The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

When it’s on: Saturday, 31 October (3.45 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures TV
IMDb Link

As with the other titles I’ve picked this week, The Devil and Daniel Webster doesn’t fit easily into the horror genre, but it’s such a good film that I couldn’t resist including it. It’s a Faustian tale of diabolical temptation, earthly desires against doing the right thing, and it really deserves to be up there with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life as the kind of classic morality fable that has transcended the era in which it was made to be loved and watched to this day. It’s also very good fun, slyly subversive, and has the canniness to features heroes with character flaws that of course only serves to make them far more interesting.

I can’t pretend to know a great deal about the real Daniel Webster, a prominent Massachusetts Senator and lawyer from the first half of the nineteenth century. From his Wikipedia page, the impression I get is of a conservative and elitist figure, far from a man of the people, and someone who resisted upsetting the southern States, which were sliding into Civil War, and that meant compromising on the critical issue of abolishing slavery. Quite a different man, therefore, from the figure presented in the film, one based wholly on the 1937 short story by Stephen Vincent Benet that provided the source for its cinematic adaptation. Benet researched Webster extensively and came across someone whose heart and soul remained in his native New England, essentially one of its great and treasured sons, providing fine material for the sort of great American folk hero who would chance his arm at taking on the Devil himself.

And in the story that’s just what happens. The Devil appears as a smooth operator, appearing to desperate people and offering them a deal to make them prosperous, helping all their wildest dreams come true, all at the piffling price of their souls. Critically the Devil, Mr Scratch, exhorts himself as a fellow American, really the first American, appealing to peoples’ hopes of getting rich and capturing the great American dream for themselves. In other words, he’s one side of a coin; the other, the Webster from the story, is all about fellowship and homegrown values. Natural opponents.

The object of their contest is Jabez Stone, who in the film is played by James Craig. A poor farmer, Stone is in debt to Mister Stevens (John Qualen), to whom he struggles in keeping up his mortgage payments. Living with his Ma (Jane Darwell) and wife, Mary (Anne Shirley), he tries to maintain a moral, upstanding existence, one in which church services and the Sabbath are observed, but against those is his desperation. Things go wrong. A pig he was going to give to Stevens in lieu of money breaks a leg. The crops look like they may fail, and in sheer frustration he declares to himself that he’d sell his soul for two cents. Enter Mr Scratch (Walter Huston), pictured above. In exchange for a pot of Hessian gold coins and seven years of good fortune, Stone agrees to forfeit his soul, and sure enough things start looking up. He pays off his mortgage. A hail storm destroys all the other farmers’ crops, but not his, and pretty soon he has employed everyone to work for him. Before the seven year contract has lapsed, he’s built a mansion and transformed into the sort of oligarch that Stevens could only dream of becoming. But time is ticking. Mr Scratch is willing to agree an extension, but only in exchange for the soul of his son, Daniel, at which point Stone runs to Webster (Edward Arnold) and begs for his help. This sets up the climactic courtroom battle between the legendary lawyer (‘I’d fight ten thousand Devils to save a New Hampshire man‘) and Mr Scratch, presided over by a judge and jury made up of damned Americans.

The Devil and Daniel Webster was directed by William Dieterle, a graduate of the German film industry who brought a welter of experience in the expressionist style. Given more or less carte blanche over the project, in much the same way as fellow RKO contractor Orson Welles was with Citizen Kane, Dieterle turned in a dreamlike piece of work, something along the lines of a dark folk tale. It’s stuffed with disturbing imagery, unorthodox shooting angles, peerless use of lighting and shadows. The film depicts Webster writing a bill in favour of the farmers, whilst in silhouette Mr Scratch whispers to him, explaining that if he uses it he’ll never become President. The Devil first appears to Jabez from a pool of ethereal, unnatural light, the soundtrack punctuated with a strange and high pitched otherworldly sound and the noises of animals in discomfort. As Jabez begins his slide into greedy immorality, he’s covered increasingly in shadows, echoing the darkness consuming his being. It’s no accident either that Jabez’s wife is portrayed in similar tones to Janet Gaynor’s character in Sunrise, nor that the two actresses look alike. Mary represents the good, Christian rural values; when Simone Simon’s Devil-sent temptress turns up, she’s not dissimilar to that film’s Woman from the City, corrupting Jabez with her wiles.

