Second Sight: 'The Major and the Minor'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2013, 3:59pm

The Major and the Minor

A thirty-something army officer finds himself increasing attracted to a girl he believes to be barely 12 years old - it's a plot point that wouldn't get past today's censors, let alone a studio's legal department.

All the more amazing is that seven decades ago, such a conceit was at the heart of one of the biggest hits of 1942. Even more remarkably in today's politically correct climate, The Major and the Minor still shines as a comedy classic, a testament to the brilliance of Billy Wilder.

It was the Austrian refugee's first directorial effort in Hollywood, but hardly his first experience with the American screen. His scenarios for Ninotchka (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and Ball of Fire (1941) had already earned him three Oscar nominations (he would eventually amass another 18, including six wins). With Wilder holding the director's megaphone, the nuances of his European sophistication, aided and abetted by writing partner Charles Brackett's irreverently American spirit and fine ear for the local idiom, reached new heights.

The script's numerous plays on words begins with the title, cleverly encapsulating the sense of fun as Ginger Rogers masquerades as a juvenile to save a train fare, only to be befriended aboard by an army major (Ray Milland) for whom she falls head over heels in love. The story strands intertwine into a web of tinseltown fantasy so skilfully woven by Wilder that it's easy for audiences to suspend disbelief.

As would be the case in future Wilder pictures, the film is perfectly cast down to the bit players, with 15-year-old Diana Lynn stealing the spotlight as an adolescent who proves wiser than most of the adults.

Movie buffs will find another source of joy in the then-contemporary entertainment world allusions, from Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer (stars of the films for which Wilder received his first two Oscar nods) to Major Bowes and a hilarious reference to Veronica Lake.

Paul Fonoroff

The Major and the Minor, today, 2pm, HK Film Archive. Part of the Restored Treasures programme