Its title suggests that this film might be something like Lubitsch’s Heaven can Wait but The Devil and Miss Jones could easily hold the title as the original version of Undercover Boss. Although its main function is on the romantic and comic planes, it also has a bit of a social message behind it that signals for change.
Setting the stage, the wonderfully memorable Charles Coburn is none other than the 6th richest man in the world and he is also a hopelessly cranky curmudgeon. A comic Mr. Potter if you will. He’s also a finicky eater only indulging in graham crackers and constantly calling upon his longsuffering servant (S.Z. Sakall). He’s always got something to gripe about.
At the moment, the workers at the department store franchise he holds ownership of are decrying his policies and the benefits he gives workers. They’re pretty bad but he really doesn’t care. All he cares about is that his name is being slandered and he’s looking to hire a detective to find the conspirators. However, not finding a suitable candidate, he resolves to join the floor staff in the shoe department himself so he can act as a mole and undermine any plans they have against him. He’ll beat them out his own game. He’s “a real Benedict Arnold in Sheep’s Clothing” as they say.
Soon he is befriended by the kindly Ms. Ellis who swears by her tuna fish popovers and it takes a moment but he is disarmed by her generosity. The plucky Ms. Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) also takes him under her wing in a way, looking out for him amidst the cruel world of customer service. He isn’t much good at it anyway — selling slippers that is. Edmund Gwenn in a rather subdued role as the snooty store manager tells him as much.
And it’s Mary who unwittingly introduces him to the inner workings of all things store-related. Including the fact that her beau is the infamous Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) a recently fired store employee who is working his hardest to rage against the accepted order by organizing a labor union to protect his fellow working class friends.
But it’s not all serious, hardly. Among other things, the foursome takes a lively day trip. One can only imagine Coney Island or some such hot spot with crowded beaches that look more like sardine tins and bustling avenues with kids running hither and thither. In these moments it becomes obvious that there’s a bit of a comical culture war being waged, perfectly summated by the moment some of his new colleagues dilute his fine wine with soda pop to kill the peculiar taste. And despite, their simple ways, they grow on Mr. Merrick, while at the same time his naivete about real life, gains their sympathy. He seems fairly helpless without them. A rambunctious trip to the police station ensues because he gets lost like a little kid.
Of course, there’s the expected turn of events. It must happen. Mr. Merrick is slowly becoming redeemed, falling for Ms. Ellis and gaining the trust of both Mary and Joe. But Mary happens across something that puts everything in jeopardy. And it could be melodramatic but Arthur knows how to adeptly play the comedy even in these moments. Most notably, when she’s summing up the courage to clock her deceptive colleague over the head with a hay maker courtesy of the season’s latest model of footwear.
The final crusade for unionization leads to utter bedlam with the higher ups and it has a trickle-down effect on everyone else. Mary and Joe lead the charge emphatically but with this inside look at the corrupt inner workings of his leadership, Mr. Merrick is aghast and willfully joins the rebellion. It’s comic absurdity and all the main players do the film justice making their happy ending all the more deserved. Sam Wood might not be noted as a director of raging comedies (true, he worked with the Marx Brothers) but he does well enough with The Devil and Ms. Jones to make it a delightful trifle even now. Thanks be that Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were paired once more in More the Merrier. They’re gold together.