Charles Coburn received his first Oscar nomination for portraying rich millionaire John P. Merrick in The Devil and Miss Jones.
Charles Coburn is an example of a supporting nomination who is in fact the lead in the film, I guess character actors could not be lead, although interesting enough one of the lead nominations Walter Huston in the similarly named The Devil and Daniel Webster was really supporting, so technically they could have swamped nominations and everything would have been fine. Either way the film follows him as the very rich man who pretends to be a worker. Coburn is an actor who's presence instantly suggests a man of some sort of power. Just the way he acts and carries himself is always perfect and here is no different. Despite being an older man and usually described as a character actor Coburn does completely carry the film.
Coburn is simply wonderful from beginning to end in this picture. He starts out just perfectly as the rich man who everyone is a little scared of. He is in charge in the right way and is incredibly funny as this man who really does not exactly know what is going on completely despite acting in charge since he is not quite sure if he even owns his own store at first. He then goes undercover and his performance continues to be strong. His first scenes in the store are quite hilarious. I love how he is surprised as how he is treated as a worker and how he finds trouble with saying sir to his supervisor (Edmund Gwenn). He is just perfect showing the millionaire's troubles at adapting but also having him take down notes about firing the supervisor at the same time. Coburn is always just right with his comedic performance here. He never ever foes over the top he just stays the right way in his performance to be really as funny and charming as possible. He has some very good scenes again and again and I do not think they would have been nearly as strong if it were not for Coburn's perfect performance and comedic timing. Such scenes as when he deals with cops or tries to use his butler to sell a pear of hard to get rid of shoes in the store.
The greatest strength in his performance though is the slow transformation of the rich man from hating the workers to slowly growing greater love and respect for them. Coburn is perfect at this transition because he again never over does it. He makes the transition perfectly slow and deliberate. He shows the millionaire never really was a completely hateful man but that there was a more likable man always sort of in him. Coburn is just great as he develops his relationship with a fellow female worker (Spring Byington) that works extremely well. Also his friendship with Jean Arthur is equally well handled by Coburn because again he never over does it at all but makes his realization of how the people are as realistic as possible because of his perfectly astute performance.