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One of the smartest and most endearing comedies of its year, The Devil and Miss Jones is another superior collaboration between director Sam Wood and production designer William Cameron Menzies, who also made For Whom the Bell Tolls and Pride of the Yankees together. More subtly stylized, this show is first and foremost a warm and affectionate satire about the struggle of management and labor. In the 1930s working conditions were an even more divisive topic than they are now. Norman Krasna's Oscar-nominated original screenplay (it lost to Citizen Kane) takes a fantasized yet richly observed jab at fat cat bosses and idealistic activists. What viewers will remember most are the adorable characters. This is one of Jean Arthur's best films, and she's matched by great work from Charles Coburn, Spring Byington and the underrated Robert Cummings.
Zillionaire John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) owns so many blocks in New York that he needs four executives to keep track of his holdings. He likes to remain anonymous, so is mortified when the employees of Merrick's Department Store, protesting bad working conditions, burn him in effigy. Convinced that Reds have infiltrated his store, Merrick takes the identity of a detective he's hired, and gets himself a clerk's job where he can identify and root out the agitators. Suddenly finding himself mistreated and disrespected with the rest of the employees, Merrick's attitude and values begin to change. He's shocked to find that his coworkers are nice people, especially Mary Jones (Jean Arthur). Thinking that he's penniless, Mary gives Merrick some lunch money and does her best to shield him from the wrath of the hateful floor manager Hooper (Edmund Gwenn). Merrick tries to upstage Hooper by having his butler George (S.Z. Sakall) bring in a small child and buy twelve pairs of shoes, an effort that backfires. Taking more pity on Merrick, Mary Jones brings him to a secret union meeting, where he discovers that her boyfriend Joe O'Brien is the pro-collective bargaining ringleader. Expecting to get a full list of agitators, Merrick is instead shaken by the sincerity of his employees and the fairness of Joe's demands for decent treatment. When she finds out that Merrick lives alone, Mary sets him up with her coworker Elizabeth (Spring Byington) for an all-day picnic at the beach. Merrick is unaccustomed to mixing with common folk, and finds that his new friends help him feel relaxed and happy -- until he gets separated from them in the Coney Island crowds. When he tries to trade his gold watch to get change for the telephone, the cops decide that he's in with a gang of pickpockets. How can Merrick get out of his situation without revealing his real identity to his friends? And what will happen when they learn that the "evil boss" has identified them all as "disloyal employees?"
The disarming, entertaining The Devil and Miss Jones is one of the best social comedies ever, a film that creates a nice feeling for people while saying fairly pertinent things about the need for decent conditions in the workplace. Technically a screwball comedy, it begins with stylized titles contrasting "devil" J.P. Merrick and "angel" Mary Jones. Already the most unforced sweetheart in screen comedy, Jean Arthur's sweetness wins over audiences without effort. Misidentifying Merrick as a hapless employee ready to be "dumped on the ash heap", Mary takes him under her wing, defends him to the obnoxious Mr. Hooper and volunteers as a matchmaker to boot. She also serves as conscience and cheering section to the idealistic, somewhat overzealous Joe. A born cage-rattler, Joe sees nothing wrong with confusing the cops by responding to a minor misdemeanor mix-up by loudly reciting the Constitution and threatening a major court battle.
Along with Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, The Devil and Miss Jones is perhaps the last great liberal comedy in the '30s tradition, before the exigencies of WW2 wiped away most filmic opportunities to poke fun at American political issues. Robert Cummings' Joe is a genuine pro-union social agitator who might very well be a Communist sympathizer, but like all the other characters he's given a measure of respect to go with his personal idiosyncrasies. This liberal attitude of live and let live wasn't typical, as most of the previous Depression-Era comedies mined 'Bolshie' characters for comic relief. "Foreign" types spouting class-struggle slogans were either silly ideologues or lazy frauds, such as Mischa Auer's hilarious gigolo in My Man Godfrey. In contrast, Joe O'Brien is an All-American practical guy and his concern for his fellow workingmen is real. He's also well adapted to his role; when it comes time to rescue Merrick from the sweet natured but unimaginative cops, Joe's argumentative skills win the day.
