In Focus is our chance to look a little closer at some of our favorite films. This edition of In Focus highlights our film of the month, The Devil and Miss Jones (1941).
It’s a socially conscious comedy that’s made by the delightful chemistry between cast members. Jean Arthur is as charming as ever, and although she receives top billing, Charles Coburn is truly the heart of the film. Robert Cummings expertly walks the line between comedy and drama, Spring Byington provides the sweet romantic counterpart to Coburn, and Edmund Gwenn plays against type as the villainous department head. The film is witty, compassionate, down to earth, and with a perfectly sentimental ending to boot. The humor is sophisticated and often nuanced, but it still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny.
At the center of the film are themes of class struggle, but perhaps more importantly, themes of the true value in life and from where it is derived. When we meet millionaire Merrick (Coburn) in the beginning of the film, he is (by all measures except his wealth) an unhealthy and unhappy man. His nerves and a stomach ulcer resign him to eating nothing but crackers soaked in milk. Contrast that with his demeanor — and appetite — by the end of the film, and you can see a message that goes a step further than the classic “little guy” films. It almost seems to suggest that the “little guys” might even be the lucky ones. There’s also a direct suggestion that a wealthy man can never truly find love (this plot element also pops up in our previous Film of the Month, Who’s Minding the Store (1963) with Jerry Lewis).
“When they start reciting the Constitution, watch out!”
“In the intelligence test you took this morning, your rating was 66. That’s 1 point over… the lowest passing grade.”
“66? There must be some mistake. I answered all the questions.”
“You might have answered some of them wrong. That’s possible, isn’t it?… I said: That’s possible, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is… sir”
“We never make mistakes, Higgins. Neely’s is always right.”
“You’re Benedict Arnold in sheep’s clothing!”
A title during the opening credits reads: “Dear Richest Men in the World: We made up this character in the story, out of our own heads. It’s nobody, really. The whole thing is make-believe. We’d feel awful if anyone was offended. Thank you, The Author, Director and Producer. P.S. Nobody sue. P.P.S. Please.”
Jean Arthur stars as Miss Mary Jones. The comedy actress made an icon out of herself during the 1930s playing career women who were equal parts self-assured, outgoing, and sweet. She had a moderately successful acting career during the silent era as well, but American audiences didn’t fall head over heels for her until they got to know her distinctive high-pitched, froggy voice. Although her shyness and self-doubt nearly crippled her throughout her career, she breathed life into many timeless films, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can’t Take It with You, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and much later on, Shane.
Charles Coburn plays the world’s richest man, John P. Merrick. Getting his start as a character actor on Broadway, he eventually moved to California and began film work after the death of his wife and fellow Broadway actor Ivah Wills. Perhaps due to his southern charm and his unironic use of a monocle, he found his film type easily, playing old millionaires in comedies. As such, The Devil and Miss Jones was a perfect fit for him, as he’s able to bring the perfect mix of heart and comedy to the character. Interestingly enough, considering the politics that seems to be at play in the film, he was actually the vice-president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a coalition formed to oppose “communist infiltration” of Hollywood.
Sam Wood directs. Wood was propelled into Hollywood with an apprenticeship as an assistant director under Cecil B. DeMille. He soon earned a reputation as an exceptionally reliable and professional director, if not an auteur. Under his belt are some excellent films spanning a wide variety of genres, including A Night at the Opera, For Whom the Bells Tolls, The Pride of the Yankees, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. As with Charles Coburn, Wood’s famously right-wing life and career add an extra element of interest to his part in creating The Devil and Miss Jones. He took a vocally anti-communist stance during McCarthyism and testified before HUAC freely, and a glimpse into his filmography suggests that he favored rugged individualism over the ideologies at play in The Devil and Miss Jones.
Also lending their acting talents are Robert Cummings (Saboteur), Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street), Spring Byington (You Can’t Take It with You), and William Demarest (Sullivan’s Travels). The film also features a screenplay by Norman Krasna (Indiscreet), production design by William Cameron Menzies (director of Invaders from Mars), and cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr. (My Fair Lady).
DID YOU KNOW?
In one of the subplots of the film, Coburn and Gwenn are both trying to woo Spring Byington. 9 years later, in Louisa (1950), they would again play romantic rivals, but that time as the focus of the story.
Jean Arthur wanted there to be a sequel/remake of the film called The Devil and Mr. Jones, where she would be the rich old store owner, but it never happened.
In the five years after its release, the film had been adapted for radio broadcast for multiple performances, including these casts: Lana Turner and Lionel Barrymore; Linda Darnell and Frank Morgan; Laraine Day, Charles Coburn, and George Murphy; Van Johnson and Donna Reed; and Charles Coburn and Virginia Mayo.
This was the first film from the collaboration of wife and husband Jean Arthur and producer Frank Ross, although they had also acted together in The Saturday Night Kid (1929). Another great film that came from their partnership was The More the Merrier (1943).
WHAT DID THE CRITICS SAY?
“All are good, all contribute to a picture which is delightfully piquant. So all, in the words of Mr. Coburn, should have their ‘just deserts.’ In fact, why don’t you have some yourself? It’s really very good.” — Bosley Crowther, New York Times
3 1/2 stars. “A must.” — Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide
“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.” — Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
“Coburn’s performance as the millionaire who gradually unbends stands out as a fine characterization. Arthur excellently grooves as the salesgirl, but Robert Cummings’ characterization is over-sketched in the main as a union organiser. Sam Wood injects deft direction with human byplay to lift the script considerably.” — Variety
“Social comedy from 1941, with definite lefty leanings (the subject is union-busting in a department store). Norman Krasna’s screenplay is full of his maddening mistaken-identity ploys, but the stars—Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn—give the artificial material some warmth.” — Dave Kehr, The Reader
The Devil and Miss Jones is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films.
May 12, 2017