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Devil and Daniel Webster

Mr Scratch

March 2009 SITE MAP   SEARCH

The Devil And Daniel Webster
cast: Edward Arnold, James Craig, Walter Huston, Simone Simon, and Jane Darwell

director: William Dieterle

106 minutes (U) 1941
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Originally based upon a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet that retold the story of Faust in populist and patriotic terms, The Devil And Daniel Webster (aka: All That Money Can Buy) is instantly recognisable as the inspiration behind the episode of The Simpsons where Homer has his head transformed into a giant doughnut ("But I'm so tasty," he moans whilst picking at his own face). At times the film is sickeningly corny and sentimental but beneath the saccharine is evidence of a tradition of popular leftist politics which, while alive and well in 1930s America, is utterly dead today.

Jabez Stone (James Craig) is a farmer and a proud son of the state of New Hampshire. He is a loving husband to a devoted wife and a provider for his pious mother. He is also incredibly unlucky. Despite having a big farm, Stone is constantly short of money and after a few unlucky events he finds himself having to sell next year's seeds and young animals in order to keep up with his mortgage payments. As he struggles to get a calf onto his buggy, his wife falls over and knocks herself out and a sack of grain splits and empties into a puddle. "I'd sell my soul for two cents," Stone cries, only to immediately regret his words when a dapper, cane-twirling, cigar-smoking man by the name of Mr Scratch (Walter Huston) appears and proposes him just such a deal. Mindful of his debts and his family, Stone snatches Scratch's arm off and pledges his soul in return for seven years of good luck.

The following day, Stone pays off his debts with a pot of gold and makes a splash in the local community by giving a speech when politician and popular hero Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) falls asleep in the sun. From there, Stone goes from strength to strength; buying up more and more land and employing more and more people to work it until he is shown with a huge mansion. He also has the mortgages on all the surrounding farms and a mistress who lives with him in the new house while his wife, mother and child live in the old farmhouse. When seven years are up, Mr Scratch comes to reclaim his soul and the repentant Stone throws himself at the feet of Webster to argue his case. Webster obtains a trial (run by a hanging judge and juried by traitors, murderers and pirates) and wins by appealing to the seed of patriotism and the joy of simple pleasures that slumbers in the heart of every damned man.

As you might expect from a film such as this, the morality of The Devil And Daniel Webster is laid on with a trowel. In early scenes, the Stone family are an absurdly moral and pious lot who enjoy nothing more than going to church and professing their love for the great state of New Hampshire. Conversely, the older Jabez Stone is monstrously evil; berating his wife for daring to punish his son, parading around town with his cruel demonic mistress, gambling and drinking while his family are at church and shooting at children who dare to fish from his pond. Obviously, as an examination of one man's fall from grace or of the temptations of evil, The Devil And Daniel Webster has all the subtlety and insight of the Star Wars prequels. In fact, so sudden is that change in Stone (or Darth Stone as I like to think of him) that when he finally repents it seems more out of a desire to save his neck than any real admission of wrongdoing. Like a man who only complains about an unregulated financial market when all of his shares drop through the floor. Indeed, some critics have argued that Benet - who also co-wrote the screenplay - did not really understand evil and it is easy to see why.

In contrast, the film does clearly champion certain beliefs. Aside from the benefits of religion and patriotism, the film also presents the case for communal living. By failing to explain why it is that Stone turns bad, the film seems to suggest that merely becoming rich is enough to turn a man sour. The film even goes so far as to suggest parallels between mortgage-brokers (referred to as 'loan sharks') and the Devil as both use the promise of short term gain in order to lure you into a life of slavery. Indeed, another of the film's political positions is the idea that men should work for themselves and never for anyone else. People who draw salaries or work in order to service loan re-payments are presented as miserable, spiritually ruined husks that are unlikely ever to achieve anything approaching happiness. Put all of these ideas together and you have what seems to be a timely political message in favour of living within one's means and working for yourself rather than slaving away in order to enrich bosses who will always benefit more from your actions than you will. But the film also praises the value of community not as a social edifice but as an economic one as all throughout the film the wiser farmers argue for the creation of a 'grange' that will share the wealth in good years and spread out the misfortune in bad ones. This is the kind of unionisation or communal farming that would be seen as outright socialism in most western countries today, but which evidently existed in American political life at the time thanks to liberal amounts of patriotism, Christianity and the lionisation of the simple pleasures of working hard and making your own way in the world.

Much of the film is spent demonstrating the moral rectitude and then the moral turpitude of Stone and his family and the film rests uneasily on James Craig who plays Stone as a big corn-fed galoot continually spouting what was referred to so memorably in Blazing Saddles (1974) as "authentic frontier gibberish." Mercifully, the title characters have a good deal more meat on them. Walter Huston got an Academy award nomination for his portrayal of the Devil as a permanently good humoured dapper sensualist who never turned down the offer of a drink or the chance to steal a pie. Edward Arnold's Daniel Webster also enjoys a drink and his unassuming populist charms are very similar to those of the Devil's. Arnold delivers Webster's speeches with the necessary amounts of oratorical brio and is believable as a popular hero and moral champion.

Cinematically, the film is probably what you would expect from a Hollywood production of this period. The Oscar-winning score is theatrically overwhelming and even the most poverty-stricken farmhouse is sparkling with moral purity. Dieterle is probably best known for his The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939), but while The Devil And Daniel Webster lacks that film's web of betrayal and lust, it does have the odd moment of cinematic audacity. Dieterle heralds the arrival of supernatural elements by surrounding them with light from a fire or the Sun, giving them an inhuman quality that never quite dissipates despite those character's attempts to pass themselves off as human. Dieterle also blurs the camera whenever something magical happens, including two diabolical dances in which the damned dance eerily with demons to the sounds of tortured violins. It is these scenes that really help the film overcome its folksy subject matter as Stone's final realisation of what he has become is particularly well handled and the shot of his mistress whirling around with the slumped body of the mortgage-broker is undeniably a memorable one.

The DVD's only extra is a selection of scenes from pre-release version of the film but seeing as these are absolutely identical except for brief glimpses of Scratch's grinning face; they do little to add value. The picture quality of the film is superb though at times you can tell that certain bits look a bit ropier than others. Indeed, while the film was initially released in its current form, it was a critical success and a commercial failure leading to the studio cutting half an hour out of it and re-releasing it under the title All That Money Can Buy. The original version of the film was not recovered until the 1990s and this accounts for why there are differences in quality between the scenes. Also unfortunate is the fact that the sound quality on the DVD is so terrible. With headphones on, the audio track has a real hiss to it and at times the sound levels are so low that I had to turn my TV all the way up in order to make out what was being said.

Technical issues aside, The Devil And Daniel Webster is perhaps a more interesting film than it is an entertaining one. The down-home patriotism and rural values of the production would probably not go down that well with a modern American audience so a European one is likely to find them very difficult to stomach. Some of the performances are good and the odd interesting scene and political idea is enough to keep the film from collapsing into schmaltz but there simply is not enough here to stop your attention from wandering.

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