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How ‘The Devil and Miss Jones’ Disguises Class Politics as Screwball Comedy

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Beyond the Classics is a bi-weekly column in which Emily Kubincanek highlights lesser-known old movies and examines what makes them memorable. In this installment, she highlights The Devil and Miss Jones.

Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were no strangers to playing relatable every-American type characters in their Classic Hollywood era careers. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Talk of the Town, Arthur embodies the wholesome working girl that Hollywood wanted to appeal to. Coburn’s upper and upper-middle-class gentlemen in movies like Heaven Can Wait portrayed an ideal for audiences to aspire to in capitalist society. Their personas were wholesome representations of the time their movies were made. One film outside of their classic filmography challenged their reputations and made for a fascinating movie, however. The Devil and Miss Jones uses their lighthearted characters to positively portray union activists and the working class struggle within a seemingly lighthearted comedy.

In this 1941 screwball comedy, Coburn stars as J.P. Merrick. a disgruntled, entitled tycoon hellbent on suppressing union organization in one of his many businesses, Neeley’s Department Store. After a group of employees hangs a Merrick dummy in protest, he decides to infiltrate their group and eradicate every employee who wants to organize. Since Merrick is so removed from the lives of his workers, no one recognizes him. He soon finds that the employees behind the strikes and protests are not the volatile agitators he thinks they will be. Miss Jones, played by Arthur, welcomes him into her and her boyfriend’s group of working-class activists with more understanding and compassion than Merrick expects. His contempt for the lower class starts to erode the more time he spends with them and he starts to see the benefits of their cause.

Films depicting labor strikes and union disputes were uncommon during Hollywood’s studio era, specifically during and after the Great Depression. In their quest to be neutral, Hollywood took a stance against any aspect of American society that challenged the status quo and tried to keep such controversial issues out of the movies. There are a handful of depictions of working-class activists in social-problem melodramas from the 1930s and 1940s, but........

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