Regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak has described THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER as particularly American, and this is so. We can trace the Americanism of the film in a variety of ways, some more cynical than others, beginning from its origins in the Faust myth. These symptoms of the American may sound a little cynical.
1) It’s Faust, but with an ordinary-joe hero instead of a great alchemist/sorceror.
2) It’s Faust, but with a happy ending.
3) It’s Faust, but with a smart lawyer.
4) The lawyer wins with an appeal to the emotions and patriotism rather than legal argument.
But there’s really a lot more to it than that. A socio-political message is bound up in a supernatural thriller plot, effectively amped up to the point where all seems conclusively lost, and then that happy ending is produced by what seem to be entirely fair means. And it ends with a flourish of wit.
As I’ve already mentioned, the DVD release contains scenes I’d never seen before, but looking at the IMDb cast list, I get the impression that missing sequences are still out there: we have credits for a “studio gateman” and a “guide” who don’t appear. Their names suggest a behind-the-scenes opening that would tie in with that first frame of Dieterle’s name printed on a scrim stretched across a massive light. Intriguingly, the guide was played by William Alland, Thompson the reporter (and the News on the March voice) in CITIZEN KANE, another tie between the two productions. Something about Alland must suggest a reliable guide through narrative labyrinths.
“It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.”
Premature anti-fascism in credits! Suspiciously egalitarian…
The film DOES begin with a quote from Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, although it’s a very brief one, dovetailing into a direct address to the audience (“It could even happen to YOU”) which will be picked up again at the film’s end, when Walter Huston looks in his little black book and finds US.
From here we have almost ten minutes of scenes previously unseen by me, cut apparently to reduce the prestige A-picture, which flopped, into a zippy B-picture, which might make some money. It’s remarkable how little these extra sequences add: screenwriters often write material intended to “introduce characters,” where in fact, if you remove these scenes, the beginning of the STORY will introduce the characters far more effectively. The only real suspense underlying the first minutes with Jabez Stone and his family is that pertaining to the mysterious figure with a little book, seen approaching the farm. (In an early example of Mr. Scratch’s supernatural powers, he will be seen tempting Daniel Webster in Washington before he actually arrives in Jabez’s barn.)
james Craig, and his slight, but nevertheless unpleasant, resemblance to George W Bush.
Might be time to address those central performances. Most of us can agree, I think, that they’re not the film’s best feature, to the point where we don’t really consider them “central” at all. But what’s wrong with them?
James Craig is very full-on, and this broad-brush “intensity” brings out the worst in his dialogue, consarn it. Anything that might sound a bit awkward DOES sound a bit awkward. Someone like Joel McCrea, or Henry Fonda would have smoothed over any clumsy moments in the script, and perhaps preserved a bit more likability during Jabez’s nastier moments. Instead, Craig hits every emotion hard, making instant transitions from one to another, like a cartoon, and always playing the most straightahead version of that emotion. Nothing is under the surface, everything is on the nose. It can make him hard to watch, although thankfully he also has good moments, and they tend to be during his character’s more sympathetic scenes, which is useful.
Anne Shirley is too much the wet rag, a fault of the writing, to be sure, but not an insuperable one. I’m not sure Olivia DeHavilland, suggested by Shadowplayer Jack Womack, would have been perfect, despite the fact that she’s worn the same hairstyle as Shirley. DeHavilland is an incredible actress, of course, but prone to the same kind of sweetness-and-light that makes the character of Mary Stone a little sickly. Somebody with an inherent nervous energy would get that woman up on her feet. The character does have one strength, besides her goodness (which is dramatically a bit dull) — she’s a pretty shrewd politician, suggesting things to her husband in such a mild way that he doesn’t feel pressured into accepting the ideas, considers them on their own merits, and then sees that she’s right. This makes her about as far from a feminist hero as you could possibly get, but it’s credible enough for the period, and suggests that the Stones would be pretty successful partnership as long as dumb old Jabez listens to his wife.
Buoying the opening sequence up is the majestic Jane Darwell, a true icon — the matriarch of all matriarchs. (I particularly like her terrifying Ma Grier in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, a perfect shadow-image of benevolent Ma Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.) Her casting her is pretty much according type, one could say (except that she was the daughter of a railroad president from Missouri in real life) but it works, and the genuine personality she projects supports the whole movie for about ten minutes.
Shadowplay! Huston tempts Arnold, in what used to be the film’s opening scene, and a very striking one. Here as elsewhere, Joseph August’s cinematography harks back to director Dieterle’s German expressionist background (he lumbers through the Murnau FAUST) with moody noir visuals.
