Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Minor Matter of Make-Believe

"You should be very glad I'm not 12. I was a very straightforward child. I used to spit."

Susan (Ginger Rogers)

One of the things I enjoy most about my informal study of movies is observing how styles — both acting and directorial — evolve over time.

Take Billy Wilder, for example. He was a fledgling director when his comedy "The Major and the Minor" premiered on this date 75 years ago. There were many great movies in his future, movies that would bring him fame and fortune and half a dozen Oscars.

But the seeds for the things he did in those classic triumphs — like "Some Like It Hot" — were planted in his earliest efforts.

The female star of "The Major and the Minor" was Ginger Rogers. She was 31 years old — and had to play a woman who posed as a girl of 12 to get half fare on a train ticket. That was the premise of the story.

It was a preposterous premise.

No one who saw Ginger Rogers could be expected to believe she was 12 years old at that time. It was so remarkable that the tag line for the movie — the line that appeared on every poster — was "Is she a kid — or is she kidding?"

But I saw a clip of Wilder speaking about what he learned from "The Major and the Minor." He said he learned that audiences could accept and go along with outrageous notions — like a 31–year–old woman being mistaken for a girl less than half her age — under certain circumstances — like if you made viewers feel they were being let in on something.

That lesson served him well when he made "Some Like It Hot" more than 15 years later. After all, no one would have mistaken Jack Lemmon or Tony Curtis for women, but audiences could accept them as men who were posing as women because they knew why they were doing it.

It was the same logic, I suppose, that made dress–wearing Klinger one of the most popular characters on the TV show M*A*S*H. (Of course, Klinger wasn't posing as a woman nor was he a transvestite. He was pretending to be crazy so he would be discharged from the Army.)

It was probably easier to accept the gag when you saw how much Rogers seemed to be enjoying playing the part. In fact, I have heard that it was her favorite of all her movies — surprisingly, above "Kitty Foyle," which brought Rogers her Best Actress Oscar two years earlier.

Being an Oscar winner brings with it certain privileges, and by 1942 Rogers was in position to insist on certain things. One of the things she insisted on was having Wilder as the movie's director. It was a significant moment in his career.

"We had a lot of fun making the picture. It was that kind of story. And even though it was his first film, from day one, I saw that Billy knew what to do. He was very sure of himself. He had perfect confidence," Rogers said. "I've never been sorry I made the film. 'The Major and the Minor' really holds up. It's as good now as it was then."

Another person from the movie who would play a big part in Wilder's success was Rogers' male co–star, Ray Milland, who played a paternal Army major from a military academy. The story goes that, upon winning the job of the movie's director, Wilder pulled up at a red light next to Milland and called out to him that he was making a movie. Did Milland want to be in it? Milland said he would, and Wilder sent him a copy of the script. Milland liked it and made the movie.

A few years later, the two of them worked on another movie together, "The Lost Weekend." It won four Oscars — Best Picture, Best Actor and two for Wilder (Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay).

Just goes to show you that your life can change direction suddenly, probably when you least expect it. A seemingly chance encounter at a red light may well have been the catalyst for both men's careers — although I rather suspect both men would have succeeded even if their cars had not been next to each other at a stoplight.

Milland's character was just about the only one who didn't seem to know that Rogers was quite a bit older than she was letting on. He met Rogers on a train, bought the idea that she was really a 12–year–old girl and took her under his wing, encouraging her to call him Uncle Phillip.

Talk about asking the audience to suspend disbelief.

Even Diana Lynn, who played the younger sister of Milland's fiancée, knew that Rogers wasn't 12. Only Milland didn't know — or at least suspect — the truth.

But in true screwball comedy fashion, everything worked out in the end. Milland realized that Rogers was a grown woman, not a 12–year–old girl, promptly fell in love with her and seemed to be en route to a quickie wedding in Reno while traveling to the West Coast.

Only possible in Hollywood, the land of make believe.