J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) is a very rich and very grumpy department store owner. When his employees decide to start unionizing, hoping to get higher pay and better conditions in the workplace, he decides to take action to stop them. Determined to find and take down the union organizers, J.P. takes a job in his own store as a shoe salesman under the name of “Mr. Higgins.”
No one in the store realizes who he truly is, and he’s soon befriended by Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) and Elizabeth Ellis (Spring Byington). J.P., losing his devil-ish anger as these friendships grow, finds himself falling for Elizabeth.
Sam Wood (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) directs 1941’s The Devil and Miss Jones, a romantic dramedy written by Norman Krasna (Indiscreet). In addition to the cast listed above, appearances are also made by Edmund Gwenn, S.Z. Sakall and William Demarest among others.
The film has an amazing opening, which may qualify as one of my favorite openings ever even after just one viewing. A very grumpy-looking Charles Coburn pops up on screen with “The Devil” written in a fire-y font above his head. We’re then introduced to “Miss Jones” as Jean Arthur pops up on screen, with a halo floating overhead and an adorable smile on her face. These images alternate a couple more times before the rest of the credits roll. What an attention-grabbing and unique way to begin the film!
We’re then shown a little disclaimer from “The Author, Director and Producer” of the film which reads, “Dear Richest Man 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. P.S. Nobody sue. P.P.S. Please.” This cheeky little message made me instantly love the film even more.
As we all know, an opening can’t make a film no matter how delightful it is. If cutesy credits could save a poorly written story, we would never see a truly good film made again – they’d all be awful films with great openings.
Luckily, the issue of whether or not the rest of the film can live up to such a fun beginning is no issue here. The entire film carries on with the same quirky sense of humor that was dished out before the first line of dialogue was even uttered (with some added sugary sweetness as the romantic relationships evolve), and I loved every minute of it.
Though there is a subplot of union organization drama, the film is in many moments simply a fun and exciting rom-com, easy to watch and easy to love. It is most dramatic in the first quarter or so, when J.P. is still wholly dedicated to his anti-union cause. As Elizabeth and friends win him over, the level of drama decreases, coming back a few times in small waves… but it never again reaches its heights from the film’s beginnings. The mix of romance and societal criticism makes for an interesting watch.
Coburn, Byington, Arthur and Cummings all give wonderful performances in their roles. Coburn, of course, stands out. His character makes the greatest personal journey, from disgruntled and closed-minded to happy, loving and willing to compromise. Jean Arthur is also a stand-out. She lights up the screen with her natural charm and bright personality.
In short, The Devil and Miss Jones is a great watch. It’s got a great cast, a nice story and a pretty perfectly mixed potion of comedy and drama. The score: 4/5