Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the great oddities of Hollywood finally returns in definitive form. The Devil and
Daniel Webster is a great picture with a primitive Americana feel, some unforgettable performances
and one of Bernard Herrmann's best music scores. When Criterion released a laser disc in the early
90s, it added scenes chopped when the movie lost two reels' worth of footage for reissues. But only
now is the entire show, original titled All That Money Can Buy, completely reconstructed.
It's a supernatural Faust tale from Stephen Vincent Benet that sets solid New England values against
the forces of darkness as represented by perhaps the most entertaining Devil ever in a movie.
The script is literate, but in this long version dawdles a bit in some scenes and takes too long
to get the story rolling ... we can see why RKO wanted it cut.
Jabez Stone (James Craig) is a New Hampshire farmer down on his luck. He makes a
deal with a certain Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) that gives him seven years good luck in exchange
for his immortal soul. Soon Stone is rich but despised by his neighbors and alienated from his wife
Mary (Anne Shirley) and his mother (Jane Darwell). He's also taken on a live-in maid, Belle (Simone
Simon) who seems to be devil-sent. When the seven years come round and Stone needs help getting out
of his demonic contract, none other than statesman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) stands up to
1941 was the year of Art at RKO, and like Citizen Kane, The Devil and Daniel Webster
opens with odd 'collaborative' titles. To some the film may look crude; it has the kind of rustic
directness we associate with Griffith-like Americana direction in films like Night of the
Hunter. Wide masters collide with giant closeups and frequent odd angles. Many scenes are shot
against artificial backdrops. There's a graphic clarity which seems to come from painting tradition.
There are also plenty of new-fangled cinematic devices. In this long version, the pace pauses for a slow
series of dissolves in the sequence where Jabez' wheat grows and matures.
Jabez already embraced his wife, talking about 'growing things', and the final shot of a vast field
of wheat slowly dissolves to Mary Stone lying on her bed, now pregnant. It's a great evocation of
sex, Old Americana-style. The Earth is the highest value in this agrarian society, and by associating
Mary with the fecund fields, it's as if she underwent some kind of immaculate conception.
Other semi-experimental scenes abound. The introduction of Mr. Scratch and his minion Belle are
heralded by gloriously overdone backlit angles, with creepy celestial chime music. The first cut
of the film included several inserts, giant closeups of Scratch laughing at Jabez's
misfortunes - in negative. It's easy to see where these didn't work and and came off as a
mistake. Somebody was thinking too much in the direction of French avant-garde work of the 20s!
James Craig is not a great actor, and either his enthusiastic cluelessness or the script itself keep
us from sympathizing with him. He's a jerk after his deal with the devil, but also a bitter whiner
before, the kind of fool that purposely gets reckless with his most desperately needed possession
(the wheat seed) just so he can throw his hands up in guiltless defeat after he spills it.
The weakest (and perhaps most politically controversial) thing in The Devil and Daniel Webster
is the constant touting of the formation of Granges as the solution to the agrarian economic mess.
A Grange is essentially an agricultural commune where the related farmers of a region share the risk and
the reward of their labors so as not to be victimized by outside economic interests. I can't see
conservatives of 1941 going for this kind of sentiment, not
one bit. Unfortunately, The Devil and Daniel Webster implies that only by joining the Grange can
Jabez have friends ... if he'd become prosperous without the Devil's help, we'd think Ma's disapproval,
Mary's fear, and his neighbors' envy might have been exactly the same.
Fortunately, Jabez' wife Mary is very strong in her role. Anne Shirley comes off as a less bright but
equally virtuous Olivia De Havilland. She's backed up by Jane Darwell, who after her great role in
The Grapes of Wrath is a bit too-easily cast as The Salt of Wisdom.
The powerhouse roles belong to Edward Arnold and Walter Huston. After twice assaying a straw-dog villain
for Frank Capra, Arnold gets back to a more balanced role worthy of his talent, and reminiscent of
his great work
in Come and Get It. Daniel Webster is a man of the people, a noble politician who champions
agrarian reform and the rights of working farmers. He knows most of his constituents by name and
takes a personal interest in Jabez Stone's plight. The original story may have been concocted to explain
why this American never became President ... Lucifer's personal vengeance.
In his liner notes, Tom Piazza offers that the real Webster didn't fulfill earlier hopes of greatness,
once he became embroiled in Washington politics. For instance, he came down firmly on the wrong side of
most slavery issues during the years that formed the Civil War.
Walter Huston's Mr. Scratch is of course the popular favorite, and he takes the cake (or the pie) with this
movie. Never was an actor more felicitously appropriate to the role, as they say. If son John was a
mischievous joker, old Walter was mischief incarnate, a jovial, grinning instigator of everything evil.
