Chris Hicks: 1940s comedy is surprisingly current in its outlook on workplace dynamics
Jean Arthur began her career as an ingénue in silent movies of the 1920s, then rose to become a delightfully winning leading lady of the 1930s and ’40s. Arthur was recognizable for her throaty voice and no-nonsense demeanor — even when she was surrounded by plenty of nonsense. She specialized in playing hard-boiled working women caught up in screwball plots, though she was equally at home in dramas.
Charles Coburn, often with a monocle over one eye and a cigar in his mouth, and always with his courtly Southern manner in full bloom, landed his first movie role in the mid-1930s when he was nearly 60, following a long New York stage career. He was a master of the double-take, and his specialty was the paternal, grandfatherly dispenser of wisdom who was nonetheless somewhat befuddled by the shenanigans going on around him.
At first glance, Arthur and Coburn might seem an unlikely comedy team, but studio executives in those days knew chemistry when they saw it and the pair worked so well together that they found themselves co-starring in three pictures, each with Coburn playing matchmaker to Arthur and a younger leading man.
The first two are classics of romantic farce, “The Devil and Miss Jones” (1941), which earned Coburn a well-deserved Academy Award nomination, and “The More the Merrier” (1943), for which Coburn won the Oscar as best supporting actor. The third was the 1944 comedy-drama “The Impatient Years.”
“The More the Merrier” and “The Impatient Years” have been on DVD for a while now, but “The Devil and Miss Jones” has long been missing in action. This week, however, that oversight has been corrected as the black-and-white charmer finally makes its DVD and Blu-ray debut, thanks to the independent Olive Films label, which has lately been giving new home-video life to vintage films in which the studios have apparently lost interest.
Hot on the heels of her Frank Capra triumphs — “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), “You Can’t Take it With You” (1938) and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) — Arthur receives solo name-above-the-title billing in “The Devil and Miss Jones” as Mary Jones, a shoe-sales clerk in a large Manhattan department store owned by J.P. Merrick (Coburn), a pompous tycoon who doesn’t even know he owns the store until he is told about an attempt by unnamed employees to organize a union to raise wages and improve working conditions.
Outraged by a newspaper photo of his name on a dummy being hanged in effigy outside the store, Merrick orders everyone involved to be discharged. “Fire anyone that’s even suspicious; you don’t have to be accurate,” he bellows. Then he decides to go undercover in the store, posing as a clerk to expose his subversive employees.
On the job, Merrick is immediately befriended by Mary, who thinks he’s poor and homeless. And it isn’t long before she reveals herself and her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings) as ringleaders of the union movement. Initially, Merrick writes names in his “doomsday book,” believing the complaints to be without merit — and he vows to break up Mary and Joe, considering him a rabble-rouser. But gradually he sees the store executives as the villains and finds himself playing matchmaker — and even starts a little romance of his own with another employee (Spring Byington).
That’s the plot, but, of course, what makes “The Devil and Miss Jones” so joyous is the witty repartee and a cleverly constructed script, bolstered by an expert cast that includes an array of familiar character actors led by Edmund Gwenn as the cold-hearted manager of the shoe department, six years before his Oscar-winning role as Kris Kringle in “Miracle on 34th Street," and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Merrick’s hapless, put-upon butler.
Coburn’s Merrick is arguably the lead character here, and he’s a riot as he goes from angry and indignant to sympathetic and concerned, gradually evolving as he experiences the indignities suffered by his employees at the hands of unscrupulous bosses. And he gets a lot of laughs when he’s at sea trying to live like everyone else without the pampering from servants he’s become accustomed to.
“The Devil and Miss Jones” holds up as funny and warm, and in today’s atmosphere of downsizing and layoffs, there is also more resonance than you might expect from a 72-year-old movie.
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