Robert Cummings and Jean Arthur in 1941's "The Devil and Miss Jones.'

The Devil and Miss Jones September 16, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Sam Wood

 

STARRING

Jean Arthur
Robert Cummings
Charles Coburn

Spring Byington

Edmund Gwenn

RATED

NR

RELEASED IN

1941

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 32 Mins.

B

efore there was Undercover Boss, there was Sam Wood’s The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Though unlike in the TV show, the executive in disguise here, J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), is practically stepping into his masquerade with fire in his eyes and steam shooting from his ears. He doesn’t want to get to know his employees better, find out firsthand where the day-to-day operational kinks of his company lie 

so he can help fix them. He just wants to fire people more efficiently. 

 

Merrick, so untouchable among the world’s rich that he’s managed not to be publicly photographed in 20 years, is so pissed off because the workers at one of the many department stores he owns have decided to unionize. In their regular strikes, he’s been their main target of contempt. (At the most recent one, an effigy in his likeness is hanged.) Because the private detective he’d hired a while ago to suss out who’s been leading unionization efforts is going about his assignment slower than Merrick would like, Merrick offers to take his place. He keeps a little notebook to jot down his suspicions while toiling through shoe-department training and then full-time employment.
   

It’s hard for him to play hardball for very long, though. All his new co-workers, particularly the gentle but firm-when-she-needs-to-be Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), are good and kind to him — qualities that chisel away the brittle casing around his heart and get him to see their humanity. Before long, he’s at the bargaining table alongside Mary and her union-leader boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings), almost as horrified as they are when corporate suits treat their reasonable concerns as outrageous. 
 

Wood (who directs from a script by Norman Krasna) doesn’t have a feel for comedy. The handful of scenes designed to be daffy and fun, playing up how unequipped Merrick is to do the work he thinks is so easy, are shot so leadenly you almost forget you’re supposed to laugh. But Wood is proficient at developing the film’s stakes, homing in on the futures imperiled for workers treated more like cattle than assets to be retained in the long-term. Our conduit into this story might be Merrick, but Krasna is far more interested in the lives of the working-class people squished by this obscenely wealthy tycoon. (The film is most stirring when, mid-film, Mary and Joe frankly discuss the difficulties of building a life together when you can barely keep your head afloat separately.) 
   

The Devil and Miss Jones’ pro-union rhetoric is impassioned and unwaveringly supportive. Expectedly, though, it doesn’t go far enough in its anti-capitalist messaging, even if it’s pretty pointed in its suggestions that an abundance of money and power deplete a person’s humanity. The Devil and Miss Jones 

ultimately wants to be feel-good, a little Capra-esque; it wants to sweeten up any tour tastes before it finishes up.
 

The film can’t just be about the characters unionizing and getting the fair wages they’ve been requesting for what feels like forever. (And even that outcome is, bizarrely, only alluded to: the movie’s finale cuts away from a bargaining-table confrontation to a party where seemingly all has been resolved.) The movie is also preoccupied with redeeming Merrick, seeing him transform from a devil to an angel before our very eyes. It’s hard not to soften on him as he sees the errors of his ways; much of that has to do with a Coburn performance that manages skillfully to skirt caricature and present a believable vision of a man hardened by his wealth slowly shift into someone new. 
 

But though people can change, you may resist the movie’s tacit declarations that he’s a nice guy now — a magnate with a heart of gold whose new reign we can look forward to because it’s being conducted with a smile and upped empathy and not a scowl and iron fist. Are we supposed to forget the decades’-worth of lives Merrick has had a hand in ruining by virtue of his abominable labor practices, and also believe now that there can, in fact, be such a thing as a “good” unfathomably rich CEO? The Devil and Miss Jones' reform-from-the-inside resolution feels pat. It would be far more heartwarming to see Merrick relinquish his title entirely and give away his fortune to all the minimum-wage workers who earned it for him. But The Devil and Miss Jones was also released in 1941, when movies, largely molded by the restrictive Hays Code, could only challenge the status quo so much. Like how the film offers the unrealistic fantasy of a for-the-people mogul, we can only fantasize about a smarter, bolder version of The Devil and Miss JonesB-