Sunday, July 17, 2011
'Daniel Webster': Devilish Delight
“The Devil and Daniel Webster,” also known as “All That Money Can Buy,” is a refreshingly enjoyable fable made with intelligence and imagination while featuring a slew of fine performances.
Based upon Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, this morality play concerns Jabez Stone (James Craig), a hard-working New Hampshire farmer who hits a rough spot. Filled with frustration, Jabez says he’ll sell his soul to the devil for two cents.
Thus enters Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), a.k.a. the Devil, who promises Jabez riches in exchange for his soul. Jabez signs a seven-year contract with Mr. Scratch and is rewarded immediately with a “hidden” treasure of gold coins in his barn. Jabez begins paying off his debt and buys simple luxuries – a bonnet and a shawl – for his lovely wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and his mother (Jane Darwell), both of whom are suspicious yet accepting of his newfound wealth.
But greed begins to take over Jabez. His simple loans to neighboring farmers initially help them dig out of financial servitude to Miser Stevens (John Qualen), who himself has made a pact with the devil. But as Jabez’s wealth increases, his generosity decreases and he ultimately becomes even worse than Stevens.
On the even of the birth of his son, Jabez begins to question his agreement with the devil. Sensing discontentment, Mr. Scratch replies by replacing the Stone’s maid with Belle (Simone Simon, below with Craig), a devilish creature who beguiles Jabez. As his son grows, Jabez’s paranoia expands as he becomes the wealthiest man around, with Belle at his side and Mary frightened by what Jabez has become.
In fact, one neighbor remarks of Jabez, “A strange sickness seems to have come over him, a plague of sorts, like the Bible tells.”
Meanwhile, the great New Hampshire Congressman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), renowned for his intelligence and ability to fight for good in Washington, is alerted to Jabez’s behavior by Mary, a long-time family friend. Webster, having waved off repeated temptations from the Devil to help him become President, decides to fight Mr. Scratch for the return of Jabez’s soul.
The film was released by RKO in 1941 and is known by an alternate title, “All That Money Can Buy.” There was a feel to this movie that made me immediately think of “Citizen Kane,” also released by RKO that same year. It was a time when studio chief George Schaefer was willing to take chances on risky A-movie product. However, despite excellent notices for “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” it failed at the box office.
Thankfully, “Devil” holds up well today because it doesn’t feel like a typical Hollywood product from the early 1940s. Even the presentation of the credits signals a departure in tone for this film, with simply “In front of the camera” followed by the list of actors and “Behind the camera” with a list of the filmmakers.
The somber beginning details the hardships in the small town and on the Stone farm. Every scene has a harsh look to it until the contract with the devil is signed, when the fortunes and scenery of the Stone family change. Perhaps this opening turned off audiences who did not feel entertained.
The special effects are simple yet effective, from Mr. Scratch’s fiery bursts to intriguing camera effects meant to keep the viewer off-balance. For example, the birth of Jabez’s son coincides with the harvest dance, during which Belle begins to lure Jabez. The increasing tempo of the dance, deep shadows and quick cutting from face to face create an eerie atmosphere.
Even the photo of Jabez and Belle above, with Belle backlit by the fire to illustrate her ties to the devil, shows the film’s visual flair.
The director, William Dieterle, came to RKO from Warner Brothers in 1939 to make the Charles Laughton version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Dieterle clearly works his magic on “Devil” in one of his best films.
If some of the backdrops look fake – at one point Jabez is looking out of a window and you could swear the sky is less than a foot from his face – the performances are incredible. Huston earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (below, right). The magnetism of his performance makes you think he’s in the film more than he is (the title characters, despite the final showdown, are really supporting players). He ingeniously decides not to play the Devil with menacing power. Instead, with a wide, toothy grin, a fearless demeanor and a propensity to pop up in unexpected places, Huston brings rakish glee to Mr. Scratch.
Arnold (above, left) is every bit his match as Webster by combining warmth, intelligence and passion. Craig, the true lead of the film, gives perhaps his best performance as he slowly falls prey to the clutches of greed.
At first, Shirley resembled Olivia de Havilland so closely that I began to question when the latter was at RKO! Shirley is almost too lovely to convey the hardships of the town but does the best she can with the typical supportive wife role. However, Simon, a beauty with a crooked smile, is truly creepy as the seductive Belle.
Rounding out the excellent cast are veteran character actors Darwell, Qualen, Gene Lockhart and H.B. Warner.
Also worth mentioning is Bernard Herrmann’s excellent Oscar-winning score that fits the mood of the piece rather than the symphonic dramatics of the era. Robert Wise worked as editor – as he did on “Citizen Kane” – and Joseph August (who worked with John Ford during the 1930s) is the cinematographer.
The Devil and Daniel Webster” may not have made money upon its release. And if the film was made today, the special effects would overshadow all else. What makes the original work is an engrossing story told in a way that matches the seductive lure of Mr. Scratch. It’s a morality tale, a slice of Americana and top-notch entertainment rolled into one.