Friday, December 11, 2009

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Director: William Dieterle
DVR from TCM broadcast

The story of The Devil and Daniel Webster is essentially "Faust" transported to New England and set in 1840. A poor farmer, Jabez Stone (James Craig) sells his soul to Scratch (the always awesome Walter Huston) for a pot of gold and seven years of good fortune. As with any "Monkey's Paw" scenario, things go wrong and ol' Jabez should have been careful with what he wished for. While he starts off with good intentions for his money by helping out fellow farmers and offering money to a politician (the Daniel Webster mentioned in the title) that supports farmers rights, he is soon corrupted by greed. The story then jumps ahead several years and Jebaz has a son who's a brat, a nanny (played by Simone Simon!) who has seduced him away from his wife, and everyone in town hates him as he has turned into a ruthless loan shark that is taking away everyone's land. Closing in on the final days of his deal, Mr. Scratch shows up to collect a soul, presumably killing off Jebaz in the process. When Jabez tries to bargain, the Devil wants only his seven year old son in exchange for an extension on his life. At this point, Jebaz Stone finally realizes he's a creep, begs his family for forgiveness, and asks Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) for help who then declares he would "fight 10,000 devils for a New Hampshire man!". This leads to the most interesting scene in the film as Scratch conjures a "Jury of the Damned" into Jeb's barn where Webster and he face off for the man's soul. The jury is brought up from an expressively lit trap door in the floor and consists of famous murderers and crooks from American history (Captain Kidd, Benedict Arnold, uhhhh and ten others). This scene also starts with a nice dialog exchange where Webster accuses the Devil of not being American and mentions that he was there when the first Indian was killed, when the first slaves were taken off the ship, and that basically his name is synonymous with America (ouch!!). But Webster gives a rousing speech about second chances or some-such thing and the good guys win. I guess they win if you think of Jebaz Stone as a good guy. Here's a character that makes seven years worth of horrible decisions and only asks for help after the immediate punishment of death is put on the table and the blame game doesn't work. He's scared into becoming a good person, he doesn't arrive there on his own, but I guess that is the very basis for religion. Overall I would say I was entertained watching the film, particularly Huston's performance as the Devil and an eerie scene with Simon as she dances away a man's soul, but I found it next to impossible to care about the Stone character and Craig's performance comes across as anxious and one-dimensional. Perhaps it's growing up a product of Seventies cynicism, but the film seemed hopelessly out dated with too many characters that supposedly didn't care about money at all. I, unfortunately, have only lived in an America where there are more people that will sell or do anything for money than there are that only care about living the simple life.

Criterion has released the film on DVD this year but I had recorded this from a TCM broadcast a few months back. The Janus logo did come up before the film, so I assume it's the same print used on the disc. It looked good and the only major flaw were a few missing frames towards the end of the film.


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