An earlier version of this article first appeared in CTEQ: Annotations on Film published in Metro no. 109 (1997): 53-54.
After watching several of Billy Wilder’s films in the past few years, my love for his refreshing views on women and their behaviours has never waned. Part of my enjoyment stems from a constant sense of bemusement: I often find myself wiping at the smile, feebly attempting to smother the laughter gurgling free from deep inside me. While I deeply admire his masterful ability to latch onto evidently timeless and universal aspects of femininity, the social situations he often places his characters in sometimes borders on the horrendous. Consider the more politically dodgy characterisations such as that of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Sunset Blvd. (1950) (the vain, ageing-thus-fallen star), or Lorraine (Jan Sterling) in Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival, 1951) (the bored, flirtatious housewife stuck in the sticks) which are so accurately horrible as reflections of a particular kind of “woman”. Yet such characters and the filmic moments they inhabit somehow evoke a weird pathos: Wilder’s bittersweet sense of humour imbues them with a powerfully non-stereotypical authenticity and candour. More writers and directors should take notice of such illustrations of women – perfect blends of vivaciousness, satirical bitchiness and just enough innocence to make them poignant and memorable.
The Major and the Minor (1942), Wilder’s American directorial debut, does not disappoint in this regard. Ginger Rogers plays Susan/Sue-Sue Applegate, a beautiful but broke small-town woman. Disgusted and exasperated with the effrontery of lecherous New York men, she disguises herself as a 12 year-old girl in order to travel half-fare home to Iowa. On the train Sue-Sue inadvertently meets Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland), a teacher at a boy’s military academy, to whom she is instantly attracted, and there the farcical romance begins…
The success of the film from the audience’s point of view largely rests on the characters believing Ginger’s masquerade as a 12 year-old girl. This is absurd considering that Ginger Rogers, “that quintessence of the magnificent feminine animal, that dancing partner of Fred Astaire, she of the dazzling golden hair and the magnificent breasts and buttocks”, was one of the war years’ biggest female stars/pin-up girls.1 Wilder enjoys playing with Rogers’ star power, infusing her multiplicitous roles with great one-liners, leaving her character constantly torn between her schoolgirl “snookums” act, and the glam “all-American” woman that we know, and the characters suspect, she is. For example, whenever she is questioned about her stature and rather obvious endowments, she seductively batters her eyelids and meekly informs adults that she is of “Swedish stock”, citing her brother who is six foot two and only in the second grade as another comparative anomaly. When a man bursts her balloon, she starts to holler as a streetwise dame, but checks this and starts to blubber. And in perhaps the film’s quintessentially cynical moment, Wilder piss-takes the Hollywood star factory-making machine, showing us the year’s “epidemic” at the military academy’s annual ball. An entire girl’s college, including the principal, have transformed themselves into shoddy, sullen copies of Veronica Lake – a craze in beauty none of the cadets (nor seemingly any other male at the ball) find as captivating as Sue-Sue’s scrubbed wholesomeness.
Her masquerade as a boisterous, somewhat flirtatious “innocent” leads Sue-Sue into many sticky situations with men, usually followed shortly thereafter by their fiancées or wives. For some reason, the adult women in the film never see Sue-Sue as a threat. Accepting the cutie-pie act, their maternal instincts ooze out of every pore; that is until their men become smitten with her peculiar charm.
Another of the film’s most delicious moments is at the military academy where Sue-Sue is staying at Kirby’s fiancée’s house as his guest. Unsurprisingly, everyone, especially the hormonal adolescent cadets, finds Sue-Sue’s “qualities” highly desirable. In shiftwork-like procession, the boys attempt to put the school’s apparent rank-and-file theory of l’amour into practice. However, Kirby inadvertently stumbles across her wriggling under a cadet attempting the “sure fire” Maginot Line manoeuvre. During the ensuing sequence, the audience and Susan are painfully made aware of Kirby’s suppressed attraction for Ginger-as-Sue-Sue. Bumbling along through a spiel about the facts of life, Kirby compares her vitality to the inner power of a light bulb and suggests she should remain ever cautious of “the moth’s” advances. Recounting a previous crush on a dancing instructor as a teenager, he tells her how his love affairs are “always off schedule 20 or 30 years” and that through squinted eyes she could be a beautiful woman. Thereafter we see Kirby constantly screwing up his eyes in order to distort and invent a mind’s-eye picture of Sue-Sue-as-Ginger, who we already know is the dazzling Ginger-as-Susan. Kirby continues to struggle with his views of Sue-Sue until the final shot of the film, which I refuse to give away. Suffice to say it is perhaps one of cinema’s most bizarre, verging on perverse, moments.
In this closing scene, it becomes apparent that Wilder’s success lies in his ability to constantly efface chauvinism, perversity and slander. Purely by suggestion, utilising farce, cynicism and a wicked sense of industry self-reflexivity, Wilder cunningly holds our hand and leads us down his ever-forking paths.
The Major and the Minor (1942 USA 100 mins)
Prod Co: Paramount Pictures Prod: Arthur Hornblow Jr. Dir: Billy Wilder Scr: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, based on the story “Sunny Goes Home” by Fanny Kilbourne and the play Connie Comes Home by Edward Childs Carpenter Phot: Leo Tover Ed: Doane Harrison Art Dir: Hans Dreier, Roland Anderson Cost: Edith Head Mus: Robert Emmett Dolan
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson, Robert Benchley, Diana Lynn, Edward Fielding
- Maurice Zolotow, Billy Wilder in Hollywood (London: W. H. Allen, 1977), p 104. ↩