In Huston and Arnold, we have the film’s true powerhouses. Huston, as Arthur S. observes, gets all the best lines, and delivers them with a roguish brio. His teeth are the whole show, like the front end of a skull trying to escape from his mouth. In TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE he performs sans dents, and it makes a whole other actor of him. Possibly Walter Brennan.
Walter Huston is possibly my favourite actor of all time. He’s not only effective in an impossibly wide variety of parts (basically, anything that doesn’t depend on conventional good looks), he can adapt his whole approach to acting to suit the role: he’s hammy here, in just the right way (remember his advice to his son: “Always give ’em a good show, and always travel First Class.”), but he can bring it right down. In RAIN he’s a truly horrible man, and he does it without any sort of actorly disguise to separate himself from the character. (Compare Mitchum in the original CAPE FEAR, playing himself, as pure evil, to DeNiro’s decorative but un-scary work in the remake. Huston could play it either way.) In KONGO he takes melodrama to a grotesque zenith of distorted hysteria that threatens to rip the film from its sprockets. In DODSWORTH he’s just wonderful.
Bribes department: if anybody wants my undying friendship, get me a recording of Huston’s rendition of September Song.
Edward Arnold, replacing an ailing Thomas Mitchell, is Daniel Webster, of whom Emerson wrote, “Every drop of his blood looked you in the eye.” Arnold credibly embodies that startling description. The folksy politician is a tricky figure to get right — I think some of us are smart enough to resist that kind of appeal to our simple souls, and we’ve had some pretty bad examples in recent years — but Arnold is compelling. In a way, we don’t have to believe in Webster’s honesty and goodness so much anyway, as in his competence. Arnold makes him a marvelous orator (kudos to the script here too), and holds the screen during a long climactic speech when Dieterle, for dramatic reasons, cannot cut to the listeners for a reaction shot.
If you have the DVD you can check the deleted scenes and see the rather astonishing interpolated shots of Huston, in negative, gloating over Jabez Stone’s misfortunes. Deleted after the preview, these brief shots (not quite subliminal, but still reminiscent of the demonic flash-frames in THE EXORCIST) must have freaked 1940s audiences out completely. Would a standard-issue member of the public in 1941 Pasadena even be able to interpret what they were seeing here?
Anyhow, with the Mephistophelean cutaways excised, the sequence still works — Craig is a little grating, but that adds to the oppressive feeling as his problems mount: in a couple of minutes, aided immeasurably but a slowly mounting cacophony of farmyard noise (recordist James G. Stewart was another veteran of KANE), Dieterle gives us a vivid sense of the weight of debt crushing the Stones. And then, a moment of silence. Enter Huston.
This is one of my very favourite movie entrances (and SO WHAT if Huston has already appeared twice), the pop-video backlighting and almost musical scoring of chicken clucks, and Huston’s sinister bonhomie, with the poise of a stage magician. Robert Wise cuts sharply, with a very quick cut of the gold bursting from out of the floor — so brief we don’t know if it’s real. Benet, writing with Dan Totheroh, uses most of Scratch’s dialogue from the story, and invents more of an equally high standard. Whenever I sign a contract, I always quote Stone: “What does it mean here, about my soul?”
(Other favourite entrances, you say? Karloff, backwards, in FRANKENSTEIN. Guinness, smirking behind his hat in THE LADYKILLERS. Joan Crawford, manning the threshold in the aforementioned RAIN. Oh, there are too many…)
“What a beautiful sunset,” says Huston, in a confidential tone that seems to carry some special meaning.
I must confess I always found the scene where Jabez reveals the gold to his family to be somewhat odd. Mary can’t take it in, which is fair enough (and she did just hit her head moments ago, which Jabez has completely forgotten), but Ma’s skeptical attitude to the evidence of her own senses is downright peculiar. It’s appropriate to the morality-tale genre that Ma shouldn’t be overly impressed by wealth, but having established these folks as salt-of-the-earth normal people, the filmmakers have a hard time convincing me that Ma would take this momentous news in her style. But the scene has a rather surreal feeling to it as a result, which is quite nice.
Into town. Any community with Gene Lockhart as a civic leader is clearly in trouble. John “production for use” Qualen is magnificent as Miser Stevens — is “Miser” his actual first name? This underrated character player could be the nasal weasel or the squirming worm, sadistic or pathetic — here he’s a bit of both. Presumably he was once a truly upright citizen, because even at his worst, he’s not as obnoxious as Jabez will become.
Daniel Webster’s visit to town allows for a fun visit from Mr Scratch, who bests him in the first round, slipping him a supernatural mickey of some kind in his Medford rum. We also have a cameo from wee Sonny Bupp, familiar from his role as Charles Foster Kane III. His gee-wiz line readings are a little forced: maybe he’s been studying under James Craig.
