The Devil and Daniel Webster (film)

The Devil and Daniel Webster is a 1941 fantasy film, adapted by Stephen Vincent Benét and Dan Totheroh from Benét's short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster". The film's title was changed to All That Money Can Buy to avoid confusion with another film released by RKO that year, The Devil and Miss Jones, but later had the title restored on some prints. It has also been released under the titles Mr. Scratch, Daniel and the Devil and Here Is a Man. The film stars Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, and James Craig.

The Devil and Daniel Webster
DVD cover
Directed byWilliam Dieterle
Produced byWilliam Dieterle
Charles L. Glett
Written byDan Totheroh
Stephen Vincent Benét
Based onThe Devil and Daniel Webster
by Stephen Vincent Benét
StarringEdward Arnold
Walter Huston
James Craig
Anne Shirley
Jane Darwell
Simone Simon
Music byBernard Herrmann
CinematographyJoseph H. August
Edited byRobert Wise
Production
company
William Dieterle Productions
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • October 17, 1941 (1941-10-17)
Running time
107 mins
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish

A retelling of the Faust legend, set in 1840s rural New Hampshire, it was directed by German-born actor-director William Dieterle who (under his original name, Wilhelm Dieterle) played a featured role in F. W. Murnau's epic silent version of Faust in 1926.

Plot

The introduction reads:

"It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire. It happened, so they say, a long time ago. But it could happen anytime— anywhere—to anybody...Yes—it could even happen to you."

A strangely dressed man (Walter Huston) leans on the gate to a farm covered in snow. He takes a long notebook out of his pocket and flips the pages to one which reads “Jabez Stone, Cross Corners, New Hampshire. Age 27, Married 2 yrs, Children None, Credit None. Jabez Stone ( James Craig), a poor, kindhearted farmer, is broke and plagued by bad luck. He and his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and mother (Jane Darwell ) are heading to church for the first time since the winter set in. They begin to experience a series of mishaps that escalate into a crisis that endangers the farm. They and their fellow farmers are admirers of the celebrated New Hampshire Congressman and orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) who advocates reform that will help them. Webster is seen writing a speech while the shadow of the stranger whispers to him of his ambitions to be President—until Webster shouts at him to leave.

The last straw for Jabez comes when he drops the bag of seed that would have paid his mortgage to Miser Stephens into a puddle that ruins it. Jabez impulsively declares that he would sell his soul to the devil for two cents, and instantly all goes quiet and two pennies appear in his hand. The stranger who was leaning on the gate appears and introduces himself as "Mr. Scratch". He kicks the floor and a hoard of gold coins surges out of the ground. Jabez’ friends come by to talk to him about joining the farmers grange they are forming but he is so distraught that he angrily rejects them. Back in the barn, Scratch gives Jabez an explanation—the old story of a Hessian wagon train ambushed on its way to Saratoga. He offers Jabez a bargain: sell his soul in return for seven years of good luck and prosperity. Jabez signs the contract, in blood. Scratch burns the due date into a tree outside the barn: April 7 1847.

Ma is skeptical “I hope it does us more good than it did the Hessians”—and tells him to sit down to supper. The gold clutched under one arm, Jabez devours the meal, then is shocked to realize with that Ma and Mary have said grace—and he didn’t even notice. Still, Jabez begins his new life with hope, paying off his debts and buying new tools and supplies. He pays off his debt to Miser Stephans ( John Qualen) with gold.

Cross Corners is preparing for the arrival of Webster, who has been playing horseshoes with the blacksmith; Mr Scratch appears to help him on with his coat and to further tempt Webster with help with his Presidential ambitions Webster tells him he would rather see him on the opposing side. Scratch says he’ll be there too. Jabez makes an impressive toss, and Webster succumbs to the temptation to have a game with him. The village is getting tired of waiting, but they rehearse the parade one more time: Scratch is pounding away on the drum and puffing on his ever present cigar. Jabez of course wins the game of horseshoes. Webster invites him to ride with him into the village, which by now has retired indoors. One of the townsmen goes to get a mug of Medford Rum for Webster and receives it from a grinning Scratch. Webster drinks the rum and falls asleep, and Jabez gives a stirring speech. The cheers rouse Webster from his nap. He greets Mary as an old friend and goes on to Franklin, while the parade, without Scratch, follows somewhat behind.

