The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) Sam Wood

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  So who is the queen of screwball comedy, Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur? Arguably, it could be either one. No one could argue with Lombard’s credentials in such films as “My Man Godfrey”, “Twentieth Century”, “Hand Across the Table” and “Nothing Sacred.” Jean Authur’s batting average is a winner too with “You Can’t Take it with You”, “The More the Merrier”, “Easy Living” and “The Devil and Miss Jones.”  Tough choice. After recently viewing “Easy Living” and now ‘The Devil and Miss Jones”, I am not making any definitive statement. Truthfully, I am just happy that we have both works by these talented ladies to enjoy.                     Norman Krasna whose work spans from the 1930’s to the 1960’s wrote “The Devil and Miss Jones.” Krasna additionally wrote the screenplays for films like “Bombshell”, “Hands Across the Table” Wife vs. Secretary”, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, “White Christmas” and “Sunday in New York.” The film was produced by Ms. Arthur’s then husband Frank Ross, and released by RKO Pictures. devil-and-miss-jones-vhs1

    Multimillionaire and camera shy John Merrick (Charles Coburn) is so rich he cannot even keep track of his holdings and only discovers that he owns Neely’s Department Store when he sees a photo of a stuffed dummy look alike hanging in effigy on the front page of the morning newspaper.  Merrick played to perfection by Coburn decides to go undercover, in his own department store to weed out the union agitators. He takes a job in the shoe department on the fifth floor, the heart of the unrest, however to his shock; Merrick is seen as an incompetent by the section manager, Mr. Hooper (Edmund Gwenn) and is given a low-level job selling slippers instead of shoes. Here he meets salesperson Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) who is in love with union leader Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings), recently fired due to his unionizing activity. Also on board is Spring Byington, as Elizabeth, an age appropriate love interest for the undercover millionaire.  All believe Merrick is broke; Elizabeth even shares her Tuna popover lunch with him when he informs her that he does not eat lunch, which she believes is just a cover up for him not having any money. Soon Merrick is being included in clandestine union meetings where all assume he is on their side. Through his first hand experience at the store working with and being acquainted with his employees, especially Mary, the grumpy Merrick becomes more compassionate and understanding toward them and their cause.

    The film’s themes center on class distinction, specifically between the rich and the working class and also looks at the division and treatment between the store’s management and employees. The film’s pro-unionist outlook presents management as stiff, uncaring and autocratic. By the end of the film, Merrick is a changed man; he even falls in love with Elizabeth, while his management team comes off as a group of idiotic yes men. 

 devilmissjones1   True, the ending is unrealistic forcing its way to a typical happy Hollywood resolution however “The Devil and Miss Jones” is so charming that it can be easily forgiven for such a menial sin. The movie shines with mostly fine performances, Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, both received Academy Award nominations for their work. And you have to give Jean Arthur credit for not bolstering her role, letting Coburn shine even though her husband was the producer. Bob Cummings, who was just starting to move up in the cinematic world (the following year he would star in Hitchcock’s “Saboteur”), is somewhat engaging as Arthur’s rabble-rousing boyfriend; I could only take him in small doses. Spring Byington, is sweet and delightful as Coburn’s love interest. Edmund Gwenn, still a few years away from his classic role as Macy’s Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street”, captures the low-level manager type who handed a morsel of authority, judges himself superior to all, treating his employees as disposable trash. The cast also includes S.Z. “Cuddles”Sakall as Merrick’s inept butler and William Demerest as a store detective.

    The chemistry between Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn is unmistakable and worked so well they made two more films together, “The More the Merrier” and “The Impatient Years.” The more I see Arthur the more enticing I find her, and that offbeat sexy voice!

    Oddly enough, staunch conservative Sam Wood directed the pro-union film. Wood’s career started in the silents, where he worked as an assistant to C. B. DeMille and eventually graduated to directing greats like Gloria Swanson in “Under the Lash”, “Her Husbands Trademark”, “Beyond the Rocks” (with Rudolph Valentino)  and  “Don’t Tell Everything (with Wallace Reid) among others. When sound came, Wood’s career continued in high gear with films like “Raffles”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Pride of the Yankees”, “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and the Marx Brothers MGM classics “A Day at the Races” and “A Night at the Opera.” 

    Despite a grand opening at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, “The Devil and Miss Jones” did not do well financially. Whether the socially conscientious pro union theme discouraged some patrons or the growing tension about the U.S. entering World War II (seven months later Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese) that kept patrons away, I’m not sure. It’s possible that during those troubled times a comedy with a serious theme was not what the public was looking for.      

   

 

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8 comments on “The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) Sam Wood

  1. R. D Finch says:

    I love Jean Arthur! Of all the great screwball actresses, she’s probably my favorite, maybe because she didn’t seem to have real aspirations to be a serious dramatic actress, unlike the other screwball greats, who all dabbled regularly in serious roles. Arthur seemed to express the serious side of her personality in the context of comedy. This is especially apparent in her Capra movies. I’ve read that she was Capra’s favorite actress.

