The Major and the Minor
Monkey Business (1952)
I don't think I really began to appreciate Ginger Rogers until I started seeing her films independent of Fred Astaire. I knew she had made plenty of movies without him, but it's difficult to think of her as something besides one half of the greatest dance team in film history.
Truth is, she was a dynamite comedic actress who won an Oscar for drama (of course). I hadn't planned on watching two of her films so close to each other, but since I did, I figured I might as well talk about them. In both films, she gets to act like a child.
The Major and the Minor was the directing debut of Billy Wilder. Rogers is trying to take the train home from New York, only she doesn't have enough money. In a desperate ploy, she dresses up as a kid so she can pay a reduced fare. While on the train, she meets Ray Milland, a military officer, and falls for him. He, however, thinks she's only a kid.
I had always thought this premise was way too wacky and unbelievable for even the great Wilder. I was prepared to lower my expectations. This one holds up, though, silly as it is, because of Rogers. As an adult masquerading as a child, she doesn't try to oversell the role. The comedy comes from her interactions with Milland and others, including an actual teenage girl who sees right through her ruse, and an assortment of military academy cadets vying for Rogers' affections.
None of this should work, but Rogers' character combines world-weariness and desperation with charm and spunk. She makes the whole thing watchable. Wilder fans will recognize the Swiss watch-like nature of his screenplay, with Charles Brackett, in which jokes are set up and paid off further down the line and simple things are expressed in more sophisticated ways.
Monkey Business is a Howard Hawks flick, co-written by frequent Wilder collaborator IAL Diamond. This one's much sillier. Rogers is the wife of scientist Cary Grant, who's working on some manner of pep pill that he has been testing on lab monkeys. One of them sneaks out of his cage and fiddles around with the formula. The resulting mixture works too well: it makes people as spry and energetic as kids. Predictable hijinks ensue as a result.
Unlike Major, Rogers really cuts loose while acting child-like under the formula's influence. She was 41 when she made this; it's not the kind of role you'd expect for an older actress, but Rogers is more than game. Apparently, she insisted on having her character expanded in this way. She has great chemistry (so to speak) with Grant as well, although the scenes where they act like kids are pretty over the top.
One year before Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire vaulted her into superstar status, Marilyn Monroe has a thankless role as a secretary who spends a day with Grant while he's under the formula's spell. She shows off her legs in one scene and we see her in a swimsuit in another.
The scene where the monkey mixes the formula was done in mostly one long take. I don't recall seeing a credit for "monkey trainer" or anything like that, but whoever worked with that monkey did a fine job with him. It reminded me a bit of the scene in Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Caesar discovers the chemical that makes apes smart for the first time. No, he wasn't a real monkey, but so what? Anyway, the one in Business was fun to watch.