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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. Based on the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet. Also known as "All That Money Can Buy." Written by
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William Dieterle's adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster is the product of a great, albeit brief, era of quality Hollywood film-making that has never been repeated. Released within a three-year period that yielded such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Gunga Din, The Maltese Falcon, and Citizen Kane (just to name a few), The Devil and Daniel Webster is only now earning the accolades it deserves. The film is late to join the aforementioned classics because a definitive version of it has been elusive for nearly sixty years. For their 2003 DVD release of the title, The Criterion Collection finally discovered a complete print that had been in the director's possession. Now restored to its full length, and painstakingly restored, The Devil and Daniel Webster has never looked and sounded better.
A cautionary tale of greed and power, the narrative centers around the character of Jabez Stone (played by James Craig), a down-on-his-luck farmer who is barely able to support his family in 1840s New Hampshire. When the nefarious Mr. Scratch (Walter Houston) appears during a moment of weakness, Jabez agrees to sell his soul in exchange for seven years of good luck. Much to the dismay of his wife (Ann Shirley), mother (Jane Darwell), and beloved politician Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), Jabez slips into a downward spiral as a result of his newfound wealth and power. When his seven years are up, Jabez learns the error of his ways and wants to make amends. To escape his contract with the devil, Jabez puts his fate in the hands of the almost mythic Daniel Webster, who represents him in a climactic barn room trial against Mr. Scratch and a jury of the damned.
The execution of this story is remarkable, from the elegant direction and incredible performances to the innovative camera work and stylish mise-en-scene. Dieterle infuses the film with stark contrast lighting and masterful compositions rich in detail and multiple layers of action. When Mr. Scratch appears in Jabez's barn, he is heavily backlit and accompanied by ethereal sounds. His accomplice, the creepy Belle, is similarly introduced beside a fireplace. To portray the film's more ghostly effects, including Belle's dance to the death with Miser Stevens and the barn room trial, Dieterle relies on multiple exposure and diffused lighting. These visual effects and others, such as items bursting into flame, were ahead of their time - as were the lighting schemes. Influenced as Citizen Kane was by German expressionist films, The Devil and Daniel Webster features bold, suggestive lighting where shadows alone often represent a character. Dieterle succeeds in creating a visual distinction between the real world and the netherworld by frequently bathing Scratch and Belle in soft light or diffusion and removing all natural sounds from the soundtrack when they appear. Belle's dance of death and Scratch's fiddle playing at Jabez's party are accompanied by severe under lighting, insinuating the hellish forces at work in both scenes. Every shot in the film, even in the mundane world, seems painstakingly planned and executed, with decisive lighting and many intricate camera movements, rare for this era of film-making.
The most remarkable performance in the film is Walter Houston's Mr. Scratch.
Houston, an Oscar-winner for his role in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, exudes unbridled glee with every devilish grin. His devil is a gentleman-like puppet master, a smooth talker, and very persuasive. He never flaunts his evil powers. He doesn't have to. His appeal is understandable because he can offer what everyone in the movie wants - wealth and power. It's easy for the Devil to sell his wares to struggling farmers, so he's confident and playful in his duties. Houston throws away one-liner after one-liner, owning the screen and stealing the show. At one point, he offers to help Daniel Webster win the presidential election. Webster replies, "I'd rather see you on the side of the opposition." As Webster walks away, Houston replies, "Oh, I'll be there, too," and sticks a cigar in his mouth.
To combat the devil, Dieterle cast Edward Arnold (who was actually recast when the original actor was injured during filming). Arnold had a tough job in the film, making believable not only Daniel Webster's mythic stature, but also his flowery rhetoric about patriotism and the goodness in all men. He admirably succeeds in not only persuading the jury of the damned, but in holding his own against Walter Houston in their many scenes together.
Everyone else in the cast is also excellent. James Craig pulls off Jabez Stone's fall from grace, and Ann Shirley is a believable virtuous wife. Jane Darwell, fresh off her Oscar-winning stint as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, seems to be playing the same character in The Devil and Daniel Webster, but it serves the movie well. The most notable supporting player is Simone Simon, whose mesmerizing Belle haunts every frame in which she appears. It's easy to see why Jabez would fall under her spell, because we, as an audience, do as well.
The icing on the Devil's cake is Bernard Herrmann's Oscar-winning score, a dynamic one that works on many levels. Herrmann incorporates several traditional folk songs into his original music, including "Devil's Dream", "Springfield Mountain", and "Miss McLeod's Reel". For Mr. Scratch and Belle, Herrmann manipulated the sound of telephone wires "singing" in the wind to create an eerie, atonal sound for the netherworld. The film also provided Herrmann a wealth of other opportunities, including a square dance and two lullabies.
A good story makes a movie worth watching once. Exquisite aesthetics makes it worth watching many times. The Devil and Daniel Webster stands the test of time as an endearing narrative with lessons we have still to learn. It's masterful direction and style, fluid editing, and charming performances make it an accessible and entertaining film for any audience. Now restored and widely available, it is sure to join the ranks of those other great classics from the late '30s and early '40s - a scintillating example of good storytelling and fine craftsmanship.
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