Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Devil and Miss Jones Is a Relevant and Hilarious Tale

Wealthy & reclusive tycoon John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) has a thorn in his side. That thrown is the people who work at one of the department stores he owns. These employees are now taking to the streets bellowing about the importance of unions and worker rights. Merrick doesn't know why these people can't just go to wor and be grateful for a job. In an effort to figure out how to undermine their union ambitions, Merrick decides to do a little undercover work. Specifically, he'll go to the store and pose as a new employee. There, he'll earn the trust of his new co-workers, find out who's in charge of unionizing at this department store and squash out this revolution before it even begins.

Store clerk Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) takes Merrick, posing as a man named Thomas Higgins, under her wing. It's a good thing Merrick has her help since the life of a story employee is turning out to be far more difficult than he'd initially imagined. Merrick's journey of discovering how important the rights of everyday workers actually is served as the crux of The Devil and Miss Jones. Norman Krasna's screenplay immediately establishes itself as a piece of cheeky satire thanks to opening text reassuring rich viewers that this movie isn't based on anybody real and urging those same moviegoers not to sue. I don't know what Krasna was even jokingly worried about. Who could J.P. Merrick possibly be based on?

Such satire gets a lot of enjoyable jokes out of seeing Merrick struggling to adapt to the fast-paced and strenuous life of being a retailer worker. Even when Merrick tries to use his influence to create an in-store victory for himself, like when he pays his butler to bring a little girl to buy shoes, things go comically awry. Krasna's screenplay also gets great comedic mileage out of letting certain situations spiral out of control to humorous extremes. This is most apparently seen in a sequence where Jones attempts to create an elaborate lie to try to get herself and Merrick out of the clutches of abrasive police officers. Like so many great screwball comedies of the 1930s, The Devil and Miss Jones has a gift for creating laughs out of escalating chaos.

Krasna's witty screenplay goes hand-in-hand with insightful pieces of social commentary, including an extended examination of how the police serve a very different function for rich people compared to people in lower-income brackets. Merrick believes he can just get off the hook for any legal issues with one phone call to friends in high places. However, in the guise of cash-strapped Thomas Higgins, the cops are looking for any excuse to arrest him. The Devil and Miss Jones functions so well as a comedy but it's also quite thoughtful in reflecting the unique challenges facing lower classes of American society. The only pressing issue I have with the sociopolitical commentary in The Devil and Miss Jones is how it's a disgrace that this movie is still so relevant in 2020.

Rather than being an outdated relic, The Devil and Miss Jones is just as urgent as ever eighty years after its release. We're still fighting for the rights of workers in the modern era in the face of wealthy business owners who demonize the very concept of unions. In a year where billionaires are all too happy to let everyday workers get exposed to COVID-19 if it'll make them an extra few bucks, Charles Coburn's comically exaggerated portrait of an arrogant rich person doesn't feel at all detached from reality. While it's a pity the struggles of the working class presented in The Devil and Miss Jones are still a pressing issue in 2020, at least it's comedy and performances are similarly timeless!

While the whole cast is delivering rock-solid work, Jean Arthur stuck out to me as the absolute best of the whole group. This is my first exposure to Arthur as a performer and what a captivating actor she is. She has that same endearing mixture of frankness and worldliness that Rosalind Russell conveyed in His Girl Friday. Like Russell, whenever Arthur speaks as Mary Jones, you totally believe that she's got the experience necessary to be a master at her craft. To boot, Arthur also has an incredible amount of charisma, and her sense of comic timing is impeccable. She's all-around terrific in The Devil and Miss Jones too. That's quite fitting since, save for an awkwardly rushed ending, Sam Wood's 1941 directorial effort is similarly sublime.

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