Like Mr Scratch, Belle (Simon) first appears in a pool of light, this time from the Stone’s fire. Though she turns up unannounced, to replace the family nurse who’s looking after Mary and her baby, it’s clear from her sensuousness and flirting with Jabez that she’s there for much more. It’s a great performance, sweet and unsettling at the same time, as she works steadily to undermine Mary’s influence over her husband and their child, Daniel, and is clearly sleeping with Jabez. Her French accent works also, adding layers of mystery and allure to her character. When she’s asked where she’s from, she replies ‘over the mountains‘, and who’s going to argue with that?

Arnold’s good also, employed as a replacement for the original choice of Thomas Mitchell, who had to withdraw when he was thrown from a carriage during filming and fractured his skull. His scenes were refilmed, which was done at great expense as much of it was already in the can. Best known perhaps as a corrupt politician in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, here Arnold is a much kindlier figure, very much a hero to the people and depicted working the fields with his own employees rather than ordering them around. But he isn’t perfect, shown enjoying his rum a little too much, even when he’s preparing to face Mr Scratch in a legal battle for Jabez’s soul.

But of course, the film is owned by Huston’s Mr Scratch, which is just how it should be. I’ve read elsewhere that many people think his is the best portrayal of the Devil ever committed to celluloid, and I’m happy to go with that opinion. In a role that demands scenery chewing joy, Huston is a sheer delight, softly spoken, charismatic and persuasive, nearly always shown with a smile on his face. There’s menace also; when Miser Stevens, who entered into an infernal deal of his own, reaches the end of his contract, Mr Scratch captures his soul, which is now trapped within a moth and goes into his pocket, his for all time. He’s such a winning character that he rightly gets the last laugh, even after his climactic legal battle against Daniel Webster. Shown chewing on the peach pie he’s stolen from Ma, he then gets up and looks around for his next victim, settling inevitably on breaking the fourth wall when he stares out of the screen, straight at the viewer, indicating that we’re next!

The Devil and Daniel Webster works hard to depict the Stone farm as an earthly paradise – even during hard times it looks like the countryside, pastoral idyll of a Constable painting – those similarities to Murnau’s Sunrise again. The meaning should be easy enough to work out. The New Hampshire in which Jabez toils and struggles is in fact the real American dream, the ideals set out by the founding fathers, honest and comradely, whereas the deal offered by Mr Scratch is the avaricious but no less salacious temptation of Capitalism, the other tower on which the country was built. It’s all beautifully worked, its points aided by the Oscar winning score composed by Bernard Herrmann. Every emotion is emphasised by the multi-layered musical accompaniment, never better than when the Devil is playing Pop Goes the Weasel on his fiddle during a barnyard dance, achieving impossible speeds on his violin as the intoxicating prospect of Jabez following Belle around the floor reaches its crescendo.

The film was initially released in America as All that Money Can Buy to avoid similarities with The Devil and Miss Jones, also to calm RKO’s worries that audiences would turn away from a period piece about a historical figure. Their concerns were well founded. Like the studio’s other big release from 1941, Citizen Kane, it was a loser at the box office and prompted savage cuts to its running time for its reissue in 1952. Only a discovery of the full edit that had been retained by Dieterle himself allows us to enjoy the film as it was intended, and I think ‘enjoy’ is the right word. It’s an important work, not to mention wildly entertaining and featuring at least one Oscar-worthy performance (Huston was nominated). I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Devil and Daniel Webster: *****

5 Replies to “The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)”

  1. One of my favourite films – I spent years tracking down the Criterion Laser Disc to get as close as possible to the full-length version and it is incredibly rewarding. Along with PORTRAIT OF JENNIE very much my favourite of Dieterle’s (though the latter was seriously mucked about by Selznick).

    1. Thanks Sergio. I have the Masters of Cinema version, which I’m very pleased with and many of the production notes that came in the book supplied the details for this piece. Of Dieterle’s films, I really like THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME also, in fact it’s probably my favourite adaptation of the story – the presence of Maureen O’Hara helps! Was it not the case that any films made with David O Selznick were heavily influenced/interfered with by the producer, especially when they featured his muse and lover, Jennifer Jones?

    1. Thanks Colin – nothing to dislike here, is there? Overall I’m disappointed that it took me so long to see it; it was only last year that I bought a copy, on faith from the recommendation of a trusted source. It blew me away, stayed with me for a long time after seeing it, and the impression I got was that it had been a little ‘forgotten’ over the years, entirely undeservedly.

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