Despite having sold his soul to the devil, Jabez still manages to make a rousing speech on Webster’s behalf. An interesting point: Scratch hands him this opportunity, and apparently lends him the loquacity to make the most of it, and it’s the beginning of Stone’s influence in the community, which will be used entirely for bad ends. But Webster himself quotes approvingly from the speech near the end of the story, which seems wrong somehow.
All the stuff with Gene Lockhart’s flustered squire trying to organize an incompetent band looks forward to Franklin Pangborn in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. Here, Lockhart is basically a comedy twerp, whereas later we will see him gambling on the Sabbath etc with Jabez, suggesting that Stone’s corruption exerts a malign influence on the weaker men around him, part of the film’s civic side: personal corruption infects the political sphere, because politics is made of people. (I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’m a confirmed sabbath-breaker myself, but it seems to be the film’s stance.)
Scratch walking through the farmyard at night is another additional scene — I might overlook the previous cuts, since they tighten the pace and don’t hurt the narrative, but a frame less of of Huston is an undoubted crime. He has a number of nice little moments in the longer version, cruelly cast aside in the B-movie cut.
Ah, fecundity! I love love love the dissolve from a wheatfield to Anne Shirley, lying in bed pregnant. Perhaps an example of the kind of ingenuity triggered by unreasonable censorship restrictions? If you can’t even say the word “pregnant,” this kind of silent-movie symbolism presents itself as an elegant solution.
At this point, Jabez is still bothered by his conscience, allowing Jane Darwell a fine speech about what happens “if a man gets his money in bad ways.” But soon we will launch headlong into the section of the film I call “The Asshole Variations,” in which our hero becomes a monstrous collection of boorish traits. Craig’s less appealing qualities as an actor fuse rather nicely with the character’s moral decay, letting us hate the guy pretty thoroughly for a reel or so. But would it help if the actor had enough charisma to keep us more invested in him? I’m not sure it matters that much here, oddly enough.
Another appearance by Huston, nicking a bunch of carrots, tightens the noose around Jabez’s neck. Being an adaptable sort of chap, since he can’t escape his contract, Jabez will soon embrace damnation with apparent enthusiasm. Huston is delicious: “I shan’t even come to the christening; it would be tactless and in wretched bad taste.”
The Harvest Dance, coinciding with the birth of that promising young fellow, Daniel Stone, gives us Bernard Herrmann’s showiest scene. His jaunty devil theme makes me warm all over, and his sonorous leitmotif honouring “the land,” is beautiful, but the manic version of Pop Goes the Weasel, fiendishly lit by August and cut together by Wise with savage abandon, is a real show-stopper. What gets us into this ebullient swing, of course, is Simone Simon.
Censorship is apparently powerless when faced with a performance like Simon’s as “Belle Dee.” Viciously sexual, she uses her accent like a cute gun. A snub-nose. Her third word in the film is actually “gun” — well, it’s “gone,” but she pronounces it “gun.” Backlighting her with an infernal glow from the fireplace is arguably going too far, but it’s part of the aesthetic of a good Dieterle film to take everything too far.
(I’m reminded of my favourite Christopher Walken story. He sees a lighting guy adjusting a reflector at his feet. “What are you doing” he asks, without the aid of a question mark — for Walken is beyond punctuation. “Oh, ah, we’re just going to bounce a little light up at your face, make you look sinister,” says the technician. Walken: “You don’t need to do that.”)
SS is a pretty interesting figure, and I find it hard to assess her qualities as an actress. Maybe I need to stop masturbating first.
That’s better. SS is certainly a different player in her native tongue, where she sounds like everybody else. In English we get these odd line readings. I’m sure she’s a far better actress than Jean Harlow (my God, can you imagine her speaking French?), but when Simon speaks English you get these strange inflections which are comparable to Harlow’s effective and at times endearingly awkward way with dialogue.
Since I have, for some reason, an aging French fanzine called Atomvision to hand, I’ll quote the SS interview therein, by way of Babelfish. She’s talking about how Val Lewton saw her in this film before he cast her in CAT PEOPLE.
it m’ had seen in ATMCB, a film in which I represented the devil. This film was carried out by the dad of John Huston who was also a marvellous actor. He played the devil but unfortunately I n’ did not have scene with him and that m’ much sadness had. In short, Valley Lewton m’ had seen in this film that j’ had turns in April 1941.
Strange. Although she can remember the month of filming, she seems to think Walter Huston was the director.
“She’s nice,” says Mary Stone, proving Dennis Potter’s point that truly good people are ill-equipped to recognize the Devil.
