There was no love lost between Billy Wilder and film director Mitchell Leisen. Over the course of many interviews Billy expressed his strong feelings that Leisen ruined his scripts, he had no regard for the written word, changing, moving and deleting lines without a thought to storyline. Yet in Cameron Crowe’s essential “Conversations with Wilder,” Billy states, “Midnight, that was a good picture.” The distaste for Leisen seems to stem more from the making of “Hold Back the Dawn,” the final film Wilder, and his partner Charles Brackett, wrote for Leisen (their final screenplay before Wilder embarked on his directing career was “Ball of Fire” for Howard Hawks who Wilder admired). “As a director,” Wilder said to Crowe, “he was alright. You could get to be an old man writing just Mitch Leisen pictures.” In “Hold Back the Dawn,” there was a scripted scene involving a cockroach that was never filmed. Wilder and Brackett worked on this scene for many long hours but Charles Boyer refused to talk to a cockroach as the script dictated, a bit which would have showed a softer side to his character. Leisen, siding with his star, just cut the scene out without regard. This burned Billy and they fought and fought but Billy, just a writer, low in the Hollywood hirarchy, lost the battle. In Leisen’s defense, one just has to take a look at “Midnight” and “Hold Back the Dawn” and ask how bad can he have destroyed them? Both of these films are good and still contain the wit and intelligence of Wilder’s and Brackett’s work. What’s lacking, is the acidic cynicism that Wilder’s self directed films contained throughout much of his career. I liked that cynicism, it is part of what separated and defined Wilder from most everyone else.
Leisen was a successful and popular director whose films some claim were only as good as the script he was working with. “Hands Across the Table” was penned by Norma Krasna. “Easy Living” and “Remember the Night” had Preston Sturges brilliance behind it, Sturges was another writer who had many of his own disagreements with Leisen. By 1941, Sturges had already paved the way for screenwriters to direct their own scripts with “The Great McGinty.” Wilder and Brackett were Paramount’s top screenwriters and from most reports, including Billy himself, the studio heads did not want Billy to direct but they gave him a chance figuring the film would flop, he would get the directing urge out of his system and go back to script writing full time.
What Wilder and Brackett decided to do was something commercial, a sure fire kind of film that could not miss. The tale they came up with was based on a play by Edward Childs Carpenter called “Connie Goes Home,” about a young twenty year old woman who came to New York for a career as an actress. Meeting with no success and much sexual harassment she decides to go back home. Lacking money for train fare she masquerades as a young girl of 13. The play opened on Broadway in 1923 and lasted all of 20 performances. The playwright based his play on a 1921 Saturday Evening Post story called “Sunny Goes Home.” From here Wilder and Brackett concocted the story of Susan Applegate, alias Susu Applegate.
We meet Susan Applegate, a scalp masseuse who came to New York from Stevenson, Iowa on her way to an appointment with another unsavory client (Robert Benchley). After escaping from the lecherous man’s claws, fed up with one loser job after another, she decides to give up and head back home, using $27.50 she kept in an envelope for train fare back home just in case this situation occurred. But when she arrives at Grand Central Station to purchase her ticket, it turns out the fare has gone up and she does not have the additional money needed for a ticket. Dejected, she notices a young girl under twelve was able to get a ticket for half price. Bells go off and Susan heads for the ladies room, soon to resurface as a dubious facsimile of a young twelve year old girl named Susu Applegate. She manages to buy a half price ticket with the help of a shifty father like figure who soaks her for most of her leftover money. On the train she meets Major Philip Kirby (Ray Milland) who quickly becomes smitten with the young child. Uncle Philip as he quickly becomes known takes the “little girl” under his wing. Due to a severe rainstorm and flooding the train is unable to get through to Stevenson, Iowa, so Uncle Philip insist Suse accompany him to the military school where he is stationed until she can get safely home. Here she meets Pamela (Rita Johnson), the snobby daughter of Philip’s commanding officer, and disappointingly, Philip’s fiancé. Susu also meets Pamela’s precocious younger sister Lucy (Diana Lynn) who is the only one who clearly and quickly sees through Susu’s masquerade.
Though Wilder claims he was going to make a commercial and popular piece of entertainment, he purposely, or maybe he just could not help himself, subverts his own intentions. For the attentive audience, there is an abundance of subtext that could be read into many of the lines. While Milland’s Major Kirby comes off as a squeaky clean father figure there is a darker Lolita like mood that comes to mind at times when the Major discusses for example, the effect Susu has on some of the young military schoolboy cadets with his own internal feelings uncomfortably getting into the mix. In the film’s final scene, the Major is waiting for the train that will take him to California for deployment to his next assignment overseas. Susan, who has fallen in love with him, appears at the station dressed now as her adult self. After catching the Major’s attention she kisses him and the Major’s eyes light up in recognition, “Susu”, he says to his pleasant surprise, fully suggesting his inner desires for the “little” girl. Surprisingly, the censors of the day complained little or they just ignored the potentially risqué situations.
One of the wittiest and best know lines happens early on when Susan is still in New York working as a masseuse and arrives at the hotel for an appointment with her client, Robert Benchley, who is more interested in plying Susan with drink and providing her with a rubdown himself. It is during this scene when Benchley comes out with the now classic line “Why don’t you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini.” (1)
“The Major and the Minor” remains a film of its time. It is doubtful that a woman with a figure like Ginger Rogers would be believable as a twelve year old girl today. There is a willing suspension of disbelief that must be accepted and probably would not be with today’s more sophisticated audiences and mature kids. Then again, Susu’s disguise is more believable than Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dressed as women in Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot.” Audiences still bought into this pair though they make two of the oddest looking females to ever grace the screen. Wilder and Brackett assisted nicely in this buy-in early in their script with a train scene where Susu is approached by two conductors who suspect she is too big for a twelve year old. Susu claims to come from hardy big boned Swedish stock. “If you’re Swedish, suppose you say something in Swedish,” one of the conductors tells her. Susu responds, “I vant to be alone.”
Wilder wanted Cary Grant for the role of the Major, but Ray Milland was under contract at Paramount and the studio was not about to spend the money to borrow Grant for the novice director. This scenario would play out again some years later when Alfred Hitchcock wanted Grant for his screen version of “Dial M for Murder” but Warner Brothers was not willing to spend the money and Milland again got the role. Credit must be given to Ray Milland for a rather charming performance and never turning the role into that of a dirty leering old man. Getting Ginger Rogers for the role of Susan/Susu was a coup for Wilder; she had just won the Oscar for her role in “Kitty Foyle,” receiving much acclaim for a non singing/dancing role. One of her many highlights as Susu is when she attempts to sway a young cadet away from his duty at the telephone switchboard by doing a short tap dance and declaring, “I can dance!” Ginger also plays her own grandmother toward the end of the film, and that is Ginger’s real life mother who plays Susan’s mother. Finally, there is Diana Lynn whose performance as the nerdy, bright Lucy who befriends Susan/Susu is a pure delight.
(1) The origin of this line was credited to Robert Benchley by Billy Wilder however, Benchley credits the line to a friend of his named Charles Butterworth who in the 1937 Mae West film, “Every Day’s a Holiday” says to Charles Winninger, “You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.” Since West is credited with writing the script, it can be assumed she is the originator of this quote.