The dialogue isn't as thick as Damn Yankees (hey, where's a special edition of that?), but
Mr. Scratch gets in plenty of verbal licks on the subject of his influence - he says he's on both sides
of elections, for instance. He already possesses the sickly Miser Stevens (John Qualen) and finds it
easy to snare the doltish Jabez. The RKO special effects department backs him up with clever optical
tricks with fire. He carves an indelible date into a tree with his cigar, a very nice touch. And a
great effect occurs when Jabez tries to murder Mr. Scratch with a thrown axe - it freezes and is
incinerated in mid-air.
Huston's Scratch is no dark brooder or threatening arm-twister, but the life of the party. The perfect
devil for the stix, he finds his influence in barrooms and by instigating discord at group meetings. He
also beats the drum in the band; surely this Mr. Scratch would be a patriotic War booster. His huge grin
and laughing eyes mock all around him, even as he feigns concern.
And then there's the
triumphant final shot where he checks the audience for possible new 'clients'. Anybody who ever went to
Sunday School can feel uneasy when he finally finds 'us' and points his finger. He looks like Uncle Sam's
evil brother. The lame ad campaigns for the film tried to hide its period setting and played up the
beauty of Simone Simon, when they should have been one-sheets with just Huston's grinning face, pointing
at us: "I want YOU for the fires of Hades!"
Simone Simon had previously been a star in France, making several Jean Renoir movies as a temptress
ruining good men. Here she does more of the same on an ethereal level, effortlessly
captivating Jabez Stone, belittling his faithful wife and encouraging him to spoil his brat of a son.
She's foreign, even though she says she 'doesn't come from anywhere', a lamia from 'over the mountain'.
To people tied to the land and their little communities, 'over the mountain' makes sense as a place
where damned souls dwell. RKO lost interest in her, but she captivated new producer Val Lewton so
thoroughly he brought her back to do three films including her great The Cat People. Compared
to the prim Anne Shirley Simone looks downright perverse, with a twinkle in her eye and a slightly
Anyone who has been chilled by the bizarre smirk on the face of Sybille Schmitz in Dreyer's
Vampyr will know the slight hint of the uncanny in Simon's face. Even when she plays virtuous
innocents (I've only seen one such show, Lewton's Mademoiselle Fifi) there's something in her
face that would have no problem tearing a man's heart up before his very eyes.
The Devil and Daniel Webster concludes with a trial by a jury of the Damned, and Arnold gets his
big patriotic speech to defend the rather guilty Jabez Stone. It's basically a politician making a
speech about Good and Evil, and is ironic because we usually think of elected officials as the first
to go selling their souls to Mr. Scratch. Thanks partly to the wisdom of this film, whenever public
speakers insult us by employing absolute concepts like Good and Evil, Freedom and Democracy, I tend to
associate them with deals with the devil.
When Mr. Scratch loses and tries to be magnanimous, he gets a firm kick in the pants for an exit. But
The Devil and Daniel Webster doesn't let us off the hook, as he's still around. Old Ma fools
Scratch by baking a decoy pie to keep him from ruining a feast, but there's no getting rid of Evil.
Mr. Scratch lost the battle, but he's still in fine form.
Criterion's DVD of The Devil and Daniel Webster does a service to aesthetic history by
restoring the long cut of this Americana Favorite for the first time. Visually, the print is variable
but good all the way through. I'd have to say that the soundtrack is far from optimal however, obviously
due to the disparate sources used to patch back together the story of Mr. Scratch. Some of the dialogue
pretty weak, only to be followed by very loud stretches of music. The score also suffers some, losing
a lot of detail. The rerecordings of this music are recommended on CD; it's a score as bombastic
and subtle as Citizen Kane.
The extras are exemplary, once again. Bruce Eder's commentary straightens out the info about versions and
how the film came to be mangled. There's a Tom Piazza essay that rightly nails the horror visions of
this film to the mini-masterpiece by Herk Harvey, Carnival of Souls. The insert also has an
article with Stephen Vincent Benet's first reactions to the film of his story, which is recited in
another extra by Alec Baldwin. A comparison section shows the jarring
negative-image closeups of Mr. Scratch used in the preview version called Here is a Man.
Radio shows from the 30s dramatize two follow-up
Daniel Webster tales, both of which have music by Bernard Herrmann. Christopher Husted examines the
Herrmann music score in a separate extra. Plus galleries of behind-the-scenes photos and ad materials.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Devil and Daniel Webster rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and author Steven C. Smith, video
comparison between The Devil and Daniel Webster and William Deterle's preview Version of the
film, radio dramatizations of Stephen Vincent Benet's stories with music by Bernard Herrmann,
gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and promotional materials, essay by author Tom Piazza.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 27, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson