Devil and Miss Jones, The (1941)
Release Date: April 11th, 1941 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Sam Wood Actors: Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings, Charles Coburn, Edmund Gwenn, Spring Byington, S.Z. Sakall, William Demarest
enacingly booming music introduces a foursome of stern businessmen entering the massive estate of John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), to discuss the recent effigy (a crudely designed dummy) hung outside the Neeley’s Department Store, as a form of protest by its mistreated employees. Merrick, who sits high atop the corporate world, is outraged; he hires Thomas Higgins (Robert Emmett Keane) to infiltrate the store and uncover the disruptive ringleaders. When he learns that Higgins has delayed the assignment due to his wife having a child in Philadelphia, Merrick dismisses him and assumes the role himself, wishing to hear firsthand what the store workers have to complain about.
Wandering over to the shoe department, he starts his new job – after being informed he’s received the lowest intelligence rating in the department through an initial aptitude test (which was taken by the real Higgins). His immediate supervisor is Mary (Jean Arthur), who instantly mistakes the elderly man as a penniless nincompoop, but treats him with gentleness nonetheless. Miss Elizabeth Ellis (Spring Byington) is a friendly older saleswoman who also behaves kindly toward Merrick, assuming that he’s a starving man who was fired from his previous, lengthy employment. But the section manager is Mr. Hooper (Edmund Gwenn), a surly supervisor quick to issue scoldings and steal sales from his underlings. On the first day, sympathetic Mary takes Merrick not only to an automat but also to a secret meeting of potential unionizing laborers. At first, he revels in his accomplishment and insults their carelessness – but in time, he realizes Mary and her collaborators are some of the finest people he’s ever met, and not the ungrateful troublemakers he initially thought them to be.
It starts with a sardonic disclaimer to avoid upsetting rich men of the world, proceeding to show them as old, unforgiving, crotchety, cruel, friendless, and lonely persons. Quite hysterically, Merrick becomes that iconic, classical example of a Scrooge-like character undergoing an eye-opening experience. Here, he’s undercover, not dragged into it unwillingly but still spectacularly vulnerable to the effects of generosity, benevolence, and love. There’s also the supporting, comical theme of a character so used to being waited upon by his staff (led by butler S.Z. Sakall) and utilizing unlimited wealth to solve problems that he’s incapable of taking care of himself in everyday situations.
“Now don’t talk like you’re out of your mind,” insists Mary to Merrick, after he adds to his “doomsday list” of people he plans on firing, and speaks of his ability to never forget misdeeds, like normal folk are often required to do. His mistreatment by Hooper, which is more along the lines of standard power plays by petty tyrants, is particularly amusing, since it’s likely the bigwig utilized similar tactics on his rise to the top. In conjunction, the numerous gags for demonstrating a “The Prince and the Pauper”-styled role reversal are each carefully written and orchestrated, culminating in big laughs and genuine creativity. A prominent love story is also afoot, not only for Mary (her reluctant soul mate is fiercely independent rights-advocate Joe, played by Robert Cummings), but also for Merrick, who has a notably simpler time with Elizabeth. In a lot of ways, “The Devil and Miss Jones” is a more sensible version of the basic idea from “My Man Godfrey” (which was based on Eric Hatch’s novel), though certainly not devoid of the physical screwball shenanigans that made that film so zany. It has grand humor, enjoyable characters, and plenty of heart – which helps to overlook the rather swift, clean outcome – as it builds to a warm, hopeful conclusion fit to stand among the very best works of Frank Capra.
– Mike Massie