The Devil and Daniel Webster: Criterion Collection

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Better-known as a short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” was turned into a movie back in the 1940’s. It was written in 1937 by Stephen Benet and the movie had several names (perhaps as the devil himself). “All That Money Can Buy”, “A Certain Mr. Scratch” and “Here is a Man” are all incarnations of this movie. While the film, like the short story, takes place just before the Civil War; we can see that certain twentieth century influences have left their mark. We have to realize that this was made before the blockbuster movie. This came out the year “Citizen Kane” came out, so that should say something. Somewhat of an art movie, it was a rarity of its time. Walter Huston (better-known for his roles in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) plays the role of the devil and does he ever have a time with it. Scratch as he is called is given all of the best lines and Huston seems to enjoy every minute he’s on screen. Though this is only one part of a trilogy written about Daniel Webster, this was the most famous version. Most high school students have been required, at one time or another, to read this story and never better is it illustrated than in this 1941 movie.

James Craig plays Jabez Stone, a farmer who is down on his luck. He has a loving wife (Anne Shirley) and his mother (Jane Darwell, better-known for her role in “The Grapes of Wrath”) who live with him. His pig has just broken his leg, he’s sacrificing his calf to help pay his debt and he’s had it with life in general. In a fit of rage and frustration, he offers his soul to the devil for some financial help. As luck would have it, the devil (Walter Huston) appears and shows him some riches. Signing a contract in blood, Jabez believes that his financial problems are over…and they are. However, after the devil has warned him not to “worry”, his fate will turn in seven years. This is of no consequence to Jabez, who pays off all of his debts and even gives his friends some loans. However, after a brutal hailstorm his friends’ farms are ruined and he employs them to give them work. It’s at this time when Jabez begins to change. Raking in money, he starts to become harsh and bitter, only wanting more and more money to appease his soul. Meanwhile, his wife and mother are taking care of the new baby, Daniel. Only when his friends turn against him and his wealth is at its apex does Jabez realize the error or his ways and he can only turn to Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) for help.

Webster argues, in a brilliant “court” scene, for the soul of Jabez. Why, you ask? Not only is Jabez a New Hampshire man, but he has seen the error of his ways before his death and even the most rotten of people deserve a second chance. Webster is the star of the show and is portrayed to be somewhat of a drunk and somewhat of a patriot. In any case, Arnold brings out the best of the former American Icon. This is a classic “Good vs. Evil” movie and as it was based on literature, we can expect who will prevail. William Dieterle has brought out something here that we can all relate to. Money problems still plague us all and we have all thought of what we would do if we had the chance to rectify that situation. Best-known for his effort in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, Dieterle has given us a very entertaining movie and a relatively lively cast led by Walter Huston and Edward Arnold. While it’s true that this might not have been the best movie of 1941, Bernard Hermann’s score is well-deserving of the Academy Award that it received. A must for buffs of American literature and all in between.

Video: How does it look?

The film is over sixty years old and it shows in a few places. There are four of five times when the film noticeably skips a few frames and therefore makes the characters jump a bit. But, when you see what all Criterion has done to the picture, it won’t matter much. Presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the film looks relatively good from time to time. It seems to have a somewhat of a “wavy” effect (vertical bars of alternating color) throughout, but aside from that it looks fairly decent. There is some dust on the print and though it does show in a few early scenes, there are some scenes that look very clean and vivid; giving an almost 3-D effect to them. While this doesn’t equal the job of “Citizen Kane”, this looks fairly good and certainly the best the film has ever looked in any home video format.

Audio: How does it sound?

The sound is a bit of a different story. Often older films are plagued with the “hiss” in the background that seems to label a film “old”. This is one of those films. Though the early scenes do have a lot of action (albeit by barnyard animals), there is a constant noise that seems to be present. Granted the film is mono and we might expect that of a sixty year old film; but I’ve heard films of this age sound better than this. The real treat here is Bernard Hermann’s score, which won a well-deserved Oscar. Hermann would go onto make many of our favorite film scores (notably “Vertigo” , “Citizen Kane”, “North by Northwest” and probably his most famous “Psycho”). While the dialogue is so-so, the score more than makes up for it.

Supplements: What are the extras?

As we can expect with many Criterion releases, this comes equipped with its share of supplements. Aside from the rather robust booklet, we find Alec Baldwin reading the original short story (an audio-only supplement). Baldwin has a very commanding voice and has a few connections with the story as well. There is an audio commentary by Bruce Eder and Steven Smith (biographer of Bernard Hermann) that is rather insightful as well. Though not the best of tracks, this offers some insight as to the music and way that the movie was produced. As I mentioned earlier, the film was known by many names and there is a piece that compares an earlier version of the film “Here is a Man” with the version we have on disc. There are some stylistic differences, but essentially it’s the same movie. The Columbia Workshop’s radio shows were very popular back in the day and they have two recordings of the “Webster Trilogy”. First off is “The Devil and Daniel Webster” which is followed by “Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent”. Yes, evidently, Webster could take on most anything! Additionally, a gallery of photos of the shoot and some promotional materials can be found here too. A good movie gets the great treatment, all thanks to Criterion.

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