Monday, July 27, 2009

The Major and the Minor (1942) 5/5, and pre-war cinema

Tonight I exposed my celluloid-weary Dad and his Girlfriend to one of my favorite movies, Billy Wilder's "The Major and the Minor". It is a hilarious and really well-made movie that makes some interesting points about the latter half of 1941, sex, and disguises, while maintaining the conventions of its genre as a well-constructed and witty comedy.
We begin with Susan Applegate, an attractive girl in her late 20s (?-Ginger was 30 during production). She gives up on New York and the promise of excitement after the last in a million pinches and cat calls comes from Mr. Osburne, a greasy older man who has called her for a scalp massage (played well by Robert Benchley). The one thing New York doesn't get out of Sue Applegate is $27.50, the fare back home to Stevenson, Iowa. There's only one problem: the rate has been raised, and all Susan can afford is a half fare ticket, which means she will have to masquerade as a soon-to-be 12-year-old "SuSu" to get back home.

Her guise is soon discovered, and she runs in to the drawing room and arms of Major Philip Kirby, played by the dreamy Ray Milland. She is immediately smitten, but, for obvious reasons cannot reveal her true identity, especially not after they are discovered by his suspicious fiance. All this nonsense means she will have to go to the Wallace Military Institute with "Uncle Philip" so that he can make his case and avoid scandal. What follows is so funny and also complicated, that I will let you watch it on your own and find out!
I cannot tell you how much I love this movie. For obvious reasons, I love it because Ginger is especially adorable and hilarious in this part. What a role to take on, especially right after such dramas as "Primrose Path" and "Kitty Foyle", her Oscar-winning role. This is truly a statement to her bravery and security in her talent. We also have her to thank for Billy Wilder's coming to the United States. This was his first American picture, and he would have never been trusted to direct it had Ginger not requested him specifically.
Above all of those charming details, what I love most of all is Lela Rogers' appearance as Mrs. Applegate, Susan's mother in the end of the film. I had never heard Lela speak or see her move. Gosh, Ginger is a little clone of her. Here is a picture of Lela, Ginger, and Lela's father Walter Owens on the set of the film:

Most of the time when I'm watching more recent movies, I try to imagine how it could (or could not) have been made in the past. This film is the opposite: a movie that can never be made again. It was remade in the 50s as "You're Never Too Young" with Jerry Lewis and Diana Lynn, who appears in the original as a smart-aleck young girl who wasn't fooled for a second. There are so many strange lines in this film that had no trouble with the code in '41, yet wouldn't be touched by any sensible studio today. I suppose the issue of Pedophilia was not a common one in that day. Not to say that it didn't happen, but that it was rarely, if ever seen in courts or talked about. It must have been a non-issue for it to be the subject of a comedy!
Another element of this film that I enjoy are the comments about the impending war. Although the film was made in'41, it was released, like Casablanca, in 1942 after the US entered the war. I love looking at films made in these two years and their sentiments about the war effort. Warner Brothers, for example, strongly supported FDR and the New Deal.In Warner Brothers pictures during this time (including Casablanca), they would discuss when the war was going to happen, not if. The Major and the Minor, which was a Paramount picture, is more cautious. They say "if" several times, but it is not just an "if". There are clear preparations, but not firm and unbridled support. Hopefully I will soon watch more pictures from this year to provide some more comparison.
I've been blabbing long enough. Do yourself a favor and watch this movie. It is available on DVD from Amazon for $12.99 (it's also uploaded on a certain video website that I won't name). More people need to know about this gem of a movie! I'll leave you with the trailer.

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