The Major and the Minor - 1942

She bought a ticket to ride

Billy Wilder said he became a film director because he wanted to protect his scripts, and the rather unusual arrangement of characters and circumstances in The Major and the Minor (his first directed film) probably needed protecting.

Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland) has a "bum eye" and so he can't quite see what other characters in this film see: that Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers), pretending to be 12-year old "Su-Su Applegate" is definitely not a 12 year old child, though the childish outfit, a strategically placed balloon and a "little girl" voice helps a lot.

Why is she pretending to be 12 years old? When we first see Ginger in New York City as a professional young woman working for a "scalp massage" company that sends her out to make house calls, we also see that this leads to a lot of harassment and come-ons ("get out of that wet outfit and into a dry martini" customer Robert Benchley says when she shows up on assignment). At the end of her rope with New York City thwarting her efforts for acceptable employment, she quits her job in frustration on the spot by mashing an egg over the top of Benchley's head (an egg is part of the formula for the hair massage) and for good measure minutes later she mashes one down on the head of a leering elevator operator before she exits the building.

Next we see her at the train station with her emergency fund of $27.50 which was what it cost her to come to New York City in the first place two years prior. She's buying a ticket to go back home to Iowa and her mother (who is ironically played by Lela Rogers, Ginger's actual mom); however, in the last two years, train tickets have gone up and she now needs $32.50 to get home and she doesn't have enough cash. Realizing that children of 12 years and below can ride for half-fare, she dresses up in a slightly ridiculous young girl's outfit and with a helium balloon hovering near her face she enlists a con man to pretend to be buying a ticket for his "daughter" to help put over her ticketing ruse (whether in the attitude of a few of the characters on screen "in the know" or in the knowledge shared only with the audience, we see a lot of ruses are continually being pulled on somebody else throughout The Major and the Minor).

Once she is on the train, though, the conductors collecting the tickets are not really convinced she's 12 years old and keep a watchful eye out. When later they're clearly no longer fooled, she escapes by fleeing thru the train and takes refuge in a random train compartment. This turns out to belong to belong to Major Philip Kirby (Milland) who is immediately convinced of the masquerade and takes charge of helping "Su-su" travel on and away from the conductors who she says "scare me."

Major Philip becomes "Uncle Philip" and "Su-su" becomes his niece to facilitate their traveling together easier for everyone they meet to understand, and this blossoms into a long episode at a military academy for boys where Major Kirby works. "Su-su" quickly becomes the star attraction in this facility teaming with testosterone and young men who want to talk about military strategy with Su-su while also attempting other strategies that are similar to what she already faced in New York, but here looks a lot sillier.

Meanwhile, Major Kirby's fiancée (Rita Johnson) is scheming behind his back to thwart his military career goals which includes the risk of combat duty, and this relationship allows Wilder to mirror Susan Applegate's problem from a male angle, that is, Milland's character is desired not as an actual person but as a distinguished and handsome accessory to a woman's vanity, "arm candy" from a different gender angle.

In general, Wilder's script has Milland's Major Kirby playing an honorable and chivalrous man in The Major and the Minor which isn't exactly risky for a 1942 Hollywood production, but the story circumstances creates risky situations just by having the oblivious Ray Milland and the quite cognizant Ginger in disguise as a young girl being thrown together (such as ending up together on the same sleeping bunk during a lightning storm outside of the train); Wilder lets the audience know how easily this whole arraignment could "go sideways," as the kids say in the 21st century. It never does, of course, and that is part of the film's light-hearted charm, though the darkness of sexual harassment lingers just under the rocks as we travel from New York to Iowa.

With Wilder holding the reins, Ray Milland stays in the dark about the 12-year old "Su-su" because of his "bum eye," until the subliminal attraction between the two leads and the genuine affection between them finally aligns together in an agreeable, and importantly, legal way.

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Original Page March 1, 2024 | Updated April 9, 2024