A down-on-his-luck farmer makes a deal with the devil for seven years of prosperity. When Mr. Scratch comes to collect, orator and hero of the common man Daniel Webster comes to the rescue. Written by
Little Pine Weasel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The character Judge John Hathorne was one of the judges at the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. He was also the only one that never apologized to the victim's families. His descendant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, changed the spelling of his surname in order to appear not so closely related to such an infamous ancestor. See more »
Shortly after filming had begun, Thomas Mitchell fractured his skull and was replaced by 'Edward Arnold'. Not many scenes had been shot, none were re-shot, so Mitchell is still visible in some scenes. See more »
[about the hailstorm]
Queer sort of weather we're having... queer like everything else.
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William Dieterle directed this handsome, ambitious adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Wesbter in 1941. An Americanized (and Yankee-fied) varation on Faust, set in rural New Hampshire, it has many charms, not the least of which its cast, which includes Walter Huston, as a playful Mr. Scratch, Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster, and in strong support, Jane Darwell, Simone Simon and John Qualen. James Craig plays the main character, Jabez Stone, the man who sells his soul to the Devil, and is barely adequate.
This is a meticulously detailed production, deliberately artificial, yet evocative of the real nineteenth century New England, it also looks like the fantasy it is. Joseph August's camerawork is outstanding, as is Bernard Herrmann's folk-inspired score, alternately reassuring, eerie and stirring. On a purely technical level the movie is flawless.
My only problem with the picture, and it's a big one, is that it's lifeless. This is no fault of the actors. It's just that once one gets past the gorgeous sets, music and photography, everyone behaves, well, as he should. No harm in this from a fairy tale standpoint, but it gets tiresome after a while to have farmers continually behaving like the "good New Hampshiremen" they are; and with Widow This and Miser That doing his thing, everything seems out of stock, as in stock company. Even the woman who seduces poor Jabez must be foreign (American girls don't act like that, eh?). I suppose it's cruel to criticize a film like this from a realistic standpoint. It's not supposed to be realistic. If this were a feature length Disney cartoon along the lines of Snow White, or simply a children's movie, I might find it more enchanting, but the talent behind the cameras was sophisticated, European, quite intelligent, and not shy about it. If, on the one hand the story was nudging us toward the larger than life, the mythopoetic, on the other hand what is on the screen is a reasonable simulacrum of human behavior, presumably aimed at an adult audience, featuring characters with precious little individuality. This was a major aesthetic hurdle the movie did not, alas, get over.
As an historical addendum it's worth noting that The Devil and Daniel Webster is one of several movies made in the period of roughly 1940-41 that dealt with east coast America in a manner at once critical, romantic and wistful. New England is not often dealt with in films, yet from the same year there was H.M. Pulham, Esq.; and the previous year saw the movie of Our Town. Philadelphia Story is another from the same period. Citizen Kane, filmed on the same backlot as Daniel Webster, covered the tri-state waterfront, journeying from New York to Philadelphia to Atlantic City. It's as if Hollywood, traditionally geared more to heartland tastes, suddenly cozied up to the northeastern seaboard, which it normally, aside from New York, didn't depict much in films, tossing out bouquet after bouquet, as if to compensate for having snubbed this part of the country, movie-wise, for so many years.
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