When I first saw The Devil and Miss Jones several years ago, I found myself wondering how I could have missed such a funny, smart, compelling film for so long. Though seeming to have all the hallmarks of an instant classic, The Devil and Miss Jones is one of those films that too often, undeservedly, fly under the radar and land in obscurity. A few weeks ago, I heard that the spring Classic Movie Blog Association blogathon would be celebrating “Hidden Classics,” and I knew immediately which film I would write about.
Not only does The Devil and Miss Jones deserve to be more widely seen, but should be seen by all corporate executives and supervisors. In it, they will find insight into the plight of their workers, and the reasons why they unionize. It is explicitly pro-worker and pro-union, made in an era of seismic shifts for workers’ rights.
In the film, written brilliantly by Norman Krasna and directed by Sam Wood, J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) discovers that employees at his department store have been burning him in effigy and “agitating” to organize a union. As his workers have never seen him, he decides to go undercover and root out the organizers himself. He gets hired as a worker in the “hotbed of discontent” within the company––the shoe department. In a biting commentary, his intelligence test places him one point above the minimum passing score, invoking the disdain of his supervisor.
In the shoe department, in an effort to keep his enemies close, he befriends several outspoken organizers including Mary (Jean Arthur) and her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings). He becomes especially close to a woman named Elizabeth, close to his own age, and begins a romance with her. He takes notes on how to strategically stop the organizing in its tracks, but before long he finds himself sympathizing with the workers and their rights. After the organizing drive fails to get enough support, the list with the names of the 400 people who supported the effort ends up in Merrick’s pocket. But instead of siding with the management who wants to fire the 400 organizers, Merrick helps destroy the list of organizers, saving their jobs and siding with the employees in the struggle for better treatment. He puts the blame on the director for the unrest. “I’ve worked with these people. They have rights!”
Franklin D. Roosevelt had been in office 8 years by the time The Devil and Miss Jones was released. His presidency was seen by the American labor movement as a tremendous success, with the Wagner Act passed in 1935, giving unions collective bargaining rights and workers protection for concerted activity. Roosevelt believed that better treatment for workers was the key to a healthy labor economy, and robust unions were in the nation’s interest. However, the Wagner Act did not pass Congress easily, and in The Devil and Miss Jones, we can see just how new and contentious these rights were in 1941. Under the Wagner Act, no employee can be fired for engaging in organization of a union, but at the end of The Devil and Miss Jones, we see an employer trying to do just that.
The movie coats the seriousness of its message with a healthy dose of self-awareness and lots of comedy. The introduction of the film reads:
“Dear Richest Men in the World:
We made up this character in the story, out of our own heads. It’s nobody, really.
The whole thing is make-believe.
We’d feel awful if anyone was offended.
The Author, Director, and Producer.
P.S. Nobody sue.
Using a name like J.P. Merrick, I suppose this was warranted.
The Devil and Miss Jones has a DVD release through Olive Films, and you can also watch it on Amazon Prime (though the irony is not lost on me, given Amazon’s recent history). It is a highly entertaining, well-crafted movie that takes a stand for what’s right.