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Review: The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Directed by: William Dieterle

Premise: An adaptation of the short story by Stephen Benet. Jabez Stone (James Craig), a down-on-his-luck farmer, makes a pact with Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) exchanging his soul for financial success. But when the terms of the contract come due, Jabez appeals to lawyer Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to get him out of trouble.

What Works: The Devil and Daniel Webster is a folk tale adapted to film and it is very smart and funny while also dramatically satisfying and a little spooky. Shot in black and white, The Devil and Daniel Webster and uses shadows very effectively. Film critics sometimes complain about motion pictures as being “too stagy,” especially when the film is adapted from the living theater. The Devil and Daniel Webster does have stage-like theatrical elements but these often aid the film. This is a folk tale and the sets and performances and the way they are shot often reinforce the fantastical qualities of the story and create a diegesis that works for the film. The performances in The Devil and Daniel Webster provide human emotions that are foregrounded against the whimsical setting. James Craig does very well as Jabez Stone and his corruption is convincing. The role demands a lot of range from Craig as he shifts from a blue collar workingman to a white collar baron and in that transition Craig displays a lot of facets to his character from frustration to wild-eyed greed to disillusionment to gratitude. In each one of these states of mind Craig is convincing and plays the role straight, focusing on the human experience of temptation. The other notable performance in the film is Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch. The devil has been played many times on film, sometimes for laughs and other times for scares, but few actors have managed to fuse both of those qualities together as perfectly as Huston does in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Scratch clearly enjoys the thrill of the chase and pops up periodically to cause havoc or just remind the audience of his presence but when things get down to business the real evil of Scratch’s methods and intentions becomes clear. Huston’s performance is diabolical in the true sense of the word; he possesses an aura of wickedness and yet his presentation is always disarming and never entirely betrays the satanic power underlying it.

What Doesn’t: The Devil and Daniel Webster expands Stephen Benet’s short story to a feature length and in the process the film gets padded. Jabez Stone’s affair with a mysterious woman (Simone Simon) isn’t handled well. It’s unclear what the extent of their relationship is and to what degree she has displaced his wife. This may be because the film was made during the era of the Hays Code and the filmmakers were already pushing the envelope of the time with their subject matter. There is another issue to The Devil and Daniel Webster worth critiquing and that has to do with the ending. Films about a protagonist who succumbs to temptation, whether it is a folk tale like The Devil and Daniel Webster or a contemporary drama like Wall Street, have an inherent problem. If the story concludes by trapping the protagonist in the choices he has made, the message of the film is likely to be a hopeless one, which is going to be a disappointment for the audience. But if the story allows the protagonist to escape his actions without consequences, this can destroy the integrity of the film. The Devil and Daniel Webster could be considered a cop out for its uplifting ending but it is consistent with the tone of the film.

DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition of The Devil and Daniel Webster includes a commentary track, video comparisons with earlier version of the film, an audio performance of Stephen Benet’s short story, image galleries, and an essay on the film.

Bottom Line: The Devil and Daniel Webster is a very good film with a terrific performance by Walter Huston. Although its ending may weaken the film’s overall impact, The Devil and Daniel Webster remains an interesting and entertaining story about temptation.

Note: The Devil and Daniel Webster was originally released with the title All That Money Can Buy.

Episode: #361 (October 30, 2011)