The Devil and Daniel Webster (film)

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The Devil and Daniel Webster
The devil and daniel webster DVD.jpg
DVD cover
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by William Dieterle
Written by Dan Totheroh
Stephen Vincent Benét
Starring Edward Arnold
Walter Huston
James Craig
Anne Shirley
Jane Darwell
Simone Simon
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Edited by Robert Wise
Distributed by RKO (US theatrical)
Criterion (Region 1 DVD)
Release dates
  • October 17, 1941 (1941-10-17) (U.S.)
Running time 107 mins (full version)
85 mins (cut version)
Country United States
Language English

The Devil and Daniel Webster is a 1941 fantasy film, adapted by Stephen Vincent Benét and Dan Totheroh from Benét's short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster". The film's title was changed to All That Money Can Buy to avoid confusion with another film released by RKO that year, The Devil and Miss Jones, and later had the title restored on some prints. It has also been released under the titles Mr. Scratch, Daniel and the Devil and Here Is a Man. The film stars Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, and James Craig.

A retelling of the Faust legend, set in mid-1840s rural New England, it was directed by German-born actor-director William Dieterle who (under his original name, Wilhelm Dieterle) played a featured role in F.W. Murnau's epic silent version of Faust in 1926.

Plot[edit]

In 1840 New Hampshire, poor, downtrodden farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) is broke, plagued by bad luck; with the local money-lender, Miser Stevens, about to foreclose on his farm, Jabez has reached the limit of his endurance. After a series of mishaps, he impulsively declares that he would sell his soul to the Devil for two cents, and moments later the Devil appears, calling himself "Mr. Scratch" (Walter Huston). He appears to offer Jabez a bargain - sell his soul, in return for seven years of good luck and prosperity. Scratch tempts Jabez by magically revealing a hoard of Hessian gold coins, which appears from under the barn floor and, unable to resist the lure of the gold, Jabez signs the contract. He begins his new life with hope, paying off his debts, buying new tools and supplies, and new clothes for his wife and mother. While the women are shopping, Jabez meets and becomes friends with famous New Hampshire Congressman and orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), a friend of his wife's family, and a widely-loved figure who champions the cause of the poor farmers - although we learn that Webster himself is being tempted by Mr Scratch to sell his soul, in return for fulfilling his ambition to become President.

As time passes, Jabez's increasing wealth begins to change him. When only his crops are spared from a freak hailstorm, he ensnares his desperate neighbours with onerous financial contracts, and he slowly alienates his devoted wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and his pious mother (Jane Darwell). Later, as the townspeople celebrate the harvest in Jabez's barn, Mary gives birth to their first child, whom they name Daniel in honour of Mr Webster, but minutes later, Jabez discovers that the local girl they had hired as a maid has vanished. In her place he finds the beautiful and sinister Belle (Simone Simon), who has been sent by Mr. Scratch. She bewitches Jabez, driving a wedge between him and Mary. Soon, Jabez has stopped going to church, and after his family leaves, he secretly hosts gambling parties at his home. As Daniel grows, he too falls under Belle's malign influence, and she turns him into a spoiled, disobedient brat.

In a few more years, Jabez is one of the richest men in the country - he lives like a lord, and has built a lavish new mansion (which his mother refuses to live in). He throws a huge ball, but it ends in disaster - after a nightmarish dance between Belle and Miser Stephens, Jabez finds Stephens dead on the floor - he too had signed a pact with Mr Scratch, and his time was up. Realising all his guests have fled, Jabez turns on Mary, blaming her for all his troubles, and he throws her out. Now desperate, and realising his own time is almost up, he tries to erase the deadline Mr Scratch has burned into the tree outside the barn, but Scratch appears and again tempts Jabez, offering to extend his deal, in return for the soul of his son. Horrified, Jabez flees, and chases after the cart. He begs Mary's forgiveness and pleads with Webster to help him find some way out of his bargain with the Devil. Webster agrees to take his case. Mr. Scratch offers an extension in exchange for Jabez's son, but Jabez turns him down. He then begs Webster to leave before it is too late, but Webster refuses to go, boasting that he has never left a jug or a case half finished.

When Mr. Scratch shows up to claim his due, Webster has to wager his own soul before his fiendish opponent will agree to a trial by jury. Mr. Scratch chooses the jury members from among the most notoriously evil men of American history (including Benedict Arnold) with John Hathorne (one of the magistrates of the Salem witch trials) as the judge. When Webster protests, Mr. Scratch points out that they were "Americans all." With his own soul at risk, Webster proceeds to defend Jabez Stone, who is accused of breaching contract.

