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 byWilliam Dieterle
Produced byWilliam Dieterle
Charles L. Glett
Written byDan Totheroh
Stephen Vincent Benét
Based onThe Devil and Daniel Webster
by Stephen Vincent Benét
StarringEdward Arnold
Walter Huston
James Craig
Anne Shirley
Jane Darwell
Simone Simon
Music byBernard Herrmann
CinematographyJoseph H. August
Edited byRobert Wise
Production
company
William Dieterle Productions
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • October 17, 1941 (1941-10-17)
Running time
107 mins
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish

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, but 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 1840s rural New Hampshire, 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, Jabez Stone (James Craig), a poor kindhearted farmer, is broke and plagued by bad luck, and, with the local money-lender, Miser Stevens, about to foreclose on his farm, he 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 of the United States.

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 neighbors 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 honor 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. Realizing that all his guests have fled, Jabez turns on Mary, blaming her for all his troubles, and he throws her out. Now desperate and realizing that 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 Mary. He begs her 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 again 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 notorious personalities 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 now 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 has 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, and they believed him and 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, does not 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, Arnold, 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 fulfill his ambition to become President. Scratch sits alone in the final scene, resignedly thumbing through a notebook. He puts it away and then breaks the fourth wall, moving his gaze until he stops and looks straight ahead, giving the effect of singling out the viewer; Scratch then points directly at the viewer and smiles evilly as the film fades out.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

After the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, William Dieterle founded his own production company and signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures, the studio that had produced the film. He decided to adapt Stephen Vincent Benet's short story of the same name as the first film he would make under the contract with the studio.

The story had been adapted to the stage in 1939 at the Martin Beck Theater to great acclaim, but only ran for six performances because the production proved to be expensive. It was also later adapted as an opera that was done during World War II by USO troupes.

Benet was invited to write the script for the film adaptation, along with Dan Totheroh, the younger brother of Roland Totheroh, who worked as Charlie Chaplin's top cinematographer from his silent short films to Monsieur Verdoux. There were some differences between the short story and the movie. In the original story, Webster regrets Benedict Arnold's absence; in the film, Arnold is present and Webster objects, citing him as a traitor and therefore not a true American, but his objection is dismissed by the judge, and Asa the Black Monk is made up for the film, along with John Smeet, who appears in a deleted scene. The writers also cut out Scratch's other predictions involving Webster's last speech and his sons' deaths in the American Civil War. Walter Huston's character was more soft-spoken in the story and the character of Belle was an addition.[1]

Thomas Mitchell was the original choice for Daniel Webster, but he suffered a skull fracture while filming the carriage scene and was replaced by Edward Arnold.

Bernard Herrmann was chosen to compose the film, having composed music for Charles R. Jackson's 1938 radio adaptation that aired on The Columbia Workshop. Herrmann was introduced to the cast and crew by Dieterle, whom he found to be a very sophisticated director. 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. Herrmann also collaborated with sound engineer James G. Stewart to make sure that the music and sound worked well together. To create the creepy sound when Mr. Scratch first appeared in the barn, Herrmann had a recording crew go to San Fernando to record the sound of telephone wires.[2]

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 and honors[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.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Izzo, David Garrett; Lincoln Konkle (2002). Stephen Vincent Benet:Essays on His Life and Work. University of California Press. ISBN 0786413646.
  2. ^ Smith, Steven C. A Heart At Heart's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. University of California Press. p. 86. ISBN 0-520-07123-9.
  3. ^ Richard Jewell & Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1982. p166

External links[edit]