In 1939 William Dieterle brought Charles Laughton and Marueen O'Hara together for the superb rendition of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Just two years later he would assemble a fine enough cast and take Stephen Benet's story of soul selling to the silver screen with The Devil and Daniel Webster. This though was not its first title, no before this film finally rested on a title that many will recognise it was also known as Here is a Man and All that Money Can Buy. Of all three I actually prefer the latter mentioned even though the one finally chosen does convey a more dramatic production.
The story lies not really with Daniel Webster but with one Jabez Stone, a god fearing farmer in the heart of New Hampshire. Down on his luck and eager to succeed he mentions in anger that he would gladly sell his soul for 2 cents if it meant his life would improve. Sooner than you can say Beelzebub the devil himself wanders into Jabez's life and offers him seven years of prosperity and wealth in return for his eternal soul; Jabez agrees.
Jabez sees his life turn around, his crops flourish whilst his neighbours' wither, he finds gold under his barn, he pays off his debts, now owns his house, he employs those who are not as prosperous as he. He covets money more and more, until the time comes to honour his side of the deal. On that day he turns to a well respected Senator to fight his case in the Devil's court of law. Before the jury of the damned, Senator Daniel Webster argues for Jabez to have the right to retain his soul.
German Dieterle looked upon the original short story by Stephen Benet and obviously understood and liked the parallels in a modern revamping of the original German Faust storyline. Where Faust traded his soul for knowledge so Stone would trade his for wealth and power, ultimately though both realising that ultimate knowledge or riches does not satisfy ones initial desires, both coming to regret the pacts they had made with the devil.
I look upon this film with two other earlier movies, A Matter of Life and Death (Powell/Pressburger) and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. There are obvious parallels with the former as Heaven and Earth battle for a man's eternal soul as here Hell and Earth do the same. With It's a Wonderful Life I can't help but think that Stone is being given an opportunity almost to see changes in his life if he were to be gifted wealth, he comes to understand that money is not the be all and end all of a successful life, but one comprising of family, friends and community spirit. Certainly as a double bill though you could do far worse than start with The Devil and Daniel Webster and finish with the opposite end of the spectrum but still discussing the same issues, A Matter of Life and Death, perfect for a wet, windy Sunday afternoon.
I wasn't attracted to this film though because of the director, the actors or the storyline. What drew me to this picture initially is the contribution made by two other people, the editor and composer; Robert Wise and Bernard Herrmann respectively. These two would meet again of course and we have seen films recently which we have reviewed here, The Day the Earth Stood Still being the one of recent note. Before beginning his directorial career with The Magnificent Ambersons, Mademoiselle Fifi and The Curse of the Cat People Wise worked as editor on a number of films and this was not his first outing with Dieterle; they had previously worked on The Hunchback of Notre Dame together. Wise was learning his trade here and there are some very good edits to be found in this film, particularly of the dancing scenes at Stone's barn the faster, quickening edits enhancing the drama of the scene as Stone realises that his life is ultimately now running out of his own control.
Herrmann, of course, was just coming off the back of Citizen Kane, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, however the accolade went to .. yes you've guessed it Bernard Herrmann, for this motion pictures' score! So in 1942 Herrmann was nominated for two films and that just goes to show what an incredible composer he was, and this so early on in his own illustrious career as well. His score here is what we have come to expect from Herrmann, bold and brassy with some experimental escapades in the tones and devices used to amalgamate his score perfectly into the frame.
Funnily enough the editor of Citizen Kane was again Robert Wise so you can see the relationship building between Wise and Herrmann at this early stage, careers which would explode and leave us with some timeless moments of cinematic history.
Dieterle's direction is pretty solid, although I think he could have toned down the performance of James Craig (Jabez Stone) a little as at times; it does seem a little too forced, a little overly dramatic and almost harks back to the silent era days where acting was a little more pronounced. The performances by the other leading players is more than acceptable with Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster and Anne Shirley as the incredibly shy wife of Jabez Stone seemingly walking through their parts with ease. It is though Walter Huston as the devil himself Mr Scratch who is the one to watch out for here, the small nudges in the right places, the expressions of persuasion and glee and the bemusement when he feels he might indeed be beaten are all fantastic examples of an actor using his facial gestures to get the feeling and message across.
There are some interesting concepts put forward in The Devil and Daniel Webster but these are left too late in the movie to be exploited really well. Near the end when the jury are about to enter Scratch actually reveals he is more American than the rest having been there since Day 1 of the country's founding. The day the native Indians were massacred he was there, the day the slave ships sailed he was there. It seems as though these could have been exploited a little further but alas they were not. What we do get is a good look at the problems greed can give. Being rich and famous is one thing, perusing it for it's own ends to the detriment of your family and friends is another and that's what we see as Jabez follows the path set out for him.
The Devil and Daniel Webster is a fantastic little flick from an earlier almost more innocent age. It has some good themes, excellent use of light and shadow in its cinematography and an engaging storyline at times just a little over played. Even so another great addition to the Masters of Cinema series from Eureka and one I can whole heartedly recommend.
Our Review Ethos