He begins by stating that he envies the jury because as Americans they were present at the birth of a nation, part of a heritage they were born to share. Unfortunately, they were fooled like Jabez Stone, trapped in their desire to rebel against their fate, but what would they give to be given another chance? Webster explains that it is the eternal right of everyone, including the jury, to raise their fists against their fates, but when that happens, one finds oneself at a crossroads. They took the wrong turn just as Stone did, but he found out in time, and this night he is there to save his soul. Daniel asks the jury to give Stone another chance to walk upon the earth, for what would they give to see those things they remember? They were all men once, breathing clean American air, which was free and blew across the earth they loved.

Webster starts to expound on the virtue of simple and good things – "... the freshness of a fine morning ... the taste of food when you're hungry ... the new day that's every day when you're a child ... " – and how without the soul, those things are sickened. He reminds the jury that Mr. Scratch had told them that the soul meant nothing, they believed him, and they lost their freedom. Next, Webster discourses on freedom as not just a big word: "It is the morning, the bread, and the risen sun ... ", it was the reason for making the voyage to come to America. Mistakes were made, but out of things wrong and right a new thing has come: a free man with a freedom that includes his own soul. Yet how can the jury be on the side of the oppressor, when Stone is a brother, a fellow American? Webster then implores the jury to let Stone keep his soul, which, after all, doesn't belong to him alone, but to his family and country. "Don't let the country go to the devil," thunders Daniel Webster. "Free Stone."

After a few moments, Hathorne asks the jury for their verdict and in response the foreman tears up the contract, releasing Jabez from his deal. Webster then kicks Mr Scratch out, but as he is ejected the fiend promises that Webster will never fulfil his ambition to become President of the United States.

Cast[edit]

Poster for the re-release
  • Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster. Thomas Mitchell initially played Webster, but towards the end of principal shooting he was badly injured in a filming accident and Dieterle had to replace him with Arnold (who took the role on a day's notice[1]). Mitchell suffered a skull fracture and was incapacitated for weeks when he was thrown from a carriage while filming the scene in which he gives Jabez's son a ride. Because Deiterle had shot the film in more or less chronological sequence, and the climactic trial scene was still to be shot, he was forced to reshoot most of Mitchell's scenes with Arnold (although Mitchell was retained in a few long-shots)[2]

Adaptation[edit]

The jury of the damned in the film is slightly altered from the original, as revealed in the following dialogue:

Scratch: Captain Kidd, he killed men for gold. Simon Girty, the renegade; he burned men for gold. Governor Dale, he broke men on the wheel. Asa, the Black Monk, he choked them to death. Floyd Ireson and Stede Bonnet, the fiendish butchers. Walter Butler, the king of the massacre. Big and Little Harp, robbers and murderers. Teach, the cutthroat. Morton, the vicious lawyer. And General Benedict Arnold, you remember him, no doubt.
Webster: A jury of the damned.
Scratch: Dastards, liars, traitors, knaves.
Webster: This is monstrous.
Scratch: You asked for a jury trial, Mr Webster. Your suggestion – the quick or the dead.
Webster: I asked for a fair trial.
Scratch: Americans all.

In the original story, Webster regrets Benedict Arnold's absence, but in the film, he is present and Webster objects, citing him as a traitor and therefore not a true American. His objection is dismissed by the judge.

Alternative versions[edit]

The original release was 107 minutes long. It was a critical, but not a box-office, success, recording a loss of $53,000 on its initial run.[3] It was subsequently re-released under the title The Devil and Daniel Webster with nearly half an hour cut, reducing the film to 85 minutes. The cuts were crudely done. The film was restored to its full length in the 1990s and has been issued in that form on home video. However, the title has remained The Devil and Daniel Webster. The restored portions on the video had been taken from inferior prints of the movie, but the quality has been notably improved on the DVD release. A preview print titled Here Is a Man was found in the estate of the director and served as the basis for the film's restoration and DVD release.

Awards[edit]

Bernard Herrmann won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture and Walter Huston was nominated for Academy Award for Best Actor. In addition to his original music score, Herrmann also incorporated several traditional folk tunes including, "Devil's Dream", "Springfield Mountain", and a diabolical version of "Pop Goes The Weasel" played on the fiddle by Mr. Scratch.[4]

The film was nominated for AFI's Top 10 Fantasy Films list.[5]

Use in popular culture[edit]

The Simpsons Halloween "Treehouse of Horror IV" episode features the segment "The Devil And Homer Simpson", in which Homer sells his soul to the Devil (Ned Flanders) for a donut and subsequently must face trial at the stroke of midnight after accidentally eating the last piece of donut; One of the members of the jury is Blackbeard. The song "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival was inspired after John Fogerty was watching the hurricane scene from the film.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ John M. Miller, "The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy)", TCM.com
  3. ^ Richard Jewell & Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1982. p166
  4. ^ Smith, Steven C (1991). A Heart At Heart's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. University of California Press. p. 86. ISBN 0-520-07123-9. 
  5. ^ AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot

External links[edit]