Many of us have likely contemplated selling our souls to the Devil. Well, maybe not seriously, and maybe not to Satan himself, perhaps only one of his oily, weekly-paycheck-signing middle managers. But what if we could conjure up Belial and strike a bargain?
In William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, based on Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story, Jabez Stone (James Craig) confronts just this question. Having suffered about as many setbacks as a rural landowner in 19th-century New England could tolerate, he calls on the Dark Lord for respite and deals away his human quintessence in the process. Good thing he’s pals with New Hampshire’s most noteworthy blowhard, Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), gentleman farmer and insistent man of the people. While Webster and company are accustomed to hard living, debt collectors and loan sharks have strained their futures. No wonder Mr. Scratch (the wonderful Walter Huston) appears amongst the plow sheds and hen houses. He’s desperation’s number one distributor and business is booming!
The Devil and Daniel Webster was released in 1941, during a brief time of unusual creativity for the film industry, producing, among many others, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939, The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane in 1941. While The Devil and Daniel Webster has never been seated at the table where those other heavyweights are served champagne accolades, it is a remarkable film. Beyond the soul-bartering story, it concerns the collision of “ole time religion” and new world realities, agrarian life crashing headfirst into business, bankruptcy, and “progress.”
Devil challenges materialism while it champions communal land ownership and development, with citizens discussing a union-like grange, something of a radical ideal for the early 1800s. And yet, it’s part of the film’s attempt to translate traditional folklore into a contemporary language. Many Americans at the time of the film’s release were suffering the same hardships that Jabez and his family faced. Food and opportunities were scarce: neighbors relied on each other to stay afloat, and in urban centers, labor was beginning to face off against management.
Within this fiduciary fable is a strong proclamation of the emerging belief in the U.S. as a land of individual freedom and Constitutional privilege, based on the founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. True, The Devil and Daniel Webster couches these rights in chaste and righteous imagery, but the nationalistic point is clear: it takes a sturdy man of law and a firm believer in democracy to combat Mr. Scratch. It takes Daniel Webster.
The Devil and Daniel Webster approximates this struggle in arty shadows and illustrative speeches. Characters are bathed in eerie, directional light that emphasizes imperfections and distorts their features. Otherworldly entities appear to emerge from the fiery pits of Hades, passing through clouds of smoke and fog. Nights are full moon festivals of spindly trees reaching up through shape-shifting clouds and the oddly angular buildings evoke a cavernous claustrophobia and ever present paranoia.
Such stunning images underline the dichotomy between good and evil embodied by Webster and Scratch. The latter seems a psychotic leprechaun completely in touch with the craven desires of the common man. Webster, on the other hand, is a rotund son of the soil, complicated by his cultured mind and rum on his breath. Both are politicians: Webster is a sitting Congressman with dreams of the White House, and Scratch is the fallen angel with schemes to reclaim his spot in the heavenly hierarchy. Both set out to capture the souls of their constituencies, and their final courtroom confrontation over Jabez’s contract takes the form of dueling orations on the “human condition.”
Featuring the long-lost complete version of the film, Criterion’s magnificent DVD illustrates contrasts between Heaven and Hell, deliverance and corruption. It also reinserts details of Jabez and his wife Mary’s (Anne Shirley) domestic life, as well as the one-upmanship of Webster versus Scratch. Some shots invoke a feeling of looking through an ancient scrapbook of antique folk art, while others recall the angular angst found in the best of German Expressionism.
Equally dualistic, Bernard Hermann’s Oscar-winning score (oddly, his only one) is impish and bombastic, celebratory and creepy. While much of the music is instantly recognizable (some based on traditional folksongs), it includes surprisingly delicate moments as well. Hermann experimented with sound here, recording the hum of electrified phone lines for one sequence and overdubbing a violin solo to give the Devil’s fiddling (during a deranged barn dance) an evil atonality.
The film does falter occasionally: while she makes a fetching vamp to signify Jabez’s newfound prosperity (and has one of the best entrances in movie history), Simone Simon quickly wears out her welcome as the perky demon substitute Belle. And the dynamic between the old Stone family (Jane Darwell’s Ma and Mary) and the new Stone gang (Belle and Jabez’s son) is never really explained, as six years of this halved homestead’s history are apparently forgotten. Criterion contextualizes such lapses, with detailed commentary (Bruce Eder’s historical overview) and a scholarly essay by Tom Piazza (as part of the enclosed pamphlet), but the problems are obvious.
At the same time, however, The Devil and Daniel Webster remains a film of surprising relevance, perhaps especially during difficult times when patriotism is both strained and emphatic. Thanks to the efforts of Criterion’s diligent digital wizards, Scratch is back, and he’s wheeling and dealing.