Major and the Minor, The (1942): Billy Wilder’s (Minor) American Debut

Escaping Germany, Billy Wilder directed on film in France, Mauvaise Graine, starring Danielle Darrieux, on his way to Hollywood, where he embarked on a successful screenwriting career.

In 1942, Wilder made his Hollywood feature debut with The Major and the Minor, a romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland.

Grade: B- (**1/2* out of *****)

The Major and the Minor

Theatrical release poster

Rogers was then at her prime, having won the Best Actress Oscar for “Kitty Foyle,” two years earlier, and having demonstrated quite an impressive range in musicals, comedies and dramas.  Milland would win the Best Actor Oscar for wilder’s 1945 more serious drama, “The Lost Weekend,” in which he plays an alcoholic

In this tale, Rogers plays Susan Applegate, a young woman living in New York City.  Nearly broke and tired of the hustle and bustle of Big City life, she decides to go back home in Iowa.

However, lacking money to buy a train ticket, she pretends to be a tall, eleven years old girl, answering to the name of Sue-Sue, so that she can pay only half of the regular price.

The scheme does not last long, as the train conductors catch on it and force her to stay in the car of Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland). Soon, the kindly major reciprocates by “adopting” the “lost little girl.”  Other unanticipated circumstances encourage Susan to play along and accompany him to the local military academy.

It is within the walls of this institution that all kinds of adventures and misadventures occur. For one thing, the attractive girl has to deal with the unwelcome romantic attentions of several cadets, which complicates her genuine attraction to Major Kirby, despite the fact that he is engaged.

Rendering a charming performance, Rogers finds the balance between conveying sexual provocation and demure innocence, and there’s good chemistry between her and leading man Milland.

Though it was Wilder’s first US film as director, co-written with frequent collaborator Charles Brackett, several motifs which would recur in the auteur’s future (and better) outings are already present, such as deception (of self and others), disguise (physical and emotional), the power of sharp dialogue and bon mots.

While not one of Wilder’s best features, The Major and the Minor contains moments of sparkling and effervescing farce, a mode that the director would refine in future efforts.

Ginger Rogers as Susan Kathleen Applegate
Ray Milland as Major Philip Kirby
Rita Johnson as Pamela Hill
Diana Lynn as Lucy Hill
Edward Fielding as Colonel Oliver Slater Hill
Robert Benchley as Albert Osborne
Norma Varden as Mrs. Osborne
Frankie Thomas as Cadet Clifford Osborne
Raymond Roe as Cadet Lt. Anthony Wigton
Charles Smith as Cadet Korner
Larry Nunn as Cadet Babcock
Billy Dawson as Cadet Miller
Lela E. Rogers as Mrs. Applegate, Susan’s mother
Richard Fiske as Will Duffy, Susan’s fiancee
Aldrich Bowker as Reverend Doyle
Boyd Irwin as Major Griscom
Byron Shores as Captain Durand
Tom Dugan as Con man “dad” at train station


Directed by Billy Wilder
Produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.
Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, based on Connie Goes Home (1923 play)
by Edward Childs Carpenter “Sunny Goes Home,” 1921 story in The Saturday Evening Post by Fannie Kilbourne
Music by Robert Emmett Dolan
Cinematography Leo Tover
Edited by Doane Harrison
Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release date: September 16, 1942

Running time: 100 minutes
Box office $2.5 million (rentals)