Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Choosing Between The Devil and Miss Jones

If you think The Devil and Miss Jones is an adult film akin to Deep Throat, you’re in the wrong era (and the wrong mindset) entirely. In 1973, one year after the frankly pornographic Deep Throat became a surprise success among hip moviegoers, its filmmaker, Gerard Damiano, launched a second film, coyly titling it The Devil in Miss Jones. No, I’ve never seen it.

 But I’ve just watched The Devil and Miss Jones, and been pleasantly surprised.. Released by RKO in 1941, this is a whimsical workplace comedy, starring Jean Arthur, whose stellar career stretched from silent movies to 1953’s Shane. This vibrant gal with the distinctively throaty voice may be best remembered for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But she’s never been more memorable than as Mary Jones, a New York department store salesclerk with a yen for a would-be union organizer played by the young Bob Cummings. Forget about that title: this is not a supernatural fable, like Cabin in the Sky. Though the  ecstatically happy ending is clearly a fantasy, there’s no devil here, unless you mean the apparently heartless business tycoon brilliantly played by Charles Coburn. Looking down at the world from his mansion just off Bryant Park, he scorns the common folk who labor in the department store that’s part of his vast holdings. When some of them dare to demonstrate against upper management, parading with an effigy that represents him, he vows revenge. But things hardly work out as planned.

 For various reasons, Coburn’s character decides to personally masquerade as a department-store clerk, the better to spy on the rebel faction on the fifth floor. Pretending to be the amiable, unsophisticated Tom, he sets about selling men’s and women’s slippers, under the tutelage of the spunky Mary. Wouldn’t you know it? He comes to respect the hardworking employees who try their best, but are often undercut by managerial types who don’t understand their issues.

 Everything comes to a head on a day-off trip to Coney Island, where Mary speaks eloquently about her love for her beau, while Coburn’s tycoon becomes more and more enamored of the gentle Elizabeth (Spring Byington), who frankly muses to him that she could never marry a rich man for fear of doubting her own motives. There’s also a kerfuffle over the wine he’s brought along: the others in the party, unused to anything other than the rotgut made by a janitor stomping grapes in his bathtub, disdain his priceless vintage and try to add soda-pop to kill its taste. Oh yes, there’s also eventually a near-arrest, followed by a trip to the police station, where things look bad for our main character until Mary’s swain quotes dollops of the U.S. Constitution, bravely defying authority figures and winning Coburn’s respect.

 The cinematography in this film—always vivid—takes on special dimensions in these beach scenes, as director Sam Wood crams his frame with hordes of frolicking extras, making clear how hard it is for the working class to find privacy, even during leisure hours. There are also some terrific opening shots in which the tycoon’s cadre of toadies are driven up to his mansion, one after the other, in their sleek black limousines: the cars are filmed at such a low angle that they look like monstrous beasts of prey.

 Despite the star presence of Jean Arthur, this is largely third-billed Coburn’s show, as we see him melt from ferociousness into joviality. His is one of two Oscar nominations earned by The Devil and Miss Jones. The other, well-deserved, is for Norman Krasna’s script.



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