rogers style — for ages twelve and up.

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