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Devil and Daniel Webster, The
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.
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 curled lip. 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.(spoiler)
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 gets 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