The Devil and Miss Jones, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn, Robert Cummings, Spring Byington. Directed by Sam Wood. B&W, 92 minutes.
He’s the richest man in the world for a reason. Despite having seemingly countless business interests, he keeps watch on even the lowliest of them. Especially when one of his employees leads a belligerent crowd of unhappy workers in hanging him in effigy.
So John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) decides the best man to suss out those who are trying to form a labor union for the employees of his department store is…John P. Merrick. He takes a job selling shoes, and finds himself under the tutelage of Mary Jones (Jean Arthur). It just so happens Mary’s boyfriend, Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings), was the man leading the unruly crowd days before.
John finds more than those he planned to take to task, however, when Mary introduces him to a co-worker, Elizabeth Ellis (Spring Byington), a kindhearted soul who captures his heart. He’s softening in another way as well, as he becomes increasingly sympathetic to the plight of his workers.
Arthur’s husband, Frank Ross, and popular screenwriter Norman Krasna joined together to form their own production company, created in part to showcase Arthur’s talent. For their first project, they developed the idea for The Devil and Miss Jones together, and Krasna went on to write the screenplay.
Krasna didn’t set out to simply write a screwball romantic comedy, however. In its own way, this film was a statement about the labor issues facing the nation at the time. “It is as much a protest as I could make against the existing system (within) the framework of a comedy,” he said in a later interview. The story does indeed make a clear statement, both about labor and class distinctions.
The Devil and Miss Jones was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Supporting Actor (Coburn) and Best Original Screenplay (Krasna). While it won neither, two years later Coburn would take the Oscar in the same category for another film he made with Arthur, The More the Merrier.
This a gentle comedy with a strong social message — but not too strong for today’s viewers, who will enjoy the usual fish-out-of-water aspects of Coburn’s character stepping into the role of laborer. There is plenty of charm between Coburn and Arthur as well (not as much between Coburn and Cummings). A lesser known comedy, one worth watching if you are fan of comedies of the era.