THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, 1941
In 1840s New Hampshire, farmer Jabez Stone falls on hard times and endures a series of misfortunes which impoverish him and his family. In a state of desperation, Jabez decides to sell his soul to a mysterious stranger who roams New England towns, Mr. Scratch. The deal agreed upon between the two is that Jabez will enjoy seven years of prosperity at the end of which he must render up his soul to his new benefactor. Good fortune quickly arrives and changes Jabez in important ways. He becomes cold, selfish, arrogant and betrays his wife with the beautiful Belle, sent by Mr. Scratch to keep an eye on Jabez. In addition, his friends abandon him due to his newfound mercenary ways. As the years go by, and the devil’s deadline approaches, Jabez slowly begins to realize the error he has made. Eventually he approaches the famous lawyer and local political hero, Daniel Webster to defend him in his upcoming dispute with Mr. Scratch over the ownership of his soul. Mr. Scratch agrees to a trial, but only if he gets to choose the judge and jury, made up exclusively of the damned. Finally, Daniel Webster agrees to forfeit his own soul if he loses the case against the devil.
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This re-working of the Faust legend is based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, and is set in rural 19th century New England. It is notable for the clarity of its story telling, a stand out performance from Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch, and beautiful, evocative black and white cinematography that brings to life a haunting landscape of villagers and farmers who live matter of factly with the demons in their midst.
Jabez Stone’s desires are purely material, as summed up in this exchange as his trial is about to begin and Jabez complains to Mr. Scratch:
“You promised me happiness, love.”
“Just a minute, I promised you prosperity, money and all that money could buy.”
Throughout the story, Jabez shows himself only too willing to betray any and all social bonds to satisfy his particular thirst. Benet, along with William Dieterle in his direction, consistently focuses on the fact that Jabez, through his pact with Mr. Scratch and its destructive consequences for his farming community, is breaking faith with the communitarian spirit of the farmers. This communal ethos is set in contrast to Jabez’s relentless pursuit of personal wealth and aggrandizement, until he realizes, just in time, the danger he has brought to his friends and family. Unlike Faust, Jabez’s predicament is never purely a personal one. Again, unlike Faust, there is an upbeat ending, where a good lawyer and citizen, simply by appealing to his fellow citizens, can upend any seemingly intractable problem.
The film did not do well on its release and its theme may have been too serious to appeal in a time of world war. However, the material is handled with a surprisingly light touch by director, William Dieterle. The story has a clear moral but is not moralizing. The pacing is energetic and Dieterle keeps the tone generally light. His handling of the demons, Mr. Scratch and Belle, is especially adroit in this regard. There is little fanfare, and no histrionics, to their appearance among the farmers in their village. Dieterle’s conception of these characters is refreshingly simple, never overwrought. Mr. Scratch is known to the denizens of this early American town. Some accept him and his offer, others reject him, but no one is surprised by his presence. The demons are simply presented as people, often very attractive and reasonable ones.
What drama there is surrounding the supernatural is highlighted by Joseph August’s black and white cinematography. He excels in evoking the eerie natural landscapes from which Mr. Scratch emerges. Equally his use of the play of shadow and light is brilliant, as in the frenzied barn dance scene where Jabez first meets and chases Belle. Couples whirl in and out of the darkness, illuminated only by occasional candle light. The final parade of the damned into the jury box is another visual triumph for August.
Walter Huston in the pivotal role of Mr. Scratch holds the film together. He beautifully captures both Benet’s and Dieterle’s concept of the devil as a trickster figure; one that is cunning, malevolent, smooth; never angry or seemingly diabolical. Mr. Scratch is just there to helpfully explain how he can assist Jabez. Huston relies on a quiet, soothing tone of voice coupled with the cocky confidence of a man who knows his offers are always ultimately accepted.
Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster is affecting as a man dealing with his own personal demon, alcohol, and yet is capable of resoluteness and courage in a moment of crisis. James Craig as Jabez Stone is convincing as an early American every man. Jane Darwell is stalwart as Jabez’s mother.
The film is further aided by Bernard Hermann’s score, the only one for which he won an Oscar in his long career. Overall, it is a compelling take on an ancient legend that is visually distinctive and effectively dramatized.