The Devil and Miss Jones, 1941

Classic comedy about trying to hold a job.

The Story

The "richest man in the world" (New York City businessman Merrick, played by Charles Coburn) is living on milk and crackers because of his constantly upset stomach, and when one of his minor possessions, a huge department store in NYC, gets into the newspapers because a few of the workers there are trying to unionize, he wants the problem quieted down immediately.

During the photographed protest the workers had carried around an effigy of Merrick (they don't know what he looks like since he never allows himself to be photographed, so what they come up with is a ridiculous image of a 1920s tycoon), and this agitates Merrick even further as he hates personal publicity and he doesn't like the look of the dummy.

He wants to send in a private detective, disguised as a shoe salesman, to spy on the store and discover who are the leaders (it happens to be a clerk named Joe, played by Robert Cummings), but when the detective is unavailable suddenly due to his wife going into labor in Philadelphia, Merrick impatiently decides to take over the job himself.

As lowly shoe salesman Tom Higgens, Merrick is soon befriended by Mary (Jean Arthur) and Elizabeth (Spring Bylington) who both work at the department store in the shoe department.

Mary is astounded by 'Tom Higgins' naivete about how to keep one's employment (Merrick openly riles at the totalitarian way the shoe department is run by section tyrant Mr. Hooper, played by Edmund Gwenn, who has the power to fire at will), and Mary becomes a kind of surrogate daughter and protector, even forcing Merrick to take money from her because she is certain he is so poor he is unable to afford lunch. Mary is so taken with Merrick she brings herself to tears just describing to others the poverty and difficulty she imagines Merrick has stoically been surviving through in order to get his shoe salesman job.

Merrick, who thinks of himself as the smartest man in the store (if not the country) is constantly thwarted in his original goals because he's not a particularly good employee and simply doesn't know how to fend for himself (that task has always been handled by his butler George, played by S. Z. Sakall) and though he doesn't realize it, his attitude about the employees, who after all are all working for him, begins changing.

Soon Elizabeth is curing his stomach problems (with tuna popovers and other ordinary foods, which Merrick consumes at such a rate that Joe says "He looks like a guy who just discovered his stomach") and then Merrick finds himself embroiled not only in the on-and-off love between Joe and Mary, but he is attracted to Elizabeth. But he's worried, would Elizabeth be willing to marry him despite that fact he is outrageously wealthy?

This charming comedy about class warfare is directed by Sam Wood and the screenplay is by Norma Krasna, and everybody is given a loveable side to admire in the tale, except for the petty tyrant played by Ed Gwenn and the stores general manager, the duplicitous Mr. Allison (Walter Kingsford).

A lot of screwball comedy moves the proceedings, and though number three on the billing, Coburn is really the star here, able to fully expand on the curmudgeonly-type characters he had already played in numerous other films (particularly Bachelor Mother from 1939, which in some minor ways overlaps with this film).

Director Sam Wood also does something unique with Coburn, which is to limit his shouting, something there is plenty of in other movies.

Spring Bylington is given another sentimental role, but she has more to do that usual, and her character isn't just about cooking tuna popovers.

Jean Arthur is the lead (though her screen time seems to be eclipsed by Coburn) and she plays Mary more or less the way she played so many other characters in 1930s comedies: street-wise, slightly eccentric, and essentially fearless. She and Coburn are a great match and they carry the film straight on through to the finish (they teamed up again in The More the Merrier in 1943).


Original Page Sept 29, 2014

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