The Major and the Minor and Irma La Douce (1942 and 1963, Wilder)

Two of the lesser Wilder’s.  The Major and the Minor is Wilder’s first American directorial effort, following his only film in France after fleeing Nazi Germany, and preceding Five Graves to Cairo and Double Indemnity (1943 and 1944) respectively.

It’s an odd film – the title refers to Ray Milland as Philip and Ginger Rogers as Susan.  They meet on a train, for various reasons she has to pretend she’s twelve.  He falls for it.  She falls in love.  Trouble – and only occasional hilarity – ensues.

Co-written by pre-I.A.L. Diamond collaborator Charles Brackett, The Major and the Minor is a bit awkward and uncomfortable, particularly for 2013.  The implication is that Milland falls in love with a 12 year-old.  It’s unclear whether he actually understand that she’s in her 20s, or that he’s fine loving a 12 year-old.

One of the stranger scenes – and a great example of how times have changed – comes when Philip must defend himself to his fiance and fellow army officers.  They think he’s been cheating.  He plays it up, and then introduces the culprit…a young girl.  If this is modern day, everyone’s even angrier and Philip probably goes to jail.  In 1942, however, it’s a relief that it was only a 12 year-old, and that he hasn’t been philandering (with someone his age).

Though this is a minor Wilder he’s still got some great touches.  The best part of the film comes when Susan applies a cold towel to Philip’s back.  Wilder cuts outside of the train car to see the reaction from outside, which looks as though Philip is mocking those he just cheated:

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It’s a great use of timing and space.  Of course this wouldn’t be a Ginger Rogers film without a dance number:

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But Rogers shows some range by also playing her mother and covering three generations of Applegates:

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The Major and The Minor shows off Wilder’s camera that he’ll espouse through the rest of his career.  Simple and eye-level, with movement that is motivated and unshowy.  Here’s a good example.  Susan wreaks havoc with the military phone lines, causing a whole crowd to come to the switchboard to see what’s the matter.  Wilder blocks them in depth, with Susan in the foreground.  She stands and the camera moves back to reframe:

Picture 4 Picture 5 Picture 6

This is Wilder’s theory of film in a nutshell: keep it simple stupid.

Irma La Douce

Another lesser Wilder, and a somewhat weak comparison point to The ApartmentIrma La Douce was co-written with Diamond and shows the difference in styles between the two Wilder collaborators.

Where Brackett’s style relies more on matter-of-factness and irony, Diamond goes in for a bit more whimsy and fantasy.

The Apartment was made three years earlier and both films feature Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.  The 1963 film finds Lemmon as a police officer turned pimp who falls hard for MacLaine’s hooker with a heart of gold (and attitude), Irma.

The timing for much of Irma feels off, jokes hang on for too long, and the film itself drags.  A good example is a slapstick sequence where Lemmon’s Nestor fights off the biggest, baddest pimp by whirling a hanging light back and forth and hitting him in the head.  It’s pure Looney Tunes, and the sequence drags on beyond the initial hit and reaction.

A highlight of Irma is Lemmon’s ability to play multiple characters and he has some madcap fun with it.  His alter-ego, “Lord X” is a British stereotype played to a T(ea) and Lemmon outdoes himself in small idiosyncrasies and inflections.

Though it’s Wilder’s style, Irma La Douce also feels outdated for 1963.  The sexual humor is there, but it’s far more thickly veiled than other films challenging the existing, but crumbling, Production Code.  The obvious studio lot set has some imaginative production design, but doesn’t lend itself to anything beyond whimsical farce.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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