"When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out from the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs? Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? 'Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American like yourself—and of the best descent—for, to tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don't like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours."—Mr. Scratch
A perennially hyped film was created in 1941—some falderal about a citizen named Kane and his beloved rosebud. The long shadow of Citizen Kane has obscured another deserving film, a film less groundbreaking yet remarkably innovative and sure. William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster is unsettling, wandering from stout reality to feverish Faustian nightmare. It is a film about American optimism and misdeeds, about the trials of retaining one's personality in the face of wealth, about love and redemption. Though The Devil and Daniel Webster hits an occasional flat note, the majority is engrossing. A wretched transfer mars complete enjoyment of the film, but don't be surprised if the characters and visual symbols plague you long after the credits roll.
Facts of the Case
Jabez Stone (James Craig) is living just above poverty with his young wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and God-fearing mother (Jane Darwell). His luck takes a hard turn, and Jabez knows the family's resources are exhausted. In desperation, he offers to sell his soul for two cents. In a heartbeat, Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) is there to bargain: in return for seven years of luck and prosperity, Jabez will cough up his soul.
At first, Jabez seems unchanged despite the piles of gold at his feet. So the devil insinuates himself into the Stone family to protect his investment. Jabez turns cold and ruthless. He trivializes Mary while falling in lust with Belle (Simone Simon), a succubus sent by Mr. Scratch.
Mary is increasingly alarmed by her husband's callous behavior. She calls on the highly regarded statesman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to intervene. Daniel vows that he would fight a dozen devils to save one American. Daniel tricks Mr. Scratch into giving Jabez a chance at redemption…but even this one chance is rigged in the Devil's favor.
At first glance, The Devil and Daniel Webster seems rather hokey. The "poah fahmahs" speak in exaggerated salt-of-the-earth colloquial drawls. Ma thumps her bible regularly. Cloying patriotism is rampant, the sort of unabashed flag waving that would make apple pie and amber waves of grain seem non-conformist by comparison. Kids are quick with lines like "Gee, Mister!" Even the nastiest rebellion is couched in laughably inoffensive terms: Jabez' most shocking oath is the dreaded "consarnit!," a phrase that blanches the cheeks of the rosiest maiden and sends church ladies scurrying for cover.
The outward layer of clean-shaven "aww, shucks" Americana masks a subtler, richer, darker layer. This layer is couched in innuendo and allusion, cobbled together in a careful dance around the heavy-handed censors. For example, Bruce Eder mentions in the commentary that talk of damnation was off limits in those days. When the deal is struck, Mr. Scratch comments on Jabez' fine signature—a signature that will last till Doomsday. The meaning is clear, though the concept of damnation is neatly avoided. Later, Mary glances at Jabez with such need we can't help but feel the erotic pull. The real coup de grace is Belle's relationship with Jabez. They never so much as kiss, but he buys her a house and dresses her in fine clothes. The townspeople grumble about his infidelity. The raw sexuality of their relationship is evident, but there is no scene for the censors to single out. Hints and whispers provide the real meaning behind The Devil and Daniel Webster.
This "hidden in plain sight" subversion extends to the aforementioned patriotic tone of the film. Both the Devil and Daniel Webster speak unflattering words about America, but the barbs are so masterfully integrated with the plot that you cannot pry them out. The darkness in America's past is acknowledged, even praised. In Daniel Webster's view, it is time to move past these transgressions and mature as a nation. The most important concept: it is never too late to unburden ourselves of past sin, even if we are six years, 364 days into a seven-year contract with Satan. Mr. Scratch, of course, is looking for a few good Americans.
Arnold's Daniel Webster is both mythical and approachable. The tale reads like an Irving legend; couched in our familiar American landscape, yet pregnant with darker meaning and larger-than-life personages. To be both human and heroic is a nice acting coup on Arnold's part.
We can be forgiven for our unfamiliarity with the sirens of cinema past. But in the case of Simone Simon, ignorance is a deadly sin. She's a breathtaking, naughty, evil vixen who has infected my dreams since I first beheld her beguiling countenance. Were I a knight, I would enter the hopeless fray at her whim to die with her heartless name on my lips. Were I a poet, I would wear my fingers to nubs, forego sleep and food to pen the ultimate ode in hope of her favor. As it turns out, I'm a movie critic: all I can do is hit the rewind button. Fortunately, DVDs don't wear out easily. Simone is French, which explains the natural ease of her flirtation, the authoritative curl in her sneering lip. Her eyes are so wide, so innocent…until they narrow with "come hither" malice. Her presence on set evokes palpable quivers from the male actors around her. She swishes and pouts with assurance, using body language in a way that enrages women and entices her oblivious male victims.
Belle's unsettling eroticism is matched by Scratch's cunning charisma and the treacherous grip of his words. Huston imparts a charm to the devil that isn't precisely likeable, but is riveting. His eyes project merry warmth that masks penetrating calculation. His canine smile dazzles you just as the thin line of his lips chills you. You want to watch Huston. When he is onscreen, your eye stays with him, oblivious to the mise en scene. Huston had a long résumé before embarking on The Devil and Daniel Webster, but this may be his definitive performance.
The Hero, the Temptress, and the Devil are the real highlights of the cast, but the other actors aren't shabby. James Craig and Anne Shirley quickly establish a believable bond of love. Mary's faithfulness over the years is perhaps unlikely, yet she manages to convince us of her continued love. Craig has an occasional corny moment, but his restive soul and troubled conscience show through. His bumbling farmer turns into a convincing baron, and the transformation is unsettling. When he watches Mr. Scratch collect a soul, however, the innocent and terrified Jabez comes flooding back.
