The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Me and Miss Jones

The Devil and Miss Jones may be the best Frank Capra film he didn’t make and one of the last depression era comedies making it one of the last of its kind – a screwball comedy attacking the rich who caused the great depression. The film presents a fascinating and shocking look at the treatment of workers in a department store during the final days of the depression, themes which would become obsolete with the US entry to the war.

The owner of the department store is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn). With this character the movie shows the rich aren’t all bad people at heart. They’re just cut off from common people and their reality, unaware of the common man’s struggle and surround by advisors who think they know what’s best. Heck, J.P. doesn’t even remember what stores he owns! He brings himself down to his employee’s level by going undercover as a store worker in order to identify those who are trying to form a union. J.P. has the advantage that no one in the public knows what he looks like as his picture hasn’t appeared in a newspaper for 20 years, also no internet in 1941 would also be an advantage.

I don’t how if the treatment of the workers is realistic or exaggerated; just how relevant is this movie today? In one scene a store supervisor criticises a new worker (unaware it’s the store’s owner going undercover) in a bullying nature for their poor intelligence level test score. In another scene the department store addresses their workers at the end of the day as they stand in unison like a military dictatorship, threatening to fire anyone and preventing them from working in any department store in the city if they speak out against the company or associate with anyone who does. Next many of the workers have a secret union meeting on top of a building, like a band of rebels coming together to take down a oppressive regime. The leader of the cause played by Robert Cummings states the company is letting employees go after 15 years when their salary is higher than a new employee and that they expect a quarter lifetime of loyalty to the one employer. At one point Jean Arthur even speaks during one emotionally rousing speech about how working “25 years for only two employers” as unacceptable –  I know those days have certainly passed us. The art deco department store itself is a beauty and offers a nostalgic look at the days before automation, when people had to be employed to do every task without the aid of computers.

Robert Cumming’s character is more a product of the 1960’s, a radical protester who is against the establishment; the type of person who would protect his country against its government. In one pivotal scene at a police station he takes on abusive, power hungry cops and escaping charges by reciting the Constitution and then the Declaration of Independence at lightening fast speed to remind the officers of their rights; a real bad ass. A scene like this just goes to show you how people are unaware of their rights.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn are a superb and unconventional pairing. Yet you get two great romance plots for the price of one – old love and young love; Charles Coburn & Spring Byington and Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings. Like Frank Capra’s works, The Devil and Miss Jones is full of incredibly intimate, powerfully sentimental moments as two characters talk to each other as the rest of the world ceases to exist, such as the beach scene with Arthur and Cummings or the moment on the train with Coburn and Byington are all incredibly moving. Yet the intimate moment which strikes me the most is Arthur and Coburn’s discussion on love. Jean Arthur’s monologue on love feels so true; stating that two people can look at each other and see something way deep inside that no one else can see and distances her love from that seen in movies of love songs. She doesn’t think herself or her boyfriend are the greatest people in the world, yet doesn’t know if she’d care to live or die if she would never see him again. When this moment begins the sound effects of people talking in the background becomes increasingly faint and then loud again as other people enter the scene – it’s perfect. In terms of just pure comedy, just look the scene in which Jean Arthur dives across the table; an explosion screwball comedy in its purest form.

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