That night, in their bedroom, Jabez is exulting in his success. He is going to be the biggest man in New Hampshire. The dog barks and Jabez goes to the open window. Mary admires the new moon, the promise of a harvest to come. Jabez looks down into the yard and the figure of Scratch is silhouetted there—he waves and walks on. Jabez slowly turns to Mary with desire in his face, and there is a trace of fear on hers as he comes over her.

As time passes, Jabez's increasing wealth begins to change him. He eats greedily while his Mother and Mary say grace. He pretends to offer his neighbors a refuge from loan sharks like Miser Stephens (who has his own stash of “Hessian gold” in a strongbox, safely hidden) but in fact he ensnares his desperate neighbors with onerous financial contracts, and he slowly alienates his devoted wife and devout mother. He gives away seed, the best in all New Hampshire. An elegaic montage shows the farms prospering and young animals with their mothers. Dissolve to Mary lying on Jabez’ bed. She is pregnant, and in the kitchen, Jabez talks to his mother about wanting their child to be a boy. He also talks to his mother about money—he hasn’t spent any, she says, and that is the only thing it’s good for, helping others. When a man gets his money in bad ways, the devil’s in his heart. “But a man can change” she says, not realizing that Jabez is talking about himself “that’s what makes him different from the barnyard critters.” Jabez goes out to the tree. The marks are impervious to his knife. He seizes an ax and it starts to rain, and Scratch’s mad, cackling laugh comes from deep in the barn, where he is sitting on a bounteous harvest of vegetables. Jabez flings the ax at him and it catches fire on the end of the carrot Scratch is eating, flares up and disappears. He warns Jabez not to try to cut the tree down: it would constitute breech of contract, and he would not want to do that with fatherhood impending. “You keep your tongue off that. “ Scratch agrees he won’t even come to the christening, but will send an old friend. Ma calls and Scratch flees her. The rain has turned to hail, and Jabez welcomes it, thinking it will give him a fresh start. Instead it devastates every field but Jabez’s—and he exults. Scratch goes to the tavern and makes an offer on behalf of Jabez—a dollar in advance to every man who will work for Stone and reap his wheat. The harvest is brought in, to a chorus of “Come Ye Thankful People Come.” While the townspeople celebrate the in Jabez's barn, Mary gives birth to their first child, whom they name Daniel in honor of Webster, whom Mary has invited to be the godfather. Minutes later, Jabez discovers that the local girl they had hired as a maid has vanished. In her place, he finds the beautiful and sinister Belle Dee (Simone Simone), who has been sent by Scratch “from over the mountain.” She shows Jabez the letter he supposedly wrote her—and then touches it to his cigar so it vanishes in a flash of flame. Mary is frightened of her at first, but after Belle hovers over her and the baby, she tells Ma how nice and kind she is. In the barn, Jabez has gotten all his friends to sign agreements. Scratch is playing the fiddle and calling the tune, making the dancers move faster and faster, turning “Pop goes the Weasel” into a wild background for Jabez’ pursuit of Belle. Cut to a moonlit landscape covered with snow. The baby’s crying wakes Jabez, who goes downstairs and stands in front of Belle’s door. “What’s the matter?” Scratch asks, leaning in an open window. “Conscience bothering you?...Give me your hand.” They shake. Cut to Jabez and Belle in a sleigh, racing through snowy fields—on Sunday. They come upon a man who is fishing on Jabez’ property, and he frightens him off, firing in the air, saying “It’s fun to scare people and watch them run. “ While Ma and Mary are at church, praying for Jabez, he and Belle entertain a group of men at a regular poker game. Daniel too, falls under Belle's malign influence, first in the cradle, as she sings strange lullabies that entrance him, and later, as he grows, she turns him into a spoiled, disobedient brat.

In a few more years, Jabez is one of the richest men in the country. Close by the farmhouse, he has built a lavish mansion where he lives openly with Belle and delights in tormenting the poor, increasing his wealth and indulging his son. Mary goes to see Daniel Webster and tells him of the changes in Jabez. He tells her he will come. Jabez is over the moon about Webster’s visit, and throws a huge ball. The great man meets young Daniel on the road and ends up giving him a well-deserved spanking, for hurting the horses. (Later, the boy shows concern for a sick cat that suggests he is not hopeless.) The neighbors and friends stop Mr. Webster on the way to the Stone’s and they also tell him about the change in Jabez, who is growing angrier and angrier as no one comes to his party. Belle tries to get Mary to leave, but she calmly stands her ground. At last, a guest arrives—Miser Stephens, looking strangely subdued. He asks how old the boy is—seven? They talk about souls, but when Jabez realizes Stephens knows something about his own situation a crowd of people suddenly appears in the dining room, pawing through the food. The room is full of mist and eerie music. “Who are these people?” Jabez asks Belle. Friends of hers “from over the mountain,” she replies, and calls for a dance. Webster comes to the door, and Jabez offers him the seat of honor. Webster replies that he has to be careful about where he sits and takes Jabez to task over the contracts and the change in him. It isn’t the money that’s the problem, Webster says. It is what you make of it.

