In 1942, when The Major and the Minor came out, Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: “When a full-grown young lady dons a kid’s clothes to play a little girl, it makes a delightful idea for a very cunning film.” In 2019, it is harder to watch the story of a grown-up man develop a peculiar affection for (someone he thinks to be) a 12-year-old girl, no matter how lightheartedly and innocently delivered, without some discomfort.

The Major and the Minor is a mistaken-identity comedy, a singular one.

Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers) is fleeing New York after a year in the city, twenty-five jobs, and a series of encounters with groping men. Determined to return home but short on money, she decides to dress up as a 12-year-old girl to secure a reduced train ticket. Running away from the conductors who don’t believe her ridiculous disguise, she hides in the cabin of short-sighted Major Kirby (Ray Milland). The man buys into her story and decides to take care of Susu until she makes it home.

But the train is stopped in its tracks by a flood, and Kirby welcomes the girl into his fiancée’s house and into the military school where he is based. Of course, reciprocal admiration and affection grow between the two, but of course, if only Kirby knew Susan’s real age, the affection could turn into something else.

Like the best classic Hollywood comedy, Wilder’s film plays with gender stereotypes – women are clever, witty, and the only ones who are actually in control of the situation. Susan and her new friend Lucy (Diana Lynn) are aware and alert. They plot, they team up, they work to make things go their way. Around them, men are lost, helpless and, to put it in Kirby’s words, “like moths ready to fly towards the pretty girl in the room.”

The theme of how predatory men can be returns often in the film. The opening scene is a scene of sexual harassment, of which Susan is the victim as she is working. But the woman, however scared and tired of it, is more than able to bravely confront the man and to stand her ground. Later on, she is condescendingly told to make herself less attractive so that the boys won’t fall for her. As a response, she does the exact opposite and uses her charms to her advantage.

The Major and the Minor is still wonderfully funny, punctuated by hilarious moments – the line of Veronica Lake-obsessed teenage girls, all with an identical peek-a-boo hairstyle has become an all-time favourite moment. It is a rather fast-paced and enjoyable film, in which Ginger Roger thrives with her incredible mimetic and comedic talent. She switches between personas, voices and demeanours so quickly and gracefully that she succeeds in single-handedly keeping the film alive.

There is some charm, lightheartedness, and innocence in The Major and the Minor which is, if anything, a product of its time, and we should probably simply think of it that way. And if its morals didn’t exactly stand the test of time, it is still a beautifully directed film, food for thought, and a pleasure to watch.

Available on Blu-ray Mon 23 Sep 2019