At the end of the 15th century, two minstrels Gilles and Dominique come from nowhere into the castle of Baron Hugues. Gilles charms Anne, Hughes' daughter, while Dominique charms both ... See full summary »
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
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Bernard Herrmann's Oscar-winning musical score included recordings of the humming of telephone wires (heard when Mr. Scratch first appears to Jabez Stone in his barn), and four violin solos of Pop Goes The Weasel, recorded separately and laid over each other on the soundtrack to form a single violin solo (heard when Mr. Scratch plays his fiddle at Jabez Stone's barn dance). See more »
Characters in this film set in pre-Civil War America routinely use the phrase "loan shark" despite the fact that it came into the English language between 1900 and 1905. See more »
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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