Meanwhile Jabez is distracted by the sight of Belle, whirling a fainting Miser Stephens around and around in a nightmarish dance. He sends Mary and Webster away, and Daniel runs out of the house and into his mother’s arms. Jabez slams the door shut and silence fails. Scratch appears and Jabez accuses him of going back on the deal—he promised him happiness, love, friendship. No, Scratch replies, I promised you money and all it can buy. Let’s look at the contract. He pulls out his notebook and runs through the names...Stephens. Miser Stephens? An old customer. A large moth flies out of Scratch’s pocket, crying faintly. Jabez recognizes Miser Stephens’ voice. Scratch explains. It’s Miser Stephens’ soul, and he apologizes as he carefully ties it up in a bandana. Jabez sees Stephens’ body lying in the middle of the ballroom. “One hates to close these longstanding accounts.” Scratch observes. “Do they all look like moths?” a shaken Jabez asks? “The ones I get do...” Are the all that size? It varies. “Now Daniel Webster...the wingspread would be astonishing. In your case, I’ll be able to put you in my vest pocket.”

Now desperate and realizing that he has little time in which to make up for all he has done, Jabez again tries to erase the deadline by chopping the tree down, which is a violation of the contract, which means his soul is due on demand. Scratch offers to extend his deal in return for the soul of his son, and gives him until midnight. Horrified, Jabez flees into the dark searching for Daniel and falls to the ground outside the farmhouse sobbing “Lord have mercy.” His mother finds him and tells him that Mary and the boy are going away with Webster to Marshfield. He rides after them, passing Belle, driving a buggy, who calls to him to come “over the mountain” with her. He catches them up and tells all. He begs Mary’s forgiveness and asks Webster to look after the boy. When he says his time is up, Webster says he would fight 10,000 devils to save a New Hampshire man. Back at the barn, Webster tells Mary to go back into the house. She reminds Jabez of the Bible verse that says “Love is strong as death.” Jabez begs Webster to leave before it is too late, but he refuses to go. Scratch appears, and again offers an extension in exchange for Jabez's son, but Jabez refuses.

Scratch produces the contract. Webster argues that no American can be forced into the service of a foreign prince. Scratch argues wittily and compellingly that no one has a better right to be called an American than he. He was present from the beginning. Webster then calls on the Constitution and the right to a jury trial. Webster insists that it be an American judge and an American jury. Scratch agrees, and chooses the jury members from among the most notorious men of American history (including Benedict Arnold) with John Hathorne (one of the magistrates of the Salem witch trials) as the judge. Webster is horrified. Scratch states his case. Webster’s objections are all denied. Jabez has to admit that he was given what was promised. The judge denies Webster the right to speak—unless he is willing to risk his own soul. The jury whispers “Lost and gone...Drag him down with us.”

Webster appeals to the jury as Americans, stating that he envies the jury because, as they were present at the birth of a nation. But they were fooled, like Jabez Stone. They believed Scratch when he said a soul was nothing. Like Jabez Stone, they were trapped in their desire to rebel against their fate. Webster explains that it is the eternal right of everyone, including the jury, to raise their fists against their fates, but that choice puts men at a crossroads. They took the wrong turn, just as Stone did, but Stone's soul can be saved. He asks them to give Stone a chance to see the things they remember and loved. He talks of the freedom that was born with this new nation, a new thing entirely has come in the world, free men. He points to Scratch and says “Don’t side with the oppressor. Don’t let this country go to the devil..God Bless the United States and the men who made her free.” Scratch is puzzled to see the jury confer. They turn back and Arnold tears up the contract. The judge announces that the jury has found for the defendant and the cock crows. Scratch tries to shake Webster’s hand but Webster—with some colorful insults— literally kicks him out of the barn and slams the door behind him, telling him to stay out of New Hampshire. “If I ever become President...” Webster begins, and Scratch pops up in an upper widow and declares “You’ll never be president, I’ll see to that!” The new mansion bursts into flames.

