- Year: 1941
- Director: William Dieterle
- Starring: Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, James Craig
It’s only appropriate to be following Faust with The Devil and Daniel Webster, because William Dieterle actually had a role in the former as Gretchen’s brother. He takes the director’s chair here and adapts a 1936 Stephen Vincent Benet story into one of the most famous Faustian tales.
Although the title may suggest otherwise, Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) is not the one who sells his soul to the Devil. Our Faust is actually a poor New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig), who makes an offhand comment that he would sell his soul to the Devil “for about two cents.” To his surprise, the Devil (Walter Huston) actually appears. When Jabez tries to take his words back, the Devil challenges his word as a New Hampshire man, convincing him to sell his soul for seven years of prosperity and “all that money can buy.” (Interestingly, All That Money Can Buy was the original print title of the film, so it wouldn’t be confused with The Devil and Miss Jones, which should really not be confused with The Devil in Miss Jones.)
It’s fascinating seeing how different time periods view the Devil. In 1840s New England, where hard work is lionized, he’s seen as a huckster and a conman, with his deerstalker cap, cane, and scruffy goatee. He focuses on getting rich quick instead of a life of toil and labor, showing Jabez a fortune in Hessian gold buried in his own barn.
Also, this Devil has no issue immediately revealing who he is. Granted, Jabez called for him (not literally), but he’s right upfront about it. He calls himself Scratch, but that was a common name for the Devil in New England, as he points out. There’s no cheap alias here like Louis Cyphre or John Milton.
Walter Huston is clearly having a ball playing Scratch, grinning deviously and rubbing his hands together at every opportunity, but this is absolutely perfect in the context of the film. There should be something appealing and even fun about him that would tempt Jabez away from his life of work. He’s over the top, but he doesn’t raise his voice or try to overpower people forcefully. Huston’s is more the “whisper in your ear” Devil, always around you trying to steer you wrong, but never trying to use power to intimidate. He also has a hilarious moment after Jabez sells his soul and says “Well, I’ll be (damned),” to which Scratch replies, “Yes, yes indeed, but not now—not for seven years.”
Alternately, it’s always fascinating to see how these films portray God. It’s always more subtle than how Satan is portrayed, except perhaps in Faust, where it’s just an archangel challenging Mephisto, but God is almost always shown in some medium. Here, it’s in the character of Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold). Webster is portrayed as a near perfect politician, a friend to the farmer and a completely honest man. Once again, The Devil and Daniel Webster is essentially a cinematic folktale, so this kind of character archetype works. No one is mistaking this as a biopic of the real life Daniel Webster.
Arnold and Huston are the stand-outs of the film, which is only appropriate, because they really represent the struggle between good and evil. Honestly, Jabez Stone is more of a pawn by the end. That said, there is a wonderful supporting cast around them. Jane Darwell (Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath) plays Jabez’s religious mother, and while the character is a bit of a stereotype, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and Darwell’s performance makes it all the better. Anne Shirley is also memorable as Jabez’s wife, Mary, although you’d think her character would be quicker to catch on that Jabez is clearly having an affair with Belle (Simone Simon).
Unfortunately, that does bring us to the film’s one major flaw—Jabez himself. Now sure, he has a huge character arc, going from a simple farmer to the richest man in New Hampshire, but James Craig’s performance is really hit-or-miss. There are some scenes that are fine, but he often slips into very wooden acting. He doesn’t come off as very intelligent, which is fine for the character, but even when he’s corrupted, I never really buy him as a loan shark. His favorite word “consarnit” is silly at first and progressively more annoying as the film goes on. Perhaps this was considered foul language in the ’40s (1840s that is), but when his mother calls him out for using that kind of language, it just sounds silly.
Even though Jabez’s corruption isn’t entirely believable, it is fascinating how the Devil becomes more and more openly evil as the film progresses. In his first scene, he’s cunning and clearly selfish, but he comes off as charming and a bit comical. In a later scene, Jabez is reconsidering and tries to end his contract by cutting down the tree the Devil carved the end date in. To prevent this, the Devil causes a hail storm, and we hear him laugh maniacally in what is a genuinely creepy scene. Scratch has gone from chuckling to an all-out evil laugh.
This is followed the barn dance scene where a normal rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel” becomes more manic and insane, representing Jabez’s own mind as the Devil encourages him to seduce Belle (with his wife and newborn baby upstairs). The Devil just keeps telling him “faster, faster” as the scene gets increasingly frantic. Even in a movie full of incredible scenes, it’s one of the best.
