Directed by Sam Wood
Written by Norman Krasna
Starring Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur, Robert Cummings, Edwin
Gwynn, Spring Byington, S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, William Demerest
There are some actors who are always a delight to see on screen. For instance, Edwin Gwynn and S. Z. Sakall fit nicely into this category, and also have a propensity of showing up in good movies. Jean Arthur also fits, as does William Demerest (though mostly due to his work with Preston Sturges). And all four are in The Devil and Miss Jones.
The movie is a dramatized version of the current reality show, Undercover Boss. John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) is the richest man in the world and the owner of a department store who is concerned that his workers are talking about forming a union. So he joins the store as a shoe clerk to find out who is behind this – with an eye to firing them. He meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), who shows him the ropes and whose boyfriend, Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) has been fired for labor agitation.
Merrick learns that his conception of his workers is not what he thought it to be, and acts as Cupid for the couple, all while a romance develops for him on his job.
Charles Coburn was not your usual Hollywood star. He took up film acting in his fifties, but became a featured player a few years later. He was a rotund man noticeable for his monocle.* He plays the plutocrat very nicely as he changes from the rich, uncaring boss to someone who learns that his workers are not his enemies. He received an Oscar nomination for the role.
Jean Arthur brought her comic presence to the role of Mary. She was an actress who was able to play tough, but with a touch of strong emotion and was especially good in comic roles like this one.
Coburn and Arthur are not well known today. Coburn was usually a supporting player** and most of his films are fairly obscure to modern audiences. Arthur is better known from her work in classics like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Shane, but she stopped acting in films after 1953, and rarely appeared on stage or television and became more and more reclusive.***
Director Sam Wood was one of MGM’s most dependable directors in the 1930s and is best known today for his directing A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. The movie was a success and Arthur and Coburn were teamed twice more.
The biggest reason for the film’s eclipse, though, was the fact the the title was used for a well-known porn film. The Devil in Miss Jones was one of a group of fashionable porn films in the early 70s. It is not uncommon to make porn versions of films, but in this case, the porn became better known than the original.**** I suspect this kept the original from being rediscovered, since people knew the X-rated one better.
*Other than Charlie McCarthy, he’s the only actor to become a star wearing one. It was no affectation: Coburn had bad vision in only one eye, and saw no reason to wear lenses on both.
**He won his Oscar in 1994 for The More the Merrier.
***Some reports have said she suffered from terrible stage fright.
****Which was pretty obscure when the porn came out. Because Sam Wood was not an auteur favorite, and Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were not big names, The Devil and Miss Jones did not show up on the revival circuit.