27 Days With Billy Wilder And Me

Every Movie He Directed…From Mauvaise Graine to Buddy Buddy

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Day Two: The Major and the Minor

July 1st, 2011 · No Comments · 1942, Adaptation, Charles Brackett, Day Two, Ginger Rogers, Inciting Incident, Major and the Minor, Mid Point, Plot Point I, Plot Point II, Ray Milland

The Major and the MinorBilly Wilder’s second movie, The Major and the Minor, a light comedy starring Ray Milland and Ginger Rogers, was released in 1942. Billy was 36 years old.

The Major and the Minor is Billy Wilder’s American-movie debut. According to film historian Robert Osbourne, Billy chose a light comedy — with a sure-fire box-office cast — to ensure that he’d be given subsequent opportunities to direct. It worked.

Billy co-wrote the script with Charles Brackett (1892–1969), Billy’s writing partner before his long association with co-writer I.A.L. Diamond.

Principle Cast:
Major Kirby………………………………..Ray Milland (1907 – 1986)
Susan Applegate…………………………Ginger Rogers (1911 – 1995)

I like the synopsis of the movie on the Internet Movie Database. It’s succinct and descriptive: “A woman disguises herself as a child to save on a train fare and is taken in charge by an army man who doesn’t notice the truth.” (By the way, the reason why I’m watching Billy Wilder’s movies is to study his screenplays, as well as his prowess as a director. Plus, I just like his damn movies.)

Proper screenwriting structure calls for a number of things to happen, at certain prescribed times, within the telling of the story. The first such thing to happen is called the Inciting Incident. The Inciting Incident is something that happens to the protagonist or because of the protagonist. It “incites” the movie to begin. It starts the story moving forward. The Inciting Incident should occur as soon as possible, often within the first 10 minutes of a movie.

The Inciting Incident of The Major and the Minor occurs when Ginger Rogers’ character (Susan Applegate) sees a mother with a young daughter and even younger son buying half-fare tickets for kids under 12 tickets at the train station. Because Susan lacks enough money to purchase an adult-fare ticket back home, she decides to pose as a 12-year-old girl. That moment occurs at the 9:38 mark and it sets the movie in motion. (For example, if Susan doesn’t pretend to be a 12-year-old girl, she doesn’t get on the train and she doesn’t meet the Major. So this is a turning point in the telling of the story.)

Plot Point I, the next important “thing to happen” in a script, is that which usually occurs just before Act II and is the event or action that ushers the story into longest act in a three-act structure. Plot Point I occurs at the 18:07 mark when Susan, chased by two conductors who caught on to her charade, ducks into a car on the train occupied by the Major. Now the audience will wonder, “What happens next?” …and keep watching to find out.

The next significant milestone is what’s called the Mid Point. It happens exactly as you’d think from its name: half way through the movie. The Mid Point is like a roller coaster cresting a hill. It’s there to help keep the audience hooked, and watching through the remainder of the long second act. (Act II is the longest in a three-act structure and remarkable skill is required to keep the audience watching for an hour or so.)

The Mid Point of The Major and the Minor occurs about 56 minutes into the film. Susan is in the Major’s office. He’s trying to tell her about the birds and the bees (and to watch out for all of the young military cadets who are coming on to her) when he says this to her:

“Very nice eyes, and good straight legs and there’s a sort of glow to your hair. I was watching you in the mess hall this afternoon.”

As creepy as this scene is — if you keep in mind the Major is falling for what appears to be a 12-year-old girl — it reveals that Susan has feelings for the Major, and the Major realizes he feels something for Susan, although he knows there’s something odd about her — like she seems much older than she claims to be. Plot Point II comes next. It occurs toward the end of Act II and nudges the movie into Act III, the final act. Plot Point II is a major revelation, a critical event that keeps the audience riveted, wondering how the story will turn out.

In the case of The Major and the Minor, Plot Point II occurs one hour and 21 minutes into the movie. At a party, Mr. Osborne (who was a client of Susan’s back in New York) recognizes Susan for who she is and reveals what he knows to the Major’s fiancee. At this point, the audience knows something bad could happen. But what? What will the Major’s fiancee do with the information? As it turns out, the Major’s fiancee confronts Susan and gives her an ultimatum: leave or a scandal will break out and cost the Major his job with the Army. So Susan leaves. And this begins the third and final act.

The Major and the Minor is a strange movie. For one thing, 31-year-old Ginger Rogers could not possibly appear to be a 12 year old to anyone with eyes. For another, all of the young cadets do an awful lot of hitting on what they think is a 12 year old. I wasn’t aware 12 was an acceptable age for such things.

All in all, I think I like this movie, although I’m not totally sure why. It’s certainly frothy enough. And it ends well. But I stumble over the premise. If she had pretended to be, say, a 16-year-old, then I wouldn’t experience such cognitive dissonance


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