The movie abounds in terrific character touches, inspired comedy gags, and two or three moments of finely tuned slapstick. Merrick intends to write the names of disloyal employees in his little black book, but instead compiles lists of things that irk him, with the horrid Mr. Hooper right at the top. At Coney Island, Mary and Joe double date with Elizabeth and Merrick, and relax together on the sand even though they're packed in tight with thousands of fellow beach-goers. Merrick is charmed when his new friends describe their modest hopes and dreams... which seem all the more poignant in retrospect, knowing that in a few months the entire country will be transformed by the war.
At one point Mary discovers that Merrick has obtained a list of all the store employees that have committed to a strike, and suspects that he may be a company mole after all. Back in the stock room, she prepares to rap him on the head with the heel of a shoe, but can't make herself go through with it. Jean Arthur makes her indecision into a minor masterpiece of comic acting.
So many things click in The Devil and Miss Jones that one cannot over-praise Norman Krasna's screenplay, one of the best ever from the classic Hollywood years. Of course it's a fantasy -- if the gap between the controlling rich and the powerless poor could be solved by a single man's enlightenment, social problems would vanish. Viewers needn't be concerned about radical politics, because even if worker activism is celebrated, management is conceived as a fairy-tale big boss who is just like us beneath all the distrust and bluster. The film therefore sidesteps Joe's insistence that something is wrong with the whole system. 1
Krasna was a master of comedies that wavered between sentimental and screwball, as seen in his earlier Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Bachelor Mother and his later Princess O'Rourke. His other films with Sam Wood give the impression that every camera angle is pre-planned from production designer William Cameron Menzies' storyboards.The design of The Devil and Miss Jones is less rigid yet just as elegant, as seen in the progression of limousines pulling up at Merrick's apartment and the careful use of camera angles in the masterful department store set. Coney Island is all legs and bathing suits, and endless arcade attractions. The police station is a place of authority, but not the authoritarian nightmare Menzies designed for his own Invaders from Mars. The film's final gag, a killer that usually elicits audience applause, is a cleverly designed special effect every bit as daring as Menzies' airplane sequence in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. It's the perfect topper for the happiest Hollywood movie from the Spring of 1941.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Devil and Miss Jones is a godsend, as we were uncertain whether a good copy would ever surface. Originally released by RKO but produced by Frank Ross and Norman Krasna, it has been seen in substandard copies for quite a while. Olive's HD transfer is very clean, with only the slightest age damage here and there. The audio is strong as well.
Other reviews of this title have been getting quite a few online hits, and I think it's because of the 1973 Georgina Spelvin porn film that spins off the title. I wonder if the same confusion contributed to this classic's decreased level of awareness over the years. If you enjoy vintage comedies, The Devil and Miss Jones is one not to miss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Devil and Miss Jones Blu-ray rates:
1. Besides, compared to today, the "system" seen in The Devil and Miss Jones is relatively benign. Workers in 1941 may have a lousy job, but for most of them, somewhere nearby is an actual human being that they can identify and complain to, someone in a position of authority. Today's corporate Human Resources departments are there to neutralize employee rights. The worker needs argued about in Miss Jones are all but gone now -- job security, the idea of a pension. Employees that turn 50 are routinely 'phased out' before they become high-maintenance problems, or just because the corporation wants a youthful image.
Most film studios I've worked for tend to turn over most of their staff in six or seven-year cycles. If an executive regime change doesn't clean house, somebody will determine that money can be saved by replacing experienced department heads with their own underlings, who can be underpaid and denied benefits -- or even forced to pretend that they're 'independent contractors'. I've just been very lucky to win the confidence and trust of a few good client-producers. No, the concept of a "good, secure job" is fading fast. Tell your babies to become skilled professionals, preferably in the top 5% of their fields. The Devil and Miss Jones can be classified as misty-eyed nostalgia.
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