The Major and the Minor is a 1942 American comedy film starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. It was the first American film directed by Billy Wilder, and launched his lengthy directing career. The screenplay by Wilder and Charles Brackett is based on the play Connie Goes Home by Edward Childs Carpenter.
After her client Albert Osborne (Robert Benchley) makes a pass at her, Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) quits her job as a scalp massager for the Revigorous System and decides to leave New York City and return home to Stevenson, Iowa. Upon arriving at the train station, she discovers she has only enough money to cover a child's fare, so she disguises herself as a twelve-year-old girl named Su-Su. When a suspicious conductor catches her smoking, Su-Su takes refuge in the compartment of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland) who, believing she is a frightened child, agrees to let her stay with him until they reach his stop.
When the train is detained by flooding on the tracks, Philip's fiancée Pamela Hill (Rita Johnson) and her father, his commanding officer at the military academy where he teaches, drive to meet him. Pamela boards the train and finds Su-Su sleeping in the lower berth in his compartment. Imagining the worst, she accuses Philip of being unfaithful and reports his alleged infidelity to her father. Indignant, and still feeling protective of Su-Su, Philip insists on bringing her to the school where her parents can retrieve her. The Hills, meeting Su-Su in person and now believing that she is only 12 years old, agree to let her stay with them.
Pamela's teenaged sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) immediately sees through Susan's disguise. She promises to keep her secret if Susan will help her sabotage Pamela's efforts to keep Philip at the academy instead of allowing him to fulfill his wish to be assigned to active duty. Pretending to be Pamela, Susan calls one of Pamela's Washington, D.C. connections and arranges to have Philip's status changed.
Susan becomes popular with the young students, especially cadet Clifford Osborne, unaware he is the son of the client who prompted her to quit her job. When the elder Osborne visits the school, he recognizes Susan and reveals her identity to Pamela, who threatens to expose her and Philip and create a public scandal unless Susan leaves immediately.
Susan returns home, but continues to fantasize about Philip, much to the dismay of her fiancé Will Duffy (Richard Fiske). When Philip stops to visit her on his way to California to report for active duty, she pretends to be her own mother and Philip leaves without learning the truth. After discovering Pamela has married someone else, Susan rushes to the train station and confesses her deception, and she and Philip decide to marry in Nevada while en route to the West Coast and embarkation for overseas service.
Billy Wilder had arrived in Hollywood in 1934 shortly after directing his first film, the French language Mauvaise Graine. During the ensuing years, he and Charles Brackett had collaborated on eight screenplays, including Ninotchka and Ball of Fire, but Wilder was anxious to try his hand at directing again and producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. agreed to give him a chance. Wilder was determined to make a mainstream film that would be a box office success so he wouldn't be relegated to a typewriter for the rest of his career. Paramount Pictures owned the screen rights to the play Connie Goes Home, which Wilder thought was the perfect vehicle for Ginger Rogers, and he and Brackett wrote the role of Philip Kirby with Cary Grant in mind. Their dialogue includes the oft-quoted line "Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?"
Rogers recently had won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Kitty Foyle and now was in a position to select her own director. Agent Leland Hayward represented both Rogers and Wilder, who asked him to intercede with her on his behalf, and Brackett also urged her to meet the neophyte director. She agreed, and she and the screenwriters met during the filming of Roxie Hart. They pitched the film during lunch at an Italian restaurant, and Rogers later recalled Wilder "was charming, a European gentleman ... I've always been a good judge of character. I decided then and there that we would get along and that he had the qualities to become a good director ... I felt he would be strong, and that he would listen. He certainly understood how to pay attention to a woman." What also appealed to Rogers was the basic concept of the film. As a younger woman, she had pretended to be eligible for a child's fare when traveling by train with her cash-strapped mother on more than one occasion, so she easily identified with the plot and agreed to make the film.
Wilder was driving home from the studio one evening and pulled up at a red light next to Ray Milland. Impulsively, he called out, "I'm doing a picture. Would you like to be in it?," and the actor responded, "Sure." Wilder sent him the script, which Milland liked. Three years later the two men would collaborate on The Lost Weekend, which would win Oscars for both of them.
As a neophyte director, Wilder heavily relied on editor Doane Harrison for guidance. Harrison had edited Hold Back the Dawn (1941), which Brackett and Wilder had written. Unusually for an editor, Harrison was on the set for filming as well as working in the cutting room. Wilder later said, "I worked with a very good cutter, Doane Harrison, from whom I learned a great deal. He was much more of a help to me than the cameraman. When I became a director from a writer, my technical knowledge was very meagre." Harrison taught him how to "cut in the camera", a form of spontaneous editing that results in a minimal amount of film being shot and eliminates the possibility of studio heads later adding footage the director deemed unnecessary. In later years, Wilder commented, "When I finish a film, there is nothing on the cutting room floor but chewing gum wrappers and tears." Wilder's and Harrison's unusually close and important collaboration continued for every subsequent film directed by Wilder through The Fortune Cookie (1966).
Leo Tover was the cinematographer for the film; Tover had also worked on Hold Back the Dawn. The campus of St. John's Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin was used for exterior location shots. Principal photography was completed quickly and efficiently. Rogers later recalled, "We had a lot of fun making the picture. It was that kind of story. And even though it was his first film, from day one, I saw that Billy knew what to do. He was very sure of himself. He had perfect confidence ... I've never been sorry I made the film. The Major and the Minor really holds up. It's as good now as it was then."
The film was remade as You're Never Too Young in 1955. The gender-reversal version starred Jerry Lewis as the adult disguised as a child and Diana Lynn, who portrayed teenager Lucy Hill in the original.
The film's soundtrack includes Blues in the Night by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer; "Sweet Sue Just You" by Victor Young and Will J. Harris; "Dream Lover" by Victor Schertzinger and Clifford Grey; "Isn't It Romantic" and "Lover" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times said the Wilder-Brackett script "effervesces with neat situations and bright lines" and added, "The gentlemen have written – and Mr. Wilder has directed – a bountiful comedy-romance. And Miss Rogers and Mr. Milland have played it with spirit and taste. Never once does either permit the suggestion of a leer to creep in ... Miss Rogers gives a beautiful imitation of a Quiz Kid imitating Baby Snooks. And in those moments when romance brightly kindles, she is a soft and altogether winning miss. Put this down as one of the best characterizations of her career. Credit Mr. Milland, too, with making a warm and nimble fellow of the major, and all the rest of the cast for doing very well with lively roles."
Variety called the film a "sparkling and effervescing piece of farce-comedy" with a story that is "light, fluffy, and frolicsome ... Both script and direction swing the yarn along at a consistent pace, with the laughs developing naturally and without strain."
American Film Institute Lists