In all of the remake mania of the past few decades, I’ve been surprised that no one has ever taken a look at the wonderful 1942 RKO romantic comedy “The Devil and Miss Jones.” It’s funny and sexy and has a potent social issue aspect as well.
Part of the problem might be that the movie Jean Arthur made independently (with her producer husband Frank Ross) is not nearly as well known as the pictures she made at her home studio, Columbia Pictures — her hits there included “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The More the Merrier” and many others.
(Another problem might be confusion with the 1973 pornographic film that lifted the title with only a slight change in wording, “The Devil in Miss Jones.” If you do an Internet search for the Jean Arthur picture you will probably also find lots of naughty material from the Georgina Spelvin vehicle.)
For many years, “Miss Jones” was more or less unavailable because there were no good prints until UCLA did a restoration of the original negative. The film was briefly released on VHS, but didn’t make its DVD debut until this month.
Jean Arthur gives one of her most charming performances (and that’s saying a lot) in this tale of union organizing at a New York City department store.
Arthur plays a sales clerk, Mary Jones, whose boyfriend, Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings), is fired for trying to organize the store.
The owner, John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), is a reclusive mogul with huge real estate holdings in the city. He is so furious about the union move that he decides to go undercover as a new employee to see what is really going on.
Merrick gets more than he bargained for, as he is treated badly by the management, and falls under the spell of the decent, kind-hearted Mary before he finds out that she is engaged to the man behind the union move.
The message in the film — if the rich and powerful saw how the other half lives, they’d change their tune — isn’t very overt because director Sam Wood and screenwriter Norman Krasna are more interested in the romantic and comic potential in the premise.
Although “Miss Jones” was filmed entirely in Hollywood, it has a slightly gritty edge that makes it feel like a real New York story. There’s a wonderful sequence set on the crowded beach at Coney Island that has the flavor of location filming.
The story is beautifully constructed and has a great payoff scene in which Mary and her friends find out who their poor old co-worker really is.
On paper, Arthur’s romantic partner is Robert Cummings as Joe, but the real love match in the film is between Mary and Merrick. The teaming of Arthur and Coburn was so successful that they paired up again in “The More the Merriier” two years later (earning Coburn an Oscar).
“The Devil and Miss Jones” is in need of rediscovery by fans of romantic comedy and the peerless Jean Arthur.