Saturday, May 24, 2008

Please Release Me, No. 3

This being Memorial Day weekend, it's the perfect time to fire up the grill, or, if you're in a warmer clime, get away to the beach for a weekend. In the years leading up to World War II, however, when suburban living for the middle classes had not yet become the standard, resorts were closer to home: New Yorkers might go to Altantic City, the "Borscht Belt" resorts in the southern part of the Catskills, or maybe even the Poconos in Pennsylvania. It you weren't so well off, you might just spend a day at Coney Island. One classic pre-War movie with a Coney Island scene is The Devil and Miss Jones. Sadly, it's not available on DVD -- and it's a smart little comedy that really should be. It's just as fun now as it was when it was released in 1941.

Jean Arthur gets the "starring" billing as Miss Jones, but she's really not the star of the movie. That would be male lead Charles Coburn. Coburn plays J.P. Merrick, the "richest man" in New York. He's so rich, he's got holdings he doesn't even know about, such as a department store whose workers are protesting their working conditions by burning him in effigy. Merrick hires detectives to figure out who's behind the workers' rebellion, but when they can't give him a satisfactory answer, he decides to take matters into his own hands by going undercover and taking a job in the department store under the name Tom Higgins. You can imagine the humor inherent in a crotchety old man with no sales experience working as a shoe salesman -- indeed, in one scene, Merrick hires his butler to bring a young girl in and buy her five pairs of shoes to show that he can sell even to the most difficult customers. But there's a lot more, as we get two romantic stories. Arthur's Miss Jones feels sorry for "Mr. Higgins", little realizing that her relationship with union organizer Joe O'Brien (Bob Cummings) could get her in serious trouble. Also feeling concern for "Higgins" is an older lady employee, Elizabeth Ellis (played by Spring Byington). And naturally, she falls in love with him, despite hating rich people: of course, she only sees Coburn as Higgins, not as Merrick, and so doesn't know the truth about him.

The movie having been released in 1941, everything is handled with a light touch; no big social messages here. In fact, modern audiences might find the ending a bit of a deus ex machina. But the performances are all wonderful. Charles Coburn is quite skilled at comedy, and earned an Oscar nomination for his part -- although it was only in the Supporting Actor category; a bit of a surprise, since Coburn's role is much too big to be considered a supporting role. (Coburn would later win an Oscar for another comedy, The More the Merrier, also starring Jean Arthur; The More the Merrier is available on DVD for those who wish to see Coburn's comedic talents.) In addition him and the aforementioned Arthur, Cummings, and Byington, there's veteran character actor S.Z. Sakall playing Coburn's butler; William Demarest in a brief role as one of the detectives, and the usually-likeable Edmund Gwenn playing against type as Hooper, the nasty boss of the shoe department. Not only is the acting excellent, the script is a gem; it's refreshing to see such intelligent comedy. There is a bit of wealthy-bashing, especially at the very beginning of the movie, but it's mostly in the vein of the wealthy not knowing how to act poor, and not any deep social commentary. It's a shame that this isn't out on DVD.

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