FEBRUARY IS BILLY WILDER MONTH
I’m giving myself a birthday present this year by making February Billy Wilder Month. Wilder, one of my favorite writers and directors, has recently had much of his work remastered and restored from a variety of distributors, via the Blu-Ray format. Chronologically, it’s appropriate that we begin with Billy’s first directorial effort, the sparkling, risqué and downright hilarious 1942 comedy THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, now in a terrific 1080p transfer from the folks at Arrow Films/MVDvisual/Universal Pictures.
Wilder hit the ground running with this in-your-face Production Code buster (too clever for the right wingers on the Board to grasp) concerning wartime probs on the homefront. Aside from one of the greatest titles of all-time, MatM shines with the Viennese émigré’s already trademark dagger-sharp wit (from his script with Charles Brackett; suggested from a play by Edward Childs Carpenter and a story by Fannie Kilbourne) concerning a gorgeous small-town woman’s breaking point with being pinched, compromised, rubbed up against, and otherwise sexually harassed in 1941 Manhattan.
Susan Applegate, a smart and sassy Midwesterner, vowed that if (over an allotted period of time) New York City to be a disaster area, she would return to her tiny hamlet and marry the goofball next door. To this end, she has set aside return trip train fare. Her final encounter (she’s an in-call hair egg shampoo and scalp massager) with a lecherous one-percenter in his apartment while the wife’s away is the last straw. Mushing him in the puss (along with the pimply elevator operator), Applegate makes a beeline toward Grand Central, only to discover the rail fare has gone up. Thinking fast, she retreats to the ladies room, loses the makeup, and re-emerges as a 12-year-old – hoping to take advantage of the half-price for adolescents.
The train ride, too, is a harrowing experience, as Susan (now-SuSu), is watched by suspicious conductors. Countering inquiries about her height by explaining she’s from Swedish stock, Applegate is asked to recite something in her Scandinavian tongue. “I vant to be alone!” is her response that only further irritates the train crew but guarantees to rupture any and all viewers with laughter.
Escaping into what she perceives to be an empty compartment, the grown woman ends up spending the night with a kindly, understanding young major en route to his post at a teen military academy.
That’s where this riotous farce really begins although it’s a never-ending hoot from beginning to end.
Certainly the cast makes it and Wilder couldn’t have asked for a better leading lady than Ginger Rogers, here at her post-Astaire peak. Rogers’ timing is impeccable and she and the director got on famously. Ray Milland, as the perplexed and conflicted major, chalks up another comic coup in his still-evolving career (he had previously scored in two scripted Wilder outings, Arise, My Love and uncredited assist on French without Tears). Two other key members of the roster include the vastly underrated Diana Lynn as the genius science-obsessed teenage sister of skanky Rita Johnson, the waspy fiancée of Milland’s Major Philip Kirby – supposedly supporting his desire to get into the fight, but, in reality scheming with her D.C. contacts to keep him out of the fray (not cool in 1942). Bringing up the rear (so to speak) is the great Robert Benchley as the horndog Big Apple predator, whose son is a cadet at the academy (and every bit a creep as his dad). There’s also Tom Dugan, Norma Varden, Charles Smith, Frankie Thomas, Aldrich Bowker, Blossom Rock, Stanley Andrews, Mary Field, Dell Henderson, Milton Kibbee and Will Wright.
The gags are fast and furious, both visually and verbally. A Veronica Lake snipe still bowls me over (Wilder harbored a particular distaste for the actress, referring to her as “Moronica Lake”). And the dialog is consistently Wilder-wild, fresh and brilliantly funny.
SIDEBAR 1: the aforementioned Lynn would appear in a 1955 Martin & Lewis MAJOR AND THE MINOR redux, You’re Never Too Young (as Dean’s love interest).
SIDEBAR 2: Paramount M&L remakes always cast cartoonish Jerry Lewis in parts previously portrayed by women (Living it Up, You’re Never Too Young) or POC (Scared Stiff); talk about Hollywood pecking order!
Wilder was naturally nervous during the commencement of MAJOR AND THE MINOR, resulting in a terrible and embarrassing bout with diarrhea. Wondering if he was equipped to direct, he contacted his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch (for whom he had cowritten Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka). Lubitsch calmed him down, stating the runs were a sign of dedication, adding that “I’ve been crapping in my pants for the first two weeks [of every production] for twenty years!”
Wilder’s other concerns regarded how the scenes cut together. Sometimes the continuity seemed off. Editor Doane Harrison became a constant companion on the set, and guided the novice as to set-ups and framing. Harrison would become a permanent member of the Wilder unit, eventually serving as associate producer until his death in 1968.
Rogers’ own mother, Lela, even got into the act, playing SuSu/Susan’s mom in the last act, with a jaw-dropping lookalike Ginger herself disguised as mater for a confrontation with the bewildered Major Kirby. Indeed, Milland’s Kirby is one of the most tortured characters in pre-1950 cinema, especially for a comedy. It’s okay for Rogers’ Susan to be falling for the officer (she’s a twentysomething playing a role); but his anguish is another story and increasingly omnipresent, essentially presenting a grown adult male sexually obsessed with a supposed twelve-year-old. It bothered Paramount, too, but the censors fortunately missed those moments (and they ARE there).
The Arrow Films Blu-Ray of THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR is wonderful, shimmering in a beautiful remaster from 35mm materials (what a joy to see Leo Tover’s cinematography this way; an excellent mono soundtrack, featuring Robert Emmett Dolan’s delightful score, is yet another treat). A number of enticing extras append the platter including a 1943 radio adaptation, featuring the two leads, a 1975 audio interview with Milland, commentary by Adrian Martin, the theatrical trailer, and an image gallery.
A textbook on how Hollywood pros got around the Production Code and still remained in top form, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, a Forties smash hit with critics and audiences alike, is a comedy classic worthy of any collector’s library shelf.
THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR. Black and white; Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition. 1.0 PCM audio. Arrow Films/MVDvisual/Universal Pictures. CAT # AA051. SRP: $39.95.