    I sensed in your review of “The Devil and Miss Jones” a touch of ambivalence toward the movie as a whole. I certainly had this reaction. As in many of Arthur’s movies, she was better than the movie itself. I definitely agree with you about this movie’s strengths and weaknesses. Its main strengths were Arthur and Coburn–no surprise to me since I always find both compellingly watchable. I also liked seeing Spring Byington in a non-ditzy, non-motherly role. Her performance showed me an unexpected and very charming side of her. As for weaknesses, Cummings was predictably bland and not completely convincing as a romantic leading man. The plot was also on the predictable side. My favorite sequence was the picnic sequence, which showed the cast at their best.

    I try to see every Arthur movie I can find. The last new one I saw was John Ford’s “The Whole Town’s Talking.” Arthur was, of course, quite good in it, although the film really belonged to E. G. Robinson in an unusual dual role–his performance was a knockout. I’m dying to see her in Borzage’s “History Is Made at Night,” made the same year as “Easy Living,” another movie in which I find that she outshines the material. For the record, Arthur’s only Oscar nomination was for “The More the Merrier” (my very favorite Arthur performance).

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  2. Judy says:

    Another great review, John – I don’t think I’ve ever seen this movie, but the plot rings a bell with me. I’m wondering if I may have seen some kind of remake, or if there is another movie which has a similar storyline, with the undercover millionaire as the romantic interest.

    I’ve started reading a massive book by James Harvey, ‘Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges’, which focuses on the history of screwball comedy and has chapters on both Lombard and Arthur. I’m hoping to watch as many of the films he mentions as possible along the way.

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  3. Sam Wood was another of those “almost great” directors. While responsible for many worthwhile projects, he never captured the elusive Oscar and his conservatism was such that, according to his daughter, the “charming, gentle man” would become a “snarling, unreasonable brute” whenever communism (“it”) was brought up. Many a dinner conversation was ruined by the topic. Wood was elected the first president of the Motion Picture Aliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA).

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  4. Mike says:

    Just passing by.Btw, your website have great content!

    _________________________________
    Making Money $150 An Hour

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  5. John Greco says:

    R.D. – I am embarrassed about the Oscar nomination error and do appreciate the correction. What I believed happened was in doing research I confused “The More the Merrier” nominations where both Arthur and Coburn (won for Supporting Actor) got the nod and “The Devil and Miss Jones”. No excuse, just confusion on my part. Thanks again!
    I have been enthusiastic about Ms. Arthur having recently seen this film and “Easy Living.” I have recorded both “The More the Merrier” and “Talk of the Town” with “Mr. Deed Goes to Town” coming up in the next couple of days on TCM so I am slowly in the middle of my own Jean Arthur Film Festival. Arthur and Coburn definitely work well together so I am really excited to see “The More the Merrier.”
    I doubt anyone remembers Spring Byington in a TV sit-com called “December Bride” with Harry Morgan. I barely remember it, I was pretty young, but she came across as a sweet older lady. For Harry Morgan, when this show ended he took his same character into a spin-off called “Pete and Alice” with Cara Williams. If I remember correctly Alice in “December Bride” was a character who was never seen, similar to Maris, Niles wife, in “Frasier.”
    One other note that I found interesting is that Coburn’s character was said to be fifty-five years old and frankly, he looks much older at least 10 to 15 years. One other character even called him “old timer.” Just shows how much better we are living today and are not aging as quickly.

    Judy – I read good things about that book and have to get around to reading it. Right now, I have a stack of about seven books to read. Please let me know what you think about it. I definitely would be interested.

    C.K. – I always saw Sam Wood as a good studio director with no personal style. Though, he made some good films. I cannot think of one that would be considered great.
    His Marx Brothers films are marred by the annoying musical interludes (with Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones). Of course, this may be more due to production head Irving Thalberg than Wood. While I love the pure Marx Brothers portion of the films the musical sections just drag. I’ll take their earlier Universal films any day over the MGM ones.

    Mike – Thanks, Please stop by anytime.

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  6. R. D Finch says:

    John, I do remember both “December Bride” and its spinoff “Pete and Gladys.” “Bride” was more or less stolen by Verna Felton as Byington’s eccentric pal. In that show, Gladys was alluded to as a harridan, not at all like she was portrayed in the spinoff, as a lovable screwball. (And yes, I’ve always thought they got the idea for the unseen Maris in “Frasier” from “Bride.”) I’ve seen Cara Williams in two movies. She got a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for “The Defiant Ones,” playing a farm woman the escapees stay with on their travels. And I saw her recently as a very young woman in “Crossfire,” where she made a strong impression as a surly witness against her boyfriend, who was falsely accused of murder. (Wendymoon wrote about this movie recently.) I wonder what ever happened to her?

    I’m sure you’ll have great fun pursuing your interest in Jean Arthur. If you get a chance to see her in Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair,” don’t miss it. She makes quite a contrast to Marlene Dietrich. I think it’s a neglected work in the Wilder canon (maybe because its subject was so time-specific). I’ve read that Arthur didn’t see the finished movie for decades, but when she finally did told Wilder how good she thought it was.

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  7. Jhon says:

    I bookmarked your blog, thanks for sharing this very interesting post

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  8. John Greco says:

    Jhon,

    thanks for stopping by. Please do so again.

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