I love Jean Arthur. I feel like she gets a bad rap sometimes because of her unique voice. There are those who find her voice irritating or unbecoming. I am not one of those people. I think her voice is adorable and I love it. It’s one of the reasons that makes Jean so unique and makes her stand apart from her peers. Jean started her career in silent film, but didn’t really find that one part to make her a star. It was only when she transitioned to “talkies” that we were treated to her amazing voice. And then her star just rose from there.
While Jean never reached that echelon of star like that of her peers like Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant, she was a big star in her day. It’s unfortunate that Jean is hardly known outside of the classic film community. However, of those who do know about Jean, we know that she was one of the Golden Age’s finest actresses, who could do both screwball and drama.
One of my favorite of Jean’s films is The Devil and Miss Jones from 1941. This film doesn’t seem to be very well known and rarely plays on TCM, if ever. I cannot recall this film airing on the channel recently. However, my friends at Olive Films have made this film available to the masses, which is how I saw it originally. I purchased it as a blind buy, something I rarely do, but because I love Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, I wanted to see it. I was not disappointed.
In The Devil and Miss Jones, Coburn plays tycoon, John P. Merrick, a crotchety man who finds out that one of the employees at Neely’s, a department store that he owns, is trying to unionize the employees. Wanting to put the kibosh on the union, Merrick decides to go undercover as “Thomas Higgins” and apply for a position in the shoe department. He zeroes in on the shoe department as he’s heard rumors that that is where the union discussions are the most concentrated.
After almost failing a minimum intelligence test to even work in the department, Merrick gets a job in the children’s shoe department. There is a funny running gag that shows Merrick making a list of grievances that he has after encountering various policies and employees in the department. One particular grievance he has is with Hooper (Edmund Gwenn), the department manager, whose patronizing attitude does not sit well with him.
While working at the store, Merrick befriends a fellow sales clerk, the titular “Miss Jones,” i.e. Mary Jones (Arthur). Mary introduces Merrick to her boyfriend, Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) who is the instigator behind the union talks and has recently been fired from the store. As he spends more time with Mary and Joe, he finds himself feeling sympathetic with their situation and reasons for wanting to be part of a union. Merrick also finds himself starting to fall for Elizabeth Ellis (Spring Byington), another sales clerk.
There is a funny scene where the group visits the beach at Coney Island. First of all, who in their right mind would want to go to this extremely crowded beach? You literally cannot see the sand because there are so many people there. I would be claustrophobic at this beach and want to leave almost immediately. Merrick brings an expensive bottle of wine from his cellar to share with his new friends. They don’t take to the wine and think that Merrick was tricked into buying cheap swill. They end up mixing it with soda (blech) and then dumping it into whatever inch of open sand that was next to them.
Jean Arthur wears a two-piece outfit with a crop top and it looks fantastic on her. Between this film and The More the Merrier, I always envy her fantastic figure. I always find Jean’s birthdate of 1900 fantastic, because she was one of the older actors of the Golden Age but she sure doesn’t look it. She would have been 40-41* in this film and I wouldn’t have guessed it. She has such a youthful, beautiful face. Do we ever see Jean Arthur smoke in a film? I cannot recall. Perhaps she didn’t smoke and that’s the reason behind her youthful look.
*After writing this, I realized that I’m only 4-5 years younger than Jean in this film, but apparently I think that someone who is 40-41 should look so much older. People looked a lot older back then, so that’s what I’m going with…
Anyway, after spending the day together in the beach, Merrick ends up almost being arrested after he tries to sell his watch to get money to call his house and chauffeur. The storekeeper and the police officer assume that Merrick has stolen the watch and take him in. Mary comes to pick Merrick up and it is assumed she’s in cahoots with Merrick and part of his thievery ring. Joe comes in to rescue Merrick and Mary and saves the day. Merrick begins to see Joe in a new light.
The main conflict occurs when Joe and Mary break up. As he disembarks from the subway, Merrick drops his identification card stating that “Thomas Higgins is employed in a confidential capacity.” Mary finds the card and concludes that Higgins is a spy. She arranges an emergency meeting with her co-workers and Joe. They decide to forge ahead with their union plans.
I really love this film. Arthur and Coburn have such a great rapport with one another, as shown again in The More the Merrier. Jean is so sweet and funny in this film. It is easy to see why everyone would fall in love with her. I highly recommend this film as well as all of Jean’s other comedies like: The More the Merrier, Talk of the Town, Too Many Husbands, The Whole Town’s Talking, Easy Living, and More Than A Secretary.
My favorite part of The Devil and Miss Jones are all the scenes with international treasure, SZ Sakall, and the sweet scenes between Coburn and Byington when she offers him some of her homemade tuna popovers. I also love the scene when Mary talks about “Higgins'” advanced age of 55 and how he seems to be in good shape and has his faculties about him, despite his age.
Now I want a tuna popover.