Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Devil and Daniel Webster, The (1941)

The film under it initial title of "All That Money Can Buy"

Director: William Dieterle


Stories of men making deals with the devil are as old as time. Here in the film The Devil and Daniel Webster, based on the 1936 Saturday Evening Post story that was later published into a book, we receive a folksy, American take of the Faustian tale. The result would a motion picture with a mix of wonderful as well as poor acting within a morality story that was meant to frighten audiences with the idea that devil is always watching out for his opportunity to snatch up souls.

Jebez meets Belle, the "home-wrecker" of the picture.
The Devil and Daniel Webster is a fantasy/drama about a poor New England farmer who sells his soul for wealth and prosperity until the devil comes to collect on his due. Downtrodden Jebez Stone (James Craig hits troubled times while on his farm and it looks like he will lose everything while attempting to support his wife, Mary (Anne Shirley), and mother (Jane Darwell) until, out of frustration, he proclaims he would sell his soul for some money. Out of nowhere appears Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), the manifestation of the devil in the form of a drifter. Jebez makes a deal with Scratch that brings him prosperity for exactly seven years, that is when Scratch will return to collect Jebez’s soul. In those seven years Jebez changes from a humble farmer to a farming tycoon who alienates all his old friends and nearly destroys his home life by tacking up a mistress in a devilishly beautiful woman, who is actually a manifestation meant to tempt him, named Belle (Simone Simon).

The jury of the damned looks on to judge on Jebez's soul.
As the seven years come close to an end Jebez becomes ever more aware that his deal was a poor decision and when Scratch returns to collect his payment. In an act of humble forgiveness for his actions, Jebez begs for the help of dear friend, and infamous Congressman of the people Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), to help deliver him from Scratch. Webster makes a deal with Scratch for a fair trial for Jebez’s soul. However, Scratch assembles a “jury of the damned” containing American figures who have all done devious deeds in history for the trial. Scratch’s contract with Jebez appears damning, but Webster’s defense being that Jebez’s soul belongs to his country and family sways the jury and Jebez’s soul is exonerated. Scratch leaves with one last temptation of Webster to help him with a possible Presidential campaign, for which Webster casts Scratch away one last time. The closing image of the film leaves a close up of Scratch contemplating his next move before staring directly into camera, leaving the menacing idea that the devil is after you next.

The picture appears to begin with the overly simple production quality and writing of a Hollywood B-movie with rather stiff, two-dimensional acting and a simplistic story of right and wrong, but turns into a morality play whose saving grace in the performances of Walter Huston and Edward Arnold. One can struggle over whether they believe the film was good or poor, but in the end I am going to say it is a solid film with heavy religious tones which would more likely be enjoyed by a Christian, or didactic audience and ridiculed by those that shun religion or the idea of a devil.

This morality play directed by William Dieterle, whose recent famous works include The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Oscar Award nominated The Story of Louis Pasteur, appears to a simply shot picture than his more lavish past works, with hits of the filmmaker’s skill on a limited sets with limited means. With nearly all shots obviously produced within soundstages the feature loses a sense of scope, feeling creatively confined and heavily contained in certain spaces, adding to the difficulty for one to becoming engrossed in the overly sappy story. However, it can be felt that the picture does give off the feeling of a stage play, confined to small areas at a time, with a manageable cast with a villain that tends to poke his head in merely from time to time to remind audiences of the nature of the moral.

The film features the performance of James Craig as Jebez, the man that sold his soul to the devil. Craig to this point has been primarily featured in B-films or serials in the movie industry and it shows in his performance. He is stiff as a performer and tends to speak near all his lines with the same volume and inflection, as if he is simply reciting lines and not really getting into character. If there is one actor you wished could be replaced it would be him.

Craig’s character is accented by the two individuals that love him the most, his wife and mother, played respectfully by Anne Shirley and Jane Darwell. Shirley’s performance is almost equally stiff as Craig’s, but plays the victim of neglect, but remains the unconditionally loving wife as straight as possible. Darwell generally plays her customary motherly character, which a woman of her stature and build tended to play in her days on film, as we have seen her perform before in the 1940 Oscar winning picture The Grapes of Wrath. She appears to be a simple copy of her other performances.

The title characters of the film are played marvelously by Walter Huston and Edward Arnold. Huston, a career film actor going back to the days silent movies, as Mr. Scratch controls every moment he is on screen. Perhaps it was planned to be that way, but in any case Huston personifies the idea of the devil so well in his country get up amazing well with his toothy grin and expressive brow allowing himself to be the slimy character that efforts to tempt every moan he comes across. His performance simply steals the show. Adding to his performance is the creative use of a substance known by some as “flash paper” where Huston, as Scratch, is able to make certain paper items, in this case his “business card,” disappear in a quick flash of flame by a simple touch of his lit cigar; a remarkable theatrical trick that plays well for this devil character.

Edward Arnold was cast as Daniel Webster in order to fix the problem of losing Thomas Mitchell midway through production. While Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell was originally acting as the virtuous Congressman from New Hampshire was shooting a scene on a horse drawn carriage he lost control of the horses, fell, and seriously fractured his skull. While hospitalized Mitchell was replaced by Arnold, who shared a similar build to Mitchell, and had his own commanding presence. Dieterle and Arnold worked on many reshoots to make up for losing Mitchell at a quickened pace, and Arnold provided a first rate performance seamlessly filling in the hole. No one would ever be able to tell that there was originally another actor meant to portray Webster as Edward Arnold owned the character of the virtuous man of the people..

Upon release the title of The Devil and Daniel Webster was altered to and renamed  All That Money Can Buy to avoid confusion with audiences with the similarly titled The Devil and Miss Jones which released earlier in the year of 1941. As time passed and the film was re-released the title reverted to its intended form of The Devil and Daniel Webster, the title the film would appropriately fit in the minds of cinema audiences.

The film featured works of composer Bernard Herman, who also did the music for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane that same year as well as many of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films in the future. Herman would be nominated for his music at that year’s Academy Awards and won his first Oscar in his illustrious career for his folksy, dramatic music for his work on The Devil and Daniel Webster. Walter Huston’s performance also garnered him Oscar attention as he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Upon initial release critics generally gave the feature favorable reviews, but the film ultimately lost money at the box office and was failure in its initial run. When RKO later re-released the picture the studio edited out over twenty minutes from the film with crude cuts to the negative just for the sake of cutting down the run time and fitting other material on the bill at theaters. It would be decades before the film would be reassembled once again in the 1990s where new generations of audiences would be able to enjoy the picture as it was originally intended.

Looking back on The Devil and Daniel Webster the film can be enjoyed by audiences that do not mind the simple religious undertones. Some might find the poorer acting within the feature distracting or may thing the overly moral undercurrents annoying, but as a ethical tale about working hard for what one earns this feature can be appreciated for what it is valued. If anything is worth noting, it is the excellent acting of Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch as he plays evil remarkable well and is worth looking at for his performance alone.

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