That scene is indicative of the high caliber of the mise en scène throughout. In one of the film's highlights, Belle turns her charm on the doomed soul and they dance together. The music is otherworldly, quiet yet discordant. It lulls you while putting you on edge. The set is perfectly framed, with the dancers whirling in and out of Jabez' view. Belle is like a dark mantis sneaking in for the kill. The music, photography, effects, and costumes all work in concert to create a scene not of this world, but still in this world.
In fact, surprisingly advanced effects were employed throughout the film. The credits are creatively rendered, with white letters scrolling over a textured background. Easy to do with computers, not so easy to do in 1941. Most widely noted is the introduction of both Belle and Mr. Scratch, wherein smoky beams of light shimmer in ghastly silhouette. The demons have a way with fire, effortlessly evaporating solid objects in puffs of flame. These effects and many more are handled with demure grace, seeming as real and effortless as the swaying barn door. The continual decision to practically ignore the effects rather than highlight their cleverness makes the scenes seem both more and less real.
Equal creative vision is applied to the sound effects, but because of the transfer, they are hard to hear. When Scratch appears, Bernard Herrmann uses a sonically warped recording of telephone wires swinging in the breeze. The subtle discordant twanging is indescribable, and lends the scene a superstitious undercurrent. At other times, the score is more "conventional" but equally effective.
No need for me to say too much, because Criterion does it for us in an interactive essay by Christopher Husted. He goes into great detail about how and why Herrmann composed the music in certain ways. The essay is informative, but it does serve to further highlight the poor audio quality. Once you are done reading, get ready to listen. Criterion has packed a commentary track, story reading, and two radio dramatizations into this disc. The story is read by Alec Baldwin with considerable gusto. (Alec was intimately associated with the recent remake of The Devil and Daniel Webster.) The commentary track is a splice of comments by Bruce Eder and music buff Steven C. Smith. Eder is either frustrating to listen to or wryly informative about the Hollywood machine. I appreciated his backstory, especially when it came to details about Simone Simon and the golden keys to her boudoir. Eder deftly points out the subtle directorial touches employed by Dieterle. He also explains the connections between this film and Orson Welles. The radio dramatizations are noteworthy because they feature music by Bernard Herrmann, though to be honest I had trouble hearing and appreciating his score. Finally, there is a photo gallery that is slightly more interesting than most of its ilk, if not dramatically so.
Great acting, innovative score, sure direction…when all is said and done, The Devil and Daniel Webster is insidiously provocative, sneaking around the staid subject matter to simultaneously pierce our souls, subconscious, and sense of duty. Stephen Vincent Benet's story is a mandate for Americans to wake up from the sins of our past, not let the country go to the Devil. It is a ham handed message at times, but the cinematic incarnation of the story is rich and feels amazingly modern.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, which is what Criterion attempted with this transfer. This nearly complete restoration was only possible through a print unearthed in the Dieterle estate collection. (Nearly complete because censors eliminated three minutes from the original cut. The 106-minute version was further trimmed for widespread release in the States.) The print is in poor shape, so Criterion went back and forth between better prints of the chopped version and this poor print with the excised scenes. As film fans, we should be thankful for the chance to see the film this way.
However, nothing can hide the self-evident poor quality of this transfer. Every possible visual flaw seems to have been invited. For a while, I had trouble convincing myself that I was indeed viewing a Criterion disc, given the weird wavery light levels, persistent vertical lines running down the middle, copious scratches, emulsion artifacts, edge enhancement, reel change marks, and softness. To say that isn't the norm with Criterion would be an understatement. Yet the edge enhancement is clearly there over the venerable Daniel Webster's shoulder, set against artificially dark blacks. The lines, scratches, and other problems are impossible to miss. The facts are undisputed, Criterion or no.
The sound fares even more poorly. A loud hiss is present throughout much of the soundtrack. Volume levels fluctuate wildly, leading to constant struggles with the remote. Music is loud and brassy at times, nearly inaudible at others. Dialogue is a strain to comprehend. The sound stage is truncated, with many pops and distortions. This poor audio quality is particularly frustrating because Bernard Herrmann's Oscar-winning score is both innovative and subtle. The original mastery is all but obliterated by time and wear.
It is really annoying in these surreal moralistic tales when everybody repeatedly annunciates the full name of the protagonist. Below are some paraphrased examples:
Ma: Jabez Stone, you watch your language!
I think the technique is used to enhance personal moral accountability. Perhaps we subconsciously place ourselves in Jabez' place. Whatever. If people called me Robert Lineberger all day, I'd go postal.
Criterion has a reputation for quality, yet edge enhancement and other artifacts have been creeping into their releases of late. Rest assured, any digital mucking around was done to salvage a badly aged print. What Criterion has done here is no less than rescue a lost film. As film buffs, we can either forgive the less-than-ideal conditions or look for greener (no doubt explosion laden) pastures. Those who immerse themselves in this vintage American treat will enjoy a haunting and technically impressive film experience.
For an American tall tale with moralistic browbeating, The Devil and Daniel Webster is remarkably subversive. The downright spooky supernatural aura enhances the staying power of this film in your mind. It is also a pleasure to watch the technical craftsmanship employed in this 60+ year old film. The court is inclined to overlook transgressions of tone and quality: the defendant is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Bruce Eder and Author Steven C. Smith
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