June 23, 2009

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
Grade: 74/100

Director: William Dieterle
Stars: Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, James Craig

What it's about. A fascinating morality play set in New Hampshire during the 1840s. Struggling farmer Jabez (James Craig) has a run of bad luck and is about to lose the farm. He has a gorgeous young wife (Olivia de Havilland lookalike Anne Shirley) and a no-nonsense mother (Jane Darwell) to support.

To keep his farm, Jabez signs a pact with the Devil (Walter Huston): seven years of good luck in return for his soul. The Devil keeps his end of the bargain, and Jabez gradually becomes the wealthiest man in the county. All the other farmers end up working for him, which embitters them. Jabez becomes obsessed with wealth and its trappings, to the astonishment of his loyal, godly wife and mother. Jabez also has a bad influence: Belle (Simone Simon, best known for Cat People), a lovely young thing determined to lead him merrily down the wrong path.

When the Devil comes to collect, Jabez has only one ally, Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), the popular and extraordinary Whig politician. Webster is convinced by Jabez' comely wife to defend Jabez at an otherworldly trial convened by the Devil, even though it appears that the jury is rigged against him.

The film is based on a 1937 short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Benet's story is in turn based on Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker," which in turn was influenced by the European Renaissance fable of Faust. Thanks, Wikipedia. The film includes many elements not present in the Benet short story.

This film was originally issued under the title All That Money Can Buy. Per Turner Classic Movies, RKO Radio released The Devil and Miss Jones sixth months earlier, and wanted to avoid any comparison or confusion. Imdb.com gives a different reason: box office business in the religiously conservative South would have been impacted if the film had "The Devil" as part of its title. At any rate, the film was re-issued and released to video under its better-known title.

How others will see it. Although the movie is less well known than its source short story, those who have seen it almost always admire it. It won an Oscar for Bernard Herrmann's score, and Huston garnered a Best Actor nomination.

How I felt about it. The Devil and Daniel Webster obviously has allegorical elements, but its message is complex. To decipher its meaning, we trace the ancestry back to Faust. A man sells his soul, but is it too late to repent, even if the Devil has kept his half of the bargain? The answer is yes. Repenting alone won't save Jabez. It takes the mighty Daniel Webster to preserve his soul.

Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" is less tragedy, and more allegory. Don't be a greedy miser like Tom Walker. You know what happened to him.

But Tom Walker did not have Daniel Webster on his side. What, then, does Webster represent? In the short story, Webster is transformed from a long-dead historical figure into a man of such oratorical gifts that he can salvage even the most hopeless lost cause. The movie continues to hail Webster as the great populist hero. It is propaganda out of time, seemingly written by a Whig loyalist of the late 1840s but instead penned many decades later by a historical author with an advanced Liberal Arts education.

Where does God fit into all this? Dr. Faustus can be saved by a belief in God. Jabez has no such luxury, but the piety of his wife convinces Webster to act on his behalf. This makes Webster something of a Christ figure, assuming the sins of Jabez and putting his own soul at risk.

As for the film itself, Walter Huston never enjoyed a role more, and the rest of the cast also appears to relish their characters. William Dieterle briskly directs, and even manages to frighten us with the devilish incarnation of Belle, the most engaging demon temptress yet presented by Hollywood.