Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1941. Frank Ross-Norma Krasna Inc.. Screenplay by Norman Krasna. Cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr.. Produced by Frank Ross. Music by Roy Webb. Production Design by William Cameron Menzies. Costume Design by Irene. Film Editing by Sherman Todd. Academy Awards 1941.
Department stores as microcosms of capitalist concern in an increasingly corporate-minded America are a fixture of forties films, think of what Miracle On 34th Street has to tell us about the commercializing of family life for instance; when they’re done as well as the Devil And Miss Jones, the spoonful of charming sugar helps the medicinal left-wing ideology go down without feeling like a screed. Charles Coburn plays a billionaire tycoon who owns so many businesses that he doesn’t know them all, but is incensed when he learns that the employees at Neeley’s, his Macy’s-like department store, are being encouraged to unionize by upstart agitators. He decides to deal with the situation himself, going into the store incognito and getting a job as a salesman. What he thought would be a simple job of finding the two people at the head of the call for unionization turns out to be much more complicated, first because the job is much harder than he expected and second because the two people he’s looking for are so kind to him: Jean Arthur helps him keep his position despite his early mistakes, quickly showing him the ropes, while her equally passionate boyfriend (Robert Cummings) is a smart and admirable young man who helps him see the value of giving every working America a fair living wage. Then Coburn falls in love with co-worker Spring Byington and finds it impossible to figure out how to get himself out of this pickle. The ending works out as a ridiculous fairy tale (and doesn’t really solve the world’s problems, just the lucky few in this movie, as this kind of morality isn’t as welcome post-Depression), and the plot has more than a few obvious holes (like how impossible I find it to believe that, as a leading New York financier, Coburn’s portrait wouldn’t be everywhere and he wouldn’t be recognized in a heartbeat), but there’s great fun to be had with the performances and the inspired manipulation of the concept being put forth. Arthur in particular doesn’t perform like she’s doing light comedy, her character’s generosity is deeply felt and her passion for bettering the lives of herself and her co-workers is so genuine that it sells the film’s flimsier aspects.