Friday, May 3, 2013

13. The Major and the Minor

1942; dir. Billy Wilder; starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland
My views: 13

This was one of the first "old movies" my mom got from the library to watch with me, and is one of the major reasons why I fell in love with them (pun slightly intended).  It was also the first film I wrote down in 2003 (although I'd seen it before then, and I also probably saw a few movies earlier in 2003 and forgot to write them down), so in a way it's the movie that's most responsible for this blog.  It's also one of the main reasons I'm such a huge Ginger Rogers fan.  So The Major and the Minor is kind of a big deal to me.

It was the second Ginger Rogers movie I ever saw.  The first was the 1965 TV version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, which my grandparents had on VHS and I watched throughout my childhood.  I remember one viewing in particular when we got to the part when Cinderella and the prince are off dancing together, and the king turns to the queen and says, "May I have this dance, Your Majesty?" and she replies, "I was wondering when you were ever going to ask me, Your Majesty!"  As they stepped out onto the dance floor this particular time, my mom turned to me and said, "They put that in there to be funny because that actress was a famous dancer."  I have no idea why this stuck with me because at the time I had no clue who Ginger Rogers was or that she would one day become one of my all-time favorite actresses.  Anyway, I kind of like that my first introductions to her were outside the context of Fred Astaire's dance partner because, while she did that indescribably well, she was so much more than that.  The Major and the Minor in particular, in addition to Monkey Business and Stage Door, helps demonstrate her incredible comedic talent.  I've read reviews saying she was miscast in this movie because she doesn't look 12 at all.  I would agree with those people if she was playing a 12-year-old, but she's not: she's playing a 30-year-old character who's kind of failing at pretending to be 12.  Then later in the film, she's playing a 30-year-old pretending to be the 40-year-old mother of the 12-year-old she was pretending to be earlier.  In my opinion, she pulls all this off flawlessly.  The audience is never supposed to think she's 12, and they're supposed to think it's ridiculous that other people believe that she is.  And, like I said in my Monkey Business post, Ginger Rogers is hilarious at playing a grown up child, so if nothing else it would be fun to watch from that standpoint alone.  But it's more than that.  In Monkey Business she plays a character who, at given times, truly thinks she is a child.  In The Major and the Minor, her character's always perfectly conscious of how ridiculous her situation is, and that is conveyed to the audience through subtle facial expressions and mannerisms that are missed by the other characters.  The two main things I love about this film are: first, it was one of the first to show me how awesome movies from the 1940's were; and second, it gives Ginger Rogers a chance to demonstrate her acting talents in a way that few of her roles permitted.

Yes, on the surface, it's a totally ridiculous story.  A woman can't afford her train ticket home so she disguises herself as a 12-year-old so she can pay half fare, and ends up running into a military academy instructor and having to go with him to prove to his fiancĂ©e that she's a little kid and not some woman he's having an affair with.  Confused yet?  Anyway, in the hands of a lesser director, it might have been a silly, semi-entertaining yet forgettable film.  But this is Billy Wilder we're talking about.  He knew what he was doing.  Like most good comedies there's deeper meaning behind the silliness.  To me, especially watching when I was 12, it's always been kind of sad to see how out of touch with childhood adults can become.  Susan Applegate has no idea how to act like a 12-year-old, but it doesn't matter because most of the other adults she comes across don't question it.  The only person who figures it out is an actual 12-year-old girl, who quips, "You're not 12 just because you're acting like 6."  I know that this is an extreme example, and in reality this sort of thing probably wouldn't happen, but there's an element of truth behind this exaggeration.  Adults can forget what it was like to be a kid.  From the first time I saw this movie, I vowed I wouldn't let that happen to me.

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