But all deals with the Devil must come to an end, and this one ends after seven years as promised. Jabez has turned away all of his friends, even though he has the biggest house in New Hampshire. Not long before his time is up, he sees the soul of his old loan shark, Miser Stephens, get taken.
With just hours to go, Jabez seeks out the assistance of Daniel Webster to plead his case. When the Devil enters to take Jabez, Webster argues for his client, saying no American can be forced to work for a foreign prince. The Devil replies brilliantly with…
Foreign? Who calls me a foreigner?… When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on the deck. Am I not still spoken of in every church in New England? It’s true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I’m neither. Tell the truth, Mr. Webster—though I don’t like to boast of it—my name is older in the country than yours.
I get chills every time. This is such a great little speech—scary, sad, a little funny, and true. With all the boisterous patriotism that this movie has, it doesn’t back away from admitting the horrifying acts that plague America’s history. Plus, Walter Huston just delivers it so chillingly, in a way only a Huston could. This is perhaps the greatest quote about the Devil of all time, even greater than “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.”
Daniel Webster declares that the case must be settled in court, and says that he doesn’t care if the jury is the “quick or the dead” as long as they’re American. Of course, this Devil is a literalist, so he grants Webster’s wish with a jury of the damned. He brings up from hell twelve Americans who were traitors, thieves, and murderers, including Captain Kidd and, of course, Benedict Arnold.
The judge is Justice John Haythorne, who presided over the corrupt Salem Witch Trials. The only time the Devil removes his hat in the whole film is to tip it when Haythorne enters. Interestingly, Haythorne is played by H.B. Warner, who portrayed Jesus in Cecil B. Demille’s King of Kings.
The Devil expects an open-and-shut case, as he held up his end of the bargain, and the contract is clear. Daniel Webster is not even allowed to cross-examine until he puts his own soul on the line. Webster cannot win the case by proving the contract void, so he instead gives one of his famous speeches to win over the jury. He tells them that they all were Americans, and asks them if they would have liked a second chance. It truly is a rousing speech, especially when he touches on the little things in life meaning nothing without your soul.
To the surprise of the Devil, they free Jabez Stone, even though the Devil clearly had a fair legal argument and could probably call a mistrial if he so wished. That said, he’s fair about it and leaves, but not without vowing Daniel Webster will never be President. Jabez’s huge mansion burns, but everyone forgives him, and his life goes back to normal.
The Devil and Daniel Webster is such a clever spin on the classic tale. It could have been predictable and run-of-the-mill, but the jury of the damned scene is a stroke of genius. With incredible performances from Walter Huston and Edward Arnold, as well as a script drenched in 19th century Americana, it’s quite an entertaining film, even in spite of its occasional flaws. Let’s check out the final score.
Story (18/20 Points)
Jabez’s character arc goes about as you’d expect, but the addition of Daniel Webster and the large supporting cast add enough originality. The final scenes where the Devil and Daniel Webster actually face off are easily the best part of the story.
Faust (13/20 Points)
James Craig does have some fine moments, but he’s a bit too “golly, that’s a lot of gold” throughout. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who’d understand how an affair works.
Devil (20/20 Points)
Even in a film as great as this, the best scenes across the board are the ones where Huston is on screen. He just steals the whole thing, and he was even nominated for an Oscar for his performance. His huckster archetype is the exact way 1840s farmers would picture the Devil.
Supporting Cast (20/20 Points)
There are so many supporting players who give memorable performances, from Anne Shirley and Jane Darwell as Jabez’s wife and mother to H.B. Warner’s brief turn as the ghastly Justice Haythorne. Of course, Edward Arnold is commanding and patriotic as the great orator Daniel Webster.
Experience (18/20 Points)
I do have to mention that a few of the painted backgrounds are clearly backgrounds, but that’s the only flaw. The music is great, and we really get a great feel for this small community of Cross Corners. There’s just a great atmosphere all around, and the creepy and lighthearted mix pretty well.
FINAL SCORE: 89%
The performance of James Craig may weigh it down ever-so-slightly, but The Devil and Daniel Webster is such an enjoyable take on the Faust tale that it doesn’t really matter. It’s fun and also genuinely creepy at points, and it’s just a fulfilling film-going experience. I love it.
Next week, we’ll be taking a look at a British comedic spin on the tale with 1967’s Bedazzled.