Devil and Miss Jones, The (1941)
An hilarious comedy by director Sam Wood starring Jean Arthur, Charles Coburn, Robert Cummings, Spring Byington, Edmund Gwenn, S. Z. Sakall, and William Demarest. Sags a little after the first 45 minutes (except for Cummings reciting the Declaration of Independence etc.), but picks up the pace and interest again in the final 20 minutes. Coburn (Best Actor) and Norman Krasna (Original Screenplay) picked up Oscar nominations.
J.P. Merrick (Coburn) is the richest man in the world, a successful businessman who owns and controls a conglomerate of many assets. His meek board of directors arrives at his large home in New York City and the topic of conversation is a picture on the front of the newspaper. But this isn't a flattering one of the executive, rather it's a photograph depicting Merrick being hung in effigy by the employees at one of his department stores, Neeley’s. They feel they are being mistreated and are starting to organize a union. Merrick's first reaction is to have the photograph enlarged to have everyone who can be identified in it fired.
After we learn that Merrick has a bad stomach and eats only graham crackers, crumpled up by his faithful butler George (Sakall), we find out that he's thought of another course of action. He's hired a detective to pose as an employee in the store in order to find out the identities of the ring leaders and workers interested in unionizing. When he's dissatisfied with the time-frame estimated for accomplishing the task, in part because the detective's wife is expecting a child at any minute, he fires the detective and then decides to do the job himself. He will pretend to be Tom Higgins.
The next day when he arrives at the store, he meets his supervisor Mr. Hooper (Gwenn), a stern task master he instantly dislikes. Apparently Merrick/Higgins has scored just one point higher than the lowest score allowed on the intelligence test to be able to work in the store. Because of his score, Hooper assigns him to work in the slippers area in lieu of selling shoes. Mary Jones (Arthur), a conscientious employee in the department, takes Higgins/Merrick under her wing and gives him advice about how to handle Hooper etc.. When she tells him that lunch is from 12 to 1, he says that he never eats lunch (without telling her about his stomach). Assuming that he's penniless and too proud to ask for money, she presses 50 cents in his hand. Throughout the film, he writes notes to himself in a little book - "get rid of intelligence test, repay Miss Jones 50 cents, fire department supervisor?, eliminate store shoppers". About that time, an unknown man (Cummings), who has chained himself to a radiator pipe on the 5th (their) floor of the store, starts shouting union propaganda. But he is quickly apprehended and escorted out by the security guard (Demarest). Then there is an announcement over the speaker system from Neeley’s management which details the store's policy in these matters.
At lunch time, Miss Jones insists that Higgins go to lunch, even though he had insisted that he never eats it, but she introduces him to Elizabeth (Byington), who also works in the department, and shoos him out. On the way to the lunchroom, he asks Elizabeth if he can sit with her outside while she eats. As they talk, she questions her about his previous employment and he tells her that he worked for 15 years for one company, and 10 years for another. She also forces him to eat a tuna popover of her own making, which he reluctantly tries (given his stomach), but likes when he does. In fact, he eats several, one somewhat unconsciously, fuming when Mr. Hooper walks by and says hello only to Elizabeth.
At the end of the day, Miss Jones invites Higgins to come home with her. When they arrive at the top of the stairs, her boyfriend Joe (Cummings again) rushes out of the door and sweeps Mary off her feet, kissing her. Immediately we learn that Joe is the one who made the Merrick doll hung in effigy, as the lead organizer for the budding union effort, and that Mary has taken him to their meeting place on the rooftop of her apartment building. In fact, Mary decides to speak at the function using Higgins as an example of how badly companies treat their employees. After all, he's entry level again at age 55, following stints of 10 & 15 years with previous employers, even having to save the 50 cents she gave him for lunch for dinner, so starved he was that he ate almost all of Elizabeth's lunch!
The next day, determined to show (up) that Mr. Hooper, Merrick/Higgins has arranged for his servant George to bring a young girl to the shoe department during the time (lunch hour) he is allowed to sell shoes. He asks Mary which are the hardest shoes to sell and plans to sell the remaining inventory of them (5) to his "customer". Of course, the girl hates the shoes and he is relieved of wrestling with the reluctant child by Hooper. Unable to understand his boss's hand signals, George buys the shoes receiving a bonus for moving them. Wanting to help smooth things over between them, Mary encourages Higgins to thank Mr. Hooper for his help. When Higgins tries reluctantly to do so, Hooper acts like a superior jerk making Higgins so mad that he bets Hooper $10 that those shoes will be returned.
For the weekend, Mary asks Higgins if he would like to take Elizabeth with her and Joe to Coney Island for some fun. Higgins readily agrees when he finds out Mr. Hooper had asked her for a date as well. This is when the film sags a bit. Higgins/Merrick does get to know the three others pretty well during this day which leads into night, and a relationship begins to develop between Higgins and Elizabeth, but the one between Mary & Joe changes. Plus, there is the amusing aforementioned scene when Joe helps Higgins out of a jam. At the very end of the trip, there is a critical plot point ... and that's all I'm going to tell. Suffice it to say that the story finds itself again and runs with a flurry towards its Hollywood ending.