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Review of the film was written within the framework of the program Film, Music, Literature, and Dreams with Jonathan Rosenbaum held at Kino klub Split 16-22 June.

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

by Roman Roudi


It’s easy to dismiss this film as pre-Civil War interpretation of Faustus, a legend that found its place even in Croatian literature as August Šenoa’s The Shoemaker and The Devil. Writing this review two days after the screening I believe there’s more to this little comedy-drama than meets the eye.

First, I’d like to to start with pre-production which I investigated after seeing the film, having been utterly ignorant even of its title because I missed Mr. Rosenbaum’s introduction. Actually, I’m glad that I’ve seen it without any cloggings on my mind, whether they are bad or good. After reading of some alterations that director William Dieterle and his writers made in translating Stephen Vincent Benet’s story to the screen, I feel that they can be called improvements. These include more sordid sense of humor in Walter Huston’s character, deliciously named Mr. Scratch (I honestly can’t think of any actor today who could earn an Academy Award nomination for playing the Devil) and adding the character of smoldering temptress Belle. It was also a good choice casting Edward Arnold in the eponymous role instead of more prominent character actor Thomas Mitchell who played Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With the Wind, mainly because of the resemblance with the historical person. Unfortuanately, I can’t say the same of James Craig in the role of young farmer (a shoemaker in Šenoa’s story) Jabez Stone. Can you imagine what would Henry Fonda or Joel McCrea do with this part in which Mr. Craig feels slightly wooden?

Now, we come to the film itself. As I said to our mentor after the screening, it struck me as a curious cross between John Ford (whom I adore for letting the Post Office send messages) and Frank Capra (whom I loathe for sending messages with his films). Mr. Dieterle, although a competent craftsman is hardly a match for aforementioned filmmakers. A pure example of Ford’s influence is the provincial setting and casting Jane Darwell in the role of Ma Stone, a year after she played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Capra’s influence is obvious in fantasy elements, quite patronizing patriotic speeches and two young women in Jabez Stone’s life. One is his devoted wife Mary, decently played by Anne Shirley and shares strong similiarities and name with Donna Reed’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life. I do wonder why those virginal (and rather dull) wives in movies from The Golden Age of Hollywood are always named Mary. The other woman is a smoldering temptress Belle, wonderfully played by Simone Simon which reminded me of Gloria Grahame’s Violet in Capra’s Christmas classic. From her bizarre first appearance (she unexplainedly trades places with housemaid near the fireplace and immediately beguiles Jabez Stone causing a feud with his villagers and family). Who could blame him? Miss Simon plays a demanding and somewhat stereotypical role with freshness and vivacity that shrewdly conceal her diabolism and ruthlessness. As a matter of fact, if the role was toned down it would seem as if she popped out of some screwball comedy and I’m sure the actress would have struck gold in the genre, in the same mode as Carole Lomard or Claudette Colbert. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. What was meant to be is *the* performance of the film, Walter Huston as the Devil. The resemblance between elder Huston in this film and his son John as Noah Cross in Chinatown (which accidently, on this day had its world premiere) is uncanny. Both are urbane and charming in a grandfatherly manner. Although John Huston’s gentleman villainy is more overplayed in Polanski’s film (that’s understandable because we are talking about two completely different eras) they are on the same wavelength. Dramaturgy of this film is straight and simple, though in one of the opening scenes we are misled into thinking that it will focus on the Devil corrupting Daniel Webster but he is too upright in a Capraesque way and in this aspect the movie falls flat.  The celebrated lawyer and congressman is nearly infallible and comes out as a superbeing that makes Mr. Scratch look rather human and down to Earth. The film is extremely well photographed which is best seen in the fantasy ballroom scene and the trial sequence that evokes Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, but without many close-ups. As for Bernard Herrmann’s music score, it reminded me of a quote „Best music is the one you don’t hear.“ I only heard rendition of American folk tune Pop Goes to Weasel, and therefore think that Mr. Herrmann deserved his Oscar on this picture. 

Finally, this is a neatly crafted piece of work, more endearing than It’s a Wonderful Life, but I wish that William Dieterle, a German emigree gave a darker insight in American values and lifestyle. Having said that, I feel the final gag involving a pie is almost as biting and witty as anything Middle European-rooted comedy masters Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder did in their films.

20th June, 2022.