Labor Day meant my kids were off of school and they had planned on making it a Musicals Monday. The King and I was on their playlist and so was Guys and Dolls. I did a search of Turner Classic Movies for a specific romantic-comedy, the perfect film for Labor Day: 1941’s The Devil and Miss Jones.
The wonderful cast: Charles Coburn-department store tycoon John Merrick, Jean Arthur-store clerk Mary Jones, Robert Cummings-Joe O’Brien, Union organizer, Edmund Gwenn-Hooper, Section Manager, Spring Byington-Elizabeth Ellis, clerk, S.Z. Sakall-George, Mr. Merrick’s butler, William Demarest-First Detective. Directed by Sam Wood, produced by Frank Ross(Jean Arthur’s husband at the time), Screenplay by Norman Krasna, and released by RKO Studios.
Coburn is John Merrick, the richest man in the world. One of his employees at one of his department stores burned an effigy of him at an union organizing meeting. Merrick is determined to find out who did this, why, and what can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Merrick is truly mystified as to why any employees would be mad at him, why they would want a union, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of this offensive act.
Merrick decides that he’ll go undercover as a new store employee to find out about the union organizing. He fires the store detective and then assumes the man’s name and employee info card. Disguised as Mr. Higgins, he goes to work as a new clerk in the shoe department, because he was told that it’s the “hotbed of discontentment” among all of the store’s employees. It is here that Higgins meets Mary Jones(Arthur). She takes pity on this old man who doesn’t want to eat lunch as he wants to prove to the Section Manager, Hooper(Gwenn), who treated him with great disdain, that he, Mr. Higgins, can sell shoes. Mary loans him 50 cents, tells him that he must take a lunch break, and eventually introduces him to Elizabeth Ellis(Byington) who nicely shares her lunch with him. A bit of that scene can be viewed here.
Even though Jean Arthur got top billing in this movie, got the publicity posters to feature her, and her husband produced the movie, this movie is Charles Coburn’s for the win. He is absolutely wonderful as a wealthy man who has gotten out of touch with the world of the laborer. He’s not quite an Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Potter type of bad, rich man, but he is cantankerous at first. We see his character go through changes as he comes to meet and know some of his employees and it helps to make him a warmer, more responsible business owner and man who can use his wealth for good purposes. We also get to see his character fall in love with Miss Elizabeth. It is a sweet movie that dares to show two senior citizens falling in love! Coburn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 1941 Academy Awards for his efforts as Mr. Merrick/Higgins.
The film is fast-paced, there is mistaken identity aplenty with the Higgins ruse. Merrick does find out who made the effigy and burned it-Joe O’Brien(Cummings) who is also the love of Mary’s life! Near the end when all seems lost for Merrick, for the union, for Mary and Joe, happiness will come through and reign supreme.
The Devil and Miss Jones is available to purchase on a blu-ray at Amazon, it’s available to purchase at TCM’s Shop in a regular dvd format or a blu-ray, and here is another clip from Youtube for the film: the opening credits with Coburn trying to look evil, and with an angelic Jean Arthur opposite him.
For your next Labor Day entertainment, or for a fun look at labor and managment circa 1941, seek out The Devil and Miss Jones. Here are a few pics from the film: