This warm-hearted romantic comedy centers on cold-blooded, camera-shy tycoon J.P. Merrick, “the world’s richest man,” played with relish by Charles Coburn. Merrick’s holdings are so diversified that he only learns of a particular holding — Neeley’s department store — when a photo of his effigy turns up on the front page of the New York Times.
The old guy decides to go undercover, to root out employee discontent and crush the budding union movement there.
Robert Cummings, Edmund Gwenn in Featured Roles
He arranges a lowly position selling shoes on the fifth floor – the “hotbed” of employee activism. There, he meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), a spunky, sweet salesgirl in love with the just-fired labor rabble-rouser, Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings). There’s also the delightful Spring Byington as Elizabeth Ellis, the middle-aged saleswoman who becomes Merrick’s love interest.
In addition, there’s Edmund Gwenn — still seven years away from being the world’s most famous department store Santa in Miracle on 34th Street. Here, he’s the officious, patronizing, greedy shoe department manager. And S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, at his bumbling, befuddled best, is Merrick’s butler, George.
Naturally , Merrick’s plans go awry once he begins to know and understand the “little people” who befriend him — people otherwise alien to his insular life.
Ironically, the politically liberal film was directed by real-life hard-line conservative Sam Wood, who was on an astonishing roll. This film was among five classics he made in a three-year period — the others being Kitty Foyle, Kings Row, Pride of the Yankees and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Jean Arthur Was Producer’s Wife
Writer Norman Krasna collaborated with producer Frank Ross on the Oscar-nominated screenplay. Krasna is best remembered today for his scripts for Indiscreet, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (the Hitchcock comedy, not the recent Pitt-Jolie vehicle), White Christmas and many others.
But producer Frank Ross was the guiding force on the Capra-esque story, a perfect vehicle for his wife at the time, Jean Arthur.
A movie about labor and management was a tough sell in the troubled year of 1941, and making it a comedy was an attempt to mitigate that marketing problem.
(Coincidentally, that same year brought director Preston Sturges’ dramedy Sullivan’s Travels, in which a Hollywood director has trouble convincing studio bosses to shoot his symbolism-laden drama about the labor-management struggle.)
“Unfortunately,” observed Arthur biographer John Oller, Devil’s “pro-union message did not serve it particularly well at the box office, dashing the lofty expectations of producer Ross. ‘It absolutely devastated him,’ said Zan Ross, the son from a later marriage.” (Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, John Oller, Limelight Editions, New York, 1997.)