The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

Article #1305 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-10-2004
Posting Date: 3-9-2005
Directed by William Dieterle
Featuing Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, James Craig

A down-on-his-luck farmer makes a deal with the devil for seven years good luck.

When I first started this series, the name of William Dieterle didn’t mean a lot to me. It was only after I realized that this man was responsible for two old favorites (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939), PORTRAIT OF JENNIE) as well as some newer discoveries (SIX HOURS TO LIVE and this one), that I’ve really grown to appreciate the man’s craft and vision. William Dieterle is one of the great directors of all time, and I’m glad that this series has helped me to realize this.

This movie is indeed something special; it’s basically a folksy New England legend done with such charm, wit and visual splendor that it transcends itself. The biggest attractions here are the acting and the visual sense. The casting of the roles was perfect, though a little unexpected. I’m usually used to seeing Edward Arnold in more villainous roles, but the role of Daniel Webster is a perfect fit for him, especially during the trial sequence that climaxes the movie. I was also a little surprised to see John Qualen in the role of Miser Stevens, which seemed an odd bit of casting; however, when Stevens starts to spill his soul during the party sequence, I can see precisely why he was cast. Add to that the great Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch, Simone Simon as the seductive Belle Dee, Jane Darwell as the mother, James Craig and Anne Shirley as the young couple, and other familiar names and faces such as Gene Lockhart, Frank Conlan and H.B. Warner, and you’re in acting heaven.

The visual style is breathtaking, almost surreal at time. Just a list of them is worth considering; the appearance of Mr. Scratch after Jabez says that he’ll sell his soul for two cents, the hailstorm that breaks out when Jabez first tries to efface the date in the tree, the eerie faces peering through the window during the party scene, and the ensuing dance (I wouldn’t be surprised if Herk Harvey was as much influenced by this sequence as he was by Bergman and Cocteau when he made CARNIVAL OF SOULS), and the introduction of the judge and jury of the quick and the dead. Furthermore, Dieterle’s direction is masterful in even seemingly small moments; the scene where Mr. Scratch causes the gold pieces to rise out of the ground, the one where Jabez manages to kill his conscience by shaking hands with the devil, and the one where Daniel Webster gives a spanking to his godson all stick in mind. Throw in a simply sublme score by Bernard Herrmann, and you have an unforgettable cinematic experience. And I bet that final scene is a real treat in a crowded theatre.

This one’s a classic. Don’t miss it if you can.


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