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DEVIL AND MISS JONES, THE(director: Sam Wood; screenwriter: Norman Krasna; cinematographer: Harry Stradling; editor: Sherman Todd; music: Roy Webb; cast: Jean Arthur (Mary Jones), Charles Coburn (John P. Merrick), Robert Cummings (Joe O’Brien), Edmund Gwenn (Hooper), S.Z. Sakall (George), Spring Byington (Elizabeth Ellis), William Demarest (First Detective), Robert Emmett Keane (Tom Higgins); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Norman Krasna; RKO; 1941)
A pleasant cornball comedy in the mode of Capra.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A pleasant cornball comedy in the mode of Capra, one that is reaching out for populist support. Charles Coburn and Jean Arthur are terrific as the masquerading cranky boss and earnest shopgirl with a heart of gold, but a bland Robert Cummings fizzles as the political firebrand and romantic interest of Arthur. It’s directed by Hollywood’s noted anti-communist crusader Sam Wood, a friend of the Senator McCarthy witch hunters, who washes out most of the script’s subversive liberal viewpoint by his phlegmatic directing. Screenwriter Norman Krasna hands in a suitable script, but the film sinks when it gets to Coney Island and the conversion of the boss stops becoming fun.

Publicity shy New York City tycoon (the world’s richest person) and owner of Neeley’s department store J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) is peeved to find in the front page of the N.Y. Times a dolllike picture of himself hanged in effigy by his disgruntled employees in a demonstration in front of a department store he doesn’t even realize he owns until told by his servile board of directors. The workers want to organize a union over unfair working conditions and are led for the last year by former employee Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings), who realizes it’s now or never for him to succeed.

Not satisfied that undercover private detective Thomas Higgins can do the job in time, Merrick fires the detective and takes Higgins’ place as he poses as a lowly clerk in the radicalized 5th floor shoe department and hopes to ferret out all the troublemakers and fire them. But by becoming one of “them” he slowly begins to change his rigid viewpoint. Young salesgirl Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) feels sorry for the 55-year-old man and gives him fifty cents for lunch when she thinks he doesn’t go to lunch because he has no money (not realizing that he only eats Graham crackers served crumpled by his servant (S.Z. Sakall)). Mary also helps Higgins become a better shoe salesman when she discovers he’s subjected to deplorable treatment by tyrannical department head Hooper (Edmund Gwenn). Higgins also becomes friendly with a clerk more his age, Elizabeth Ellis (Spring Byington), and the bachelor finds he enjoys being mothered by her and gets even more pleasure taking her away from dating the man he hates most in the store–Hooper. Mary’s romantic interest is Joe O’Brien. On the weekend they go to Coney Island where Elizabeth and Higgins take the subway to join them at the crowded common-man’s beach. Higgins grows increasingly uncomfortable in his rented swimsuit and can’t wait to leave realizing that he’s swimming where he doesn’t belong.

All the comic moments are the result of the artificially created mistaken-identity situations played to the max. It has some intent to be like those 1930s screwball comedies and more intent to be one of those 1940s social conscious comedies. But it’s remembered best for the passionate performances of Arthur and Coburn, who make their characters more appealing than the contrived story.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”