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.
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.
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.