Neighbors arrive and Jabez tells them to let the house burn. He tears up the contracts and promises to join the grange. Everyone gathers for breakfast outside the farmhouse. Ma brings a covered peach pie for Webster, but when she takes off the lid, the plate is empty. “What the Devil ?” she says. Cut to Scratch, sitting on the gate, devouring the whole pie. Cut to Ma saying gleefully, “Who laughs last...” She brings out a truly gigantic pie. Cut to Scratch, wiping his fingers. He takes out his notebook and perusing it, moves close to the camera and breaks the fourth wall, scanning the theater audience in search of a name he has found, or perhaps a new candidate. At last he looks directly into the camera, grins and points his finger. The screen goes black as an iris shot focuses on that significant finger. Cut to the credits.

Cast

Production

After the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), William Dieterle founded his own production company and signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures, the studio that had produced the film. He decided to adapt Stephen Vincent Benet's short story of the same name as the first film he would make under the contract with the studio.

The story had been adapted to the stage in 1939 at the Martin Beck Theater to great acclaim, but only ran for six performances because the production proved to be expensive. It was also later adapted as an opera that was performed during World War II by USO troupes.

Benet was invited to write the script for the film adaptation, along with Dan Totheroh, the younger brother of Roland Totheroh, who worked as Charlie Chaplin's top cinematographer from his silent short films to Monsieur Verdoux (1947). There were some differences between the short story and the movie. In the original story, Webster regrets Benedict Arnold's absence; in the film, Arnold is present and Webster objects, citing him as a traitor and therefore not a true American, but his objection is dismissed by the judge, and Asa the Black Monk is made up for the film, along with John Smeet, who appears in a deleted scene. The writers also cut out Scratch's other predictions involving Webster's last speech and his sons' deaths in the Civil War. Mr Scratch, Walter Huston's character, was more soft-spoken in the story and the character of Belle was an addition.[1]

Thomas Mitchell was originally cast as Daniel Webster, but he suffered a skull fracture after a horse became frightened and plunged across the set, overturning Mitchell's carriage. Mitchell was incapacitated for two months, and the production was shut down. In early May, Charles Coburn was announced as Mitchell's replacement. On 29 May, Edward Arnold stepped into the role.[2]

Bernard Herrmann was chosen to compose the film, having composed music for Charles R. Jackson's 1938 radio adaptation that had aired on The Columbia Workshop. Herrmann was introduced to the cast and crew by Dieterle, whom he found to be a very sophisticated director. In addition to his original music score, Herrmann also incorporated several traditional folk tunes, including "Devil's Dream", "Springfield Mountain", and a diabolical version of "Pop Goes The Weasel" played on the fiddle by Mr. Scratch. Herrmann collaborated with sound engineer James G. Stewart to ensure the music and sound worked well together. To create the creepy sound when Mr. Scratch first appeared in the barn, Herrmann had a recording crew go to San Fernando to record the sound of telephone wires.[3]

A New York Herald Tribune news item reported that the snow in the blizzard was composed of 1,200 small white onions, 25,000 moth balls, 1,500 pounds of uncooked tapioca and 1,000 pounds of bleached cornflakes.[4]

Alternative versions

The original release was 107 minutes long. It was a critical, but not a box-office, success, recording a loss of $53,000 on its initial run.[5] It was later re-released under the title The Devil and Daniel Webster, reducing the film to 85 minutes. The cuts were crudely done. The film was restored to its full-length in the 1990s and has been issued in that form on home video. However, the title has remained The Devil and Daniel Webster. The restored portions on the video had been taken from inferior prints of the movie, but the quality has since improved. A preview print titled Here Is a Man was found in the estate of the director and served as the basis for the film's restoration and DVD release.

Parodies

The Simpsons featured a comedic spoof of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" in "Treehouse of Horror IV" (1993). It was called "The Devil and Homer Simpson" and it included a court case including “American betrayers” which included the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers. The devil was played by Ned Flanders.

Awards and honors

Bernard Herrmann won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture and Walter Huston was nominated for Academy Award for Best Actor.

See also

References

  1. Izzo, David Garrett; Lincoln Konkle (2002). Stephen Vincent Benet:Essays on His Life and Work. University of California Press. ISBN 0786413646.
  2. "All That Money Can Buy (1941) - Notes - TCM.com". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-10-22.
  3. Smith, Steven C. A Heart At Heart's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. University of California Press. p. 86. ISBN 0-520-07123-9.
  4. "All That Money Can Buy (1941) - Notes - TCM.com". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2019-10-22.
  5. Richard Jewell & Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story. New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1982. p. 166


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