Friday, April 15, 2011

The Major and the Minor (1941)

Ray Milland, "the Major," and Ginger Rogers, "the Minor"
The films of Hollywood's golden age seldom have much shock value for viewers today. After all, the Hays office was there to make sure things never got too interesting, handing out last minute marriage licenses at all the right moments so things stayed respectable. Thankfully, the directors of the period were nothing if not inventive, so a surprising amount of scandal seems to have flown just under the radar. There are times, though, when our own standards today have become more conservative, so plot twists the Hays office didn't blink an eye at are downright shocking today. Enter Billy Wilder's US directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, a patriotic war-years comedy about a military school instructor who falls in love with a twelve year old girl.

True, Ginger Rogers was thirty when she played the part, and her character was actually somewhere in her mid-twenties, but when Major Kirby (Ray Milland) falls head over heels for little Su-Su Applegate (Rogers), he thinks she's twelve, and that's plenty cause for concern right there. The way this story operates on our subconscious hasn't changed fundamentally. In our concern over Kirby's less than paternal feelings for Su-Su, we're not reading things into the film that are not germane to it. However, with our own heightened awareness of the dangers, moral, legal, and otherwise, of eating forbidden underage candy, the moral conflict Kirby faces gets an added punch that makes it particularly electrifying.

Su-Su, a very young twelve year old girl
The film clearly panders to this particular brand of thrill-seeking. Susan Applegate pretends to be a child to get discounted train fare, but the character she plays, Su-Su, reads more like six than twelve, as Lucy (the story's actual minor, and the only person to see through Susan's disguise) readily points out. Su-Su speaks with high-pitched, chirping sweetness, often lapsing into baby talk for no good reason. She carries a balloon through the train station, and sings songs under her breath. Moreover, Kirby responds to her as a much younger girl even than she pretends to be. He refuses to believe she's not afraid of thunderstorms ("Nonsense, all kids are afraid of thunder!"), and reassures her that it's not electricity that causes thunder, but dwarfs bowling in the sky.

Perhaps the exaggeration of the age difference actually serves to keep the Freudian monsters at bay. By focusing on Su-Su as a little girl, Kirby reassures himself and us that his feelings for her are honorable. Surely a man may love a child without it being something kinky. Yet as always, actions speak louder than words. He invites her to share his room on the train, and then climbs into her bed to hold her in his arms during the thunderstorm. He can't stop looking at her and smiling wherever she goes, and when one of the cadets at his school makes a pass at her, he is clearly jealous.

The film wastes no opportunity to emphasize Su-Su's sexuality. The train conductor wonders that she seems "too filled out" for twelve ("gland trouble," she assures him). The military school cadets behave precisely as one would expect a group of under-socialized teenage boys to behave when Ginger Rogers is thrown in their midst. In response to which Kirby takes Su-Su aside to explain "the facts of life," during which conversation he assures her how attractive he thinks she is, and that if he looks at her through one eye and squints a little, she almost looks grown up.

Su-Su all grown up
In spite of the moral ambiguity surrounding the central romance, our allegiances are neatly aligned for us: Major Kirby is a good man who is somehow being sucked into marriage to a self-centered bitch who is doing her best to keep him at the academy and out of active service. It is the self-assigned task of Su-Su and Lucy to make sure Kirby gets the transfer he desperately wants, enabling him to risk life and limb in the service of freedom etc. It was 1941, after all, so a plot reminding us how sweet and fitting it is to serve one's country (as long as that country is America) is a firm prerequisite.

However, this delightfully patriotic jail-bait romance is anything but cumbersome.The comedy is fresh and inventive, as when the cadets tell Su-Su that the girls at Mrs. Shackleford's school have been hit with an epidemic--"They all think they're Veronica Lake"--and we see an unending line of girls with an identical swoop of hair over the right eye, including the aging Mrs. Shackleford herself. The story moves along at a brisk clip, and a laugh is never far away.

It's nice to know there are some things you can count on in life. If you're looking for witty and urbane social comedy, try Lubitsch. If you want a hearty dose of eight-cylinder optimism, Capra's your man. And in fine Wilder form, The Major and the Minor delivers a riotous good time, laugh out loud humor, and a heaping helping of taboo-nudging sexual innuendo.

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