Tag Archives: unions

CMBA Spring Blogathon: THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES

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.

Thank you,

The Author, Director, and Producer.

P.S. Nobody sue.

P.P.S. Please.

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.

Advertisement

LABOR DAY 2019: Norma Rae (1979)

MSDNORA EC002

In 1973, labor organizer Crystal Lee Sutton was fired from the J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, NC. Her crime was “insubordination,” after her boss took issue with Sutton copying an anti-union letter on the bulletin board. Sutton had been organizing the workers in the plant to form a defense against unsafe working conditions and harassment from the bosses. Shortly after being fired, Sutton stood on a table with a hand-written sign reading “UNION,” workers turned off their machines, and all attention focused on her.

While Sutton was fired, her efforts worked–the textile workers voted to unionize the following year, and Sutton quickly landed a replacement job–working for the AFL-CIO as a labor organizer.

popup

Her story gripped the nation, and the year after the workers at the plant voted to unionize, her story became Norma Rae–a low-budget movie that rose to the ranks of serious contender for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, of which it earned 2–one for Sally Field in her first Academy Award win for Best Actress, and one for its theme song, “It Goes Like it Goes.” The film was a huge success upon its release, grossing $22 million–$17 million more than it took to make.

In the years since its release, Norma Rae has become synonymous with the labor movement, and with Sally Field. Up to this point, Field had been best known for her roles in The Flying Nun and Gidget. Her reputation made her an unlikely choice for Norma Rae. But following her knockout performance in Sybil two years earlier, her potential as a serious actress was the buzz of the industry. After Jane Fonda turned down the role of Norma Rae, the assistant of director Martin Ritt recommended Field. Ritt took to her immediately, but he had to fight with studio executives to allow her to be cast. Fields writes in her memoir, In Pieces:

“Marty Ritt asked me to come in… He said, ‘Look, the studio doesn’t want you… and they offered it to everyone else, and luckily they turned it down, because I want you, and I will fight for you, and I will win.”

Ritt was right in his instincts. As production continued, it became clear that Sally Field’s performance was going to change her career. Far from her girl-next-door portrayals of Gidget and The Flying Nun, Field played Norma Rae as a fierce, determined fighter with a backbone of steel.

The details of production demonstrate the wide-ranging impact that Sutton’s activities had on J.P. Stevens and other textile mills. Martin Ritt had wanted to shoot on location at a J.P. Stevens plant, but due to the vociferous objections of the bosses, they had to find another, friendlier mill. They ultimately opted for Opelika Manufacturing Corp. in Opelika, AL, where the workers had voted in a strong union, much like the one at J.P. Stevens. During the scenes at the mill, the real-life workers played extras.

norma-rae_668_330_80_int_s_c1

Norma Rae‘s production generated great excitement among the residents in small-town Opelika. At the time, Field was the girlfriend of Burt Reynolds, whose star dwarfed hers. Residents of Opelika frequently came out to watch the shoots, hoping that Reynolds would visit Field on the set. He did several times. Guy Rhodes, associate editor of the Tuskegee News in Tuskegee, AL, wrote about the film’s effect on citizens of Opelika. “To say there was excitement in the air would be an understatement. Not only were the stars in town, numerous local residents were selected to play extra roles in the movie.”

burt-reynolds-sally-fields

Reynolds and Field.

When production wrapped and the film was submitted to Cannes, it was immediately swept up in talk of the Palme d’Or and for the Best Female Performance Prize, which Field won. In subsequent ceremonies, she also won Best Actress at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, the National Board of Review, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Golden Globes, and the National Society of Film Critics Awards, before winning the Oscar.

The film did indeed change Sally Field’s career and reputation forever. In addition to the transformation in her professional life, she also credits Norma Rae with a personal wake-up call. “It so changed me on so many levels,” she told Oprah Winfrey. “It changed me politically, I don’t think I was ever aware politically, at all. It started me into looking at other people and how they lived, and I don’t think I had ever done that before.”

Despite all the accolades that it received, and despite its place in the career of one of our most respected modern actresses, Norma Rae is not widely accessible today. It is not streaming on Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, or any of the platforms on which most people access their movies nowadays. As I search the internet, I can find it in two places accessible to me–on DVD from Amazon, and at a branch of my local library. This puzzling circumstance is perhaps explained by the content of the film, and its effect on its audience.

1979-Norma-Rae-06

Norma Rae is unapologetically pro-labor. It shows its viewers exactly how to form a union in the workplace, from handing out fliers to be read “on your break” to dealing with opposition from bosses and coworkers. The movie shows in meticulous and exacting detail how to work around common obstacles and have a successful union vote. Certain interactions are dramatized and exaggerated for effect, but the situations are very real. Simply by watching Norma Rae, a viewer can learn a great deal about workplace organizing. And above all, it shows that courage and standing up for what’s right pays off in the end.

Happy Labor Day, readers. I hope this long weekend finds you organizing for a better world, whatever that means to you.