Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Life is a Masquerade, Old Chum: “The Major and the Minor” and ”Irma la Douce”

My colleague Joe McBride, whose Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge has been my recent guide to the full Wilder canon, considers Some Like It Hot a perfect film. He also views this story of two male musicians who escape a vengeful pack of mobsters by disguising themselves as woman as a prime example of Wilder’s fascination with masquerades. So it is, but other Wilder comedies also revolve around characters who transform themselves physically, with unexpected consequences.

 I’m thinking of two films from opposite ends of Wilder’s long Hollywood career. The Major and the Minor, from 1942, was the very first American movie that Wilder directed. Irma la Douce (1963) was a major box-office hit, closely following his back-to-back artistic triumphs, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment (the latter of which earned Wilder three Oscars in a single night).

 The Major and the Minor (what a wonderful title!) is a lighter-than-air comedy in which Ginger Rogers—as a young woman sick of trying to find decent work in New York City—decides to return to her Iowa hometown. Trouble is: she hasn’t enough money to pay the full train fare. But kids under 12 can ride for half-price, and so she dives into her suitcase and comes up with an outfit that (almost) makes her look like an innocent kid who’s going to be 12 next week, someone traveling west to visit Grandma. As an adult female in New York City visiting clients as a scalp-massager (!), she has run into her share of old letches. (The prime one is played by Robert Benchley, who tries out on her the famous line about getting out of wet clothes and into a dry martini.) But on the train she’s pursued by two conductors who catch her, in little-girl garb, smoking on the rear platform. Looking for a hiding place, she dashes into the compartment of Ray Milland, an Army major with a warm heart and obviously poor eyesight, who takes pity on the young tyke and insists she spend the night in his unused lower berth. He’s returning to the midwestern military school where he teaches, but his battle-axe fiancée (the general’s daughter) is less charmed than he is by little miss SuSu.

 This being a fairy-tale of sorts, our SuSu survives with her spunk intact, unmolested by either a lecherous grown-up or by the teen-aged cadets who are drooling over her charms. When she ultimately unveils herself to the major as an adult woman, he seems happy but not particularly fazed by the turnabout (No one’s perfect, right?), and they’re making plans to marry.

 Rogers’ Susan is hardly a prostitute, but her role-playing puts her somewhat in line with Shirley MacLaine’s Irma la Douce, the premiere poule of Les Halles. This candy-colored romance opens with short vignettes in which Irma is seen increasing her take by telling her johns (it’s France, so maybe they’re Jeans?) sob stories that wring from them additional francs. Irma is a terrific liar, but in her way she’s a highly principled young woman, who wouldn’t dream of cheating her mec (or pimp) out of her full earnings. When Jack Lemmon graduates from being a flic (cop) to being a mec, she shows her love for him by insisting she’s obliged to keep working, on his behalf. Which is why he has to put on an act of his own, disguising himself as a lovelorn but antique British lord who lavishes money on Irma but only wants to play double solitaire. As always, amour wins out, and with it Hollywood respectability for all concerned.



  1. Hiya Beverly, VERY good piece, WHY? Because you were somehow able to make those totally implausible plots understandable, I had to really slow down my reading speed just to grasp what was happening during those contorted films. Actually, reading those plots convinced me that LSD was popular in Hollywood LONG before Dr. Leary told the rest of us about it. AND, about your basement, I was probably the only one who noticed, remember, I’m the strangest guy who ever was enchanted by your talents. PS The only one of those films I liked was “The Apartment.” LOVED Jack in “Kill The Tiger” and “Glen Gary Glen Ross.” Peace.

  2. Basement? In Southern California, we don't (mostly) have no stinkin' basements. Thanks, as always, for your enthusiasm, Bob!

  3. Perhaps “no stink in’ basements’ in Southern California but I’ll bet Eli Wallach actually has some “stinkin’ badges’ under that Mexican costume. Stay Safe.

  4. You too, Bob. Maybe the basement's the safest place for you and yours!