I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this movie. I knew I’d like the actors, but sometimes movies about unions and business men can be a bit preachy and ridiculing the businessman has been a Hollywood sport for so long that it can get a little grating if not handled right. But I shouldn’t have worried; The Devil and Miss Jones is delightful.
Charles Coburn is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), a reclusive businessman who isn’t even aware that he still owns Neeley’s Department Store until he is burned in effigy outside the store. He’s tried his whole life to keep his picture out of the papers and considers even an image of his effigy to be an invasion of his privacy.
But when he meets the detective hired to infiltrated his store and root out the malcontents, he is unimpressed by the detective and gets the idea of taking his place, hearing what it is that the employees really want and exposing the people who are causing the trouble. The idea is somewhat prompted by his musing on how the agitators must be morons who’s arguments he could instantly deflate.
Sure enough, despite the protests of his flustered butler, George (S.Z. Sakall), he reports for work the next morning in the shoe department under the name of Tom Higgins. There he meets the condescending floor manager and small time despot, Hooper (Edmund Gwenn), who must be called “sir” and belittles J.P’s IQ as being the lowest in the department and puts him in charge of selling slippers (J.P. makes a note to get rid of the IQ test for employees). In the shoe department, he also meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), who instantly adopts him as her special charge and tries to help him settle into his new job. When he says that he doesn’t eat lunch (because he has a delicate digestion) she believes it’s because he does not have enough money to pay for it and gives him 50¢. When he meets fellow employee, Elizabeth (Spring Byington), she also takes an interest in Higgins/Merrick and makes him eat some of her lunch (tuna fish popovers – her own recipe). Since he’s generally on a diet of graham crackers and milk, this is quite a revelation for him.
And while he is experiencing for the first time what it is to be an employee – one of the crowd, obliged to be polite to Hooper (Mary and Elizabeth are always giving him advice on how to behave and keep his temper or interact with costumers, and who watch over his work like two mother hens) – he is also invited to the meeting organized by Mary’s boyfriend, Joe (Robert Cummings), who was fired for being the ring leader of the effigy incident, but has not given up trying to organize a strike protesting the company’s policy of firing people after years of service so that they can hire people with a lower salary. They want more company loyalty. J.P. is not initially impressed.
But gradually his attitude begins to change and the reasons are not cosmic reasons of justice or right and wrong, but simple friendship. He cares about Mary, Elizabeth and Joe and wants them to be happy. He doesn’t realize it at the beginning of the film, but he is a lonely man and they recognize it and go out of their way to make him one of them. It’s a friendship that is very well portrayed in the film. It begins simply with kindness from Mary and Elizabeth. As he spends time with them, it develops into caring. He doesn’t initially like Joe, but comes to see him as Mary sees him simply because Mary loves him.
When they all go to Coney Island (hilarious contrasted to his cavernous house where he lives alone – people are so squished together like sardines on the beach that they’re practically in each other’s laps) he gets lost and his three friends don’t give up until they find him…even braving the police and arrest to do so (he nearly gets arresting for trying to sell his gold watch for one dollar so he can make a phone call; they think he’s stolen it).
Jean Arthur gets her name billed above the title, but the film is more carried by Coburn and we see the story mostly from his perspective. But Arthur is excellent in the role, both warm and funny. She’s the heart of the film; the person who knows all the employees, who cares about all her friends and engages in a little matchmaking of her own between J.P. and Elizabeth, and is the person whose kindness initially thaws J.P. Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur were a great team on screen. In The More the Merrier, Coburn played the business man who stays in Arthur’s apartment during the WWII housing shortage in Washington DC, becomes fond of her and begins to play matchmaker. They play well off each other well and can convey genuine friendship. There is an adorable scene near the end of The Devil and Miss Jones, when Mary thinks that J.P. is a detective and has betrayed them. She gets him into the stock room and is going to hit him over the head with a shoe because she wants to get back a list Joe had of all the people in the store who are willing to strike. But even when she thinks he’s betrayed them, she still can’t bring herself to hurt him. He sits, oblivious, looking at shoes, while she stands behind him and tries to get herself psyched up to bean him over the head.
I always enjoy Spring Byington in all her movies. She usually played mothers, but in The Devil and Miss Jones she is J.P.’s love interest – though he must compete with the loathsome Hooper. I am used to Edmund Gwenn as the kindly Santa Clause in Miracle on 34th Street, but he’s about as un-Santa Claus-like as possible here. One totally shares J.P.’s dislike. Robert Cummings as Joe is perhaps not particularly shining (Arthur had better romantic chemistry with Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier), but he’s supposed to be just a regular guy. He’s not a hero, just a man who rises to heroism when he stands against injustice, despite being immature in his private life.
It’s an extremely satisfying movie, a comedy with heart, where friendship can overcome any prejudice or class barrier and where human relationships are more important than anything else.