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Synopsis: John P. Merrick, the world's richest man, goes undercover when employees organize for better wages and working conditions at a department store which he owns. Posing as a lowly shoe clerk, he is befriended by fellow clerk Mary and her boyfriend Joe, a labor organizer who has just been fired. He also finds a romantic interest in Elizabeth, a middle-aged employee in the same department. Although initially his goal is to root out the employees behind the unrest at work, his new friends and his firsthand experience as a worker mistreated by management precipitate a change of heart.
One of the funniest and most finely crafted comedies of the Forties, The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) was the first film made under the auspices of Frank Ross-Norman Krasna, Inc., a production company organized by producer Ross and screenwriter Krasna. Although they financed the film independently, it was distributed through RKO. A Lady Takes a Chance (1943) was the other film produced under this arrangement; it too starred Jean Arthur, who was Frank Ross's wife at the time. Krasna (1909-1984), who received an Academy Award nomination for the script to this film, had been nominated previously for his work on The Richest Girl in the World (1934) and Fritz Lang's Fury (1936). He finally won an Oscar® for Princess O'Rourke (1943), which he also directed. Originally a film and theater critic in New York, he started to write plays for Broadway at about the same time that he entered the film industry. Three of his plays--Dear Ruth, Who Was That Lady I Saw You With? and Kind Sir--were made into films; the latter became the Cary Grant/Ingrid Bergman vehicle Indiscreet (1958), Krasna's most successful film in the latter part of his career.
Veteran stage actor and Shakespeare director Charles Coburn (1877-1961) may not have begun acting in films until his mid-fifties, but by the time of his death he appeared in over seventy films and proved to be one of Hollywood's best character actors. Certainly, his ability to make the crusty millionaire J. P. Merrick lovable without resorting to excessive sentimentality is a mark of his skill as a comic actor. He played another millionaire opposite Jean Arthur again in The More the Merrier (1943); for that role he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In The Impatient Years (1944), he played Arthur's father. Given their natural rapport here, it's hard not to see why they were cast opposite each other again.
Colorado-born Spring Byington (1886-1971) started her acting career in Denver at the age of fourteen, touring throughout the U.S. and Latin America before making her Broadway debut in 1924 with A Begger on Horseback. One of her most successful roles was in the play When Ladies Meet, which was adapted into a film by MGM in 1941. Her film debut was as the mother in the 1933 version of Little Women. Other matronly roles during this period included Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and You Can't Take it With You (1938). She worked with Charles Coburn again in Louisa (1950). Her last film before retirement was the Doris Day vehicle Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960).
Other highlights of The Devil and Miss Jones are Sam Wood's precisely realized direction and William Cameron Menzies' production design, evident from the clever credit sequence in which Coburn and Arthur appear as "the Devil" and an angel, respectively. The opening scene, in which a series of business executive types emerge from limousines to visit Merrick at his mansion, is just one example of how well Wood uses camera placement, mise-en-scene and repeated actions for comic effect. The impossibly lavish, intricately worked design of Merrick's mansion and the soullessly modernistic department store contribute much to the atmosphere without stealing attention away from the performances.
Not surprisingly, The Devil and Miss Jones was warmly received by the critics upon its initial release. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described the film as "the frothiest comedy [...] since The Lady Eve ." Variety singled out Sam Wood's direction and Coburn and Arthur's performances for praise. The script was later broadcast as a radio play for Lux Radio Theatre starring Lana Turner and Lionel Barrymore; the airdate was January 19, 1942. Jean Arthur was evidently fond of this particular film; in 1966 it was reported in Variety that she was planning a remake in which she would play the "Devil"; this time the film was to have been entitled "The Devil and Mr. Jones." Unfortunately the project never materialized and Shane (1953) remains the painfully shy actress's last feature film.
Producers: Frank Ross and Norman Krasna
Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: Norman Krasna
Cinematographer: Harry Stradling
Editor: Sherman Todd
Music: Roy Webb
Production Designer: William Cameron Menzies
Special Effects: Vernon L. Walker
Principal Cast: Charles Coburn (John P. Merrick); Jean Arthur (Mary Jones); Robert Cummings (Joe O' Brien); Edmund Gwenn (Hooper), Spring Byington (Elizabeth Ellis); S. Z. Sakall (George); William Demarest (First Detective); Walter Kingsford (Allison); Montagu Love (Harrison); Richard Carle (Oliver); Edwin Maxwell (Withers).
BW-93m. Closed Captioning.
by James Steffen