Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Director: Sam Wood                                     Writer: Norman Krasna
Film Score: Roy Webb                                  Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Starring: Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn, Robert Cummings and Edmund Gwenn

After Frank Capra’s huge successes showing the resilience of the “little man” over capitalist interests in films like You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith goes to Washington, RKO decided to get into the act by pitting the “richest man in the world” against Jean Arthur. Think of it as a nineteen forties version of Undercover Boss. The Devil and Miss Jones begins with an inside joke. After RKO’s tumultuous experience with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and its thinly veiled portrayal of William Randolph Herst which the newspaper magnate tried to legally stop, the opening title card reads, “Dear Richest Men 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. Thank you, The Author, Director and Producer. P.S. Nobody sue. P.S.S. Please.” It’s a wonderful bit of whimsy to begin a delightful film that should be far more well-known than it is.

The story begins with the board of directors being summoned to Charles Coburn’s house. The reclusive richest man in the world has been hung in effigy outside one of his own department stores and he’s anxious to know who to fire. When the wife of the detective who has been hired to infiltrate the store is going to have a baby, Coburn dismisses him and comes up with the brilliant idea to do the job himself. But it’s been a long time since Coburn had to mingle with the unwashed masses. He’s immediately put off by department manager Edmund Gwenn, but sales clerk Jean Arthur takes him under her wing and shows him the ropes. When he refuses to go to lunch, Arthur thinks it’s because he’s poor and sends him along with fellow clerk Spring Byington for an absolutely delightful scene in the park. Later, employee Robert Cummings handcuffs himself to a pipe and begins agitating for unionizing the shop and later that night, when Arthur takes Coburn to a union meeting, it turns out she’s Cumming’s girlfriend. Of course Coburn believes he’s hit the jackpot and can’t wait to fire the whole bunch of them.

But of course once Jean Arthur takes him into her confidence and he begins to spend time with her, as well as falling for Byington, he begins to see things from the employee’s perspective. The requisite Dickensian change of heart is incredibly well done. Jean Arthur is wonderful as the innocent sales clerk who shepherds Coburn into an understanding of the regular worker. As always, she lights up the screen, and without the anger that her character is sometimes given in other films she’s incredibly endearing. Charles Coburn is brilliant as the curmudgeonly Scrooge character, but again there’s a soft edge to the character that makes him instantly likeably. Audiences thought so too, and he was nominated for best supporting actor that year at the Academy Awards. If there’s a weakness it’s Robert Cummings who seemed to do better in Hitchcock thrillers than romantic comedies. Other spot-on supporting roles are masterfully performed by Spring Byington as Coburn’s love interest, and Edmund Gwenn as the officious department head. S.Z Skall as Coburn's butler, William Demarest as a detective, Walter Kingsford as the store manager, and Regis Toomey as a cop all make their brief appearances count as well.

Sam Wood is definitely an unsung director from the golden age. He has a deft hand with the camera, with interesting shots and some very intimate close ups that enhance the picture in a very artistic way. He could do anything from The Marx Brothers to war films to sports dramas, all with equal confidence and mastery. Screenwriter Norman Krasna was the author of the original Mr. and Mrs. Smith for Alfred Hitchcock, and would go on to pen White Christmas as well as the romantic comedy Indiscreet. He was a co-producer on the film with Jean Arthur’s husband, Frank Ross, and it was such a success with fans and critics that it earned him an Academy Award nomination. RKO staff composer Roy Webb was also onboard to provide a solid score. Arthur and Coburn were such a hit that they teamed up twice more for The More the Merrier in 1943 and The Impatient Years a year later. The Devil and Miss Jones is an absolute delight that manages to take on Frank Capra and match him at his own game. It comes highly recommended.

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