Jabez goes a bit Michael Jackson when his son is born. And indeed, he will shortly build an outlandish mansion, court celebrity friends and have questionable sleepovers. He doesn’t sing Earth Song, though, so we can forgive him. The other figure he resembles is George W Bush, not just facially (perhaps he looks more like Josh Brolin playing Bush), but in his gigantic obnoxiousness later: reminiscent of Bush’s gloating fratboy side.
Brilliant and rather dirty scene, with Jabez pausing at the randy Belle Dee’s bedroom door. He’s not quite wicked enough yet to just march in and have her. Suddenly Huston is there, leaning in the window. He gives his hand one firm shake, and sends him on his way to lay her like a carpet. This is probably the best bit removed from the shorter version.
A rich and varied display of loutishness follows from Jabez — once a man’s indulged in satanism and adultery, it’s a short step to fishing on the Sabbath. A plot thread entirely absent from the short cut is his spoiling of his son, Daniel. It takes a visit from big Daniel to set the lad on the straight and narrow with an efficient bout of spanking. Not sure how I feel about this. I grew up with the threat of corporal punishment looming over my head — at school rather than at home. It seems positively Dickensian now. I never saw anybody “corrected” by it. I think a few timorous kids like me were kept in line by the fear of it, but I don’t think anybody was ever taught a valuable lesson by having their palm skelped by a bully three times their size.
Slightly awkward exposition by Jeff Corey and friends (including Scotsman Alec Craig, no relation to the film’s star). Gathering the bit players and having them discuss the plot is a rather hackneyed, 19th century theatre device. But it’s a minor blemish. (Hope it doesn’t look like I’m down on the film. It’s a favourite.)
The next really great bit is of course the “party” where Miser Stevens is “collected.” Belle and Scratch technically DO share a scene together, but they don’t interact. This has the moment that seems to have inspired CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and some great uncanny sound work. Herrmann’s low tonalities during all the Scratch scenes have a wonderfully sinister effect, evocative of Halloween hauntings and bad dreams, and the danse macabre once again allows him to take centre stage.
Fantastic dialogue re moths.
The combination of Herrmann’s score and the RKO sound department’s work on the supernatural scenes is so richly evocative and eerie and beautiful… it stands comparison with any of the rightly celebrated sound and music work in CITIZEN KANE. I guess the only thing we don’t get here is the artful linking of scenes, mostly done via dialogue in KANE (where the phrases “Merry Christmas!” & “- and a Happy New Year!” link two scenes fifteen years apart) so that TDADW never quite attains the propulsive effect of Welles’ work — until the climax.
“In the midst of life…”
Herrmann’s very on-the-nose, synchronized Mickey-Mousing of Jabez trying to cut down a tree (upon which is written his expiration date) really bumps up the energy, and then there’s a slightly conventional carriage chase — it looks too much like a B-western to me, perhaps because Mother Nature has been evoked largely in the studio until this point — but I like Belle’s last moment, which is ambiguous and weird. Despite Huston making it plain that she’s his agent, she’s always seemed slightly detached from the Faustian plot, her brand of wickedness more pleasurable than “all that money can buy” — and she’s from “over the mountains,” which sounds quite nice, rather than from “Hell,” which I have to admit sounds like a less agreeable holiday destination.
Ah, the trial. Here, the script can fall back on the story most closely, since Benet fleshes his climax out more than any other section of the narrative. Again, brilliant sound work, including the wheezing echo of a laugh that sounds from the “Jury of the Damned” (kudos to anyone who can find a YouTube clip of The Simpsons’ version of this) and an artfully crafted ramping up of peril, so that all seems utterly lost (“Lost and gone, lost and gone,”) until it’s suddenly not. Never liked that crack about “If two New Hampshire men aren’t a match for the Devil we may as well give this country back to the Indians,” since it implies that that would be a ridiculous thing to do. Mr. Scratch is more attuned to modern thought: “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there,” which is a fairly progressive admission for an era when Colonel Custer was still being portrayed as a hero.
H.B. Warner as Justice Hathorne — seems like a shame he never got to play the part in The Crucible. He’s definitive! The Siren points out that the composition of the jury is different in the film, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to interpret the changes. Some of the descriptions of jurors seem to downplay their socio-political relevance in the film, but Benedict Arnold is merely name-checked in the story, and he actually sits on the jury in the film. I guess he’s somebody most Americans can agree upon. On the political side, Shadowplayer David Fiore (AKA Anagramsci) points out that the film has rewritten Webster as a champion of the poor, which seems to be far from the truth. The short story is vaguer about Webster’s actual politics, while the movie simply creates a fictional Webster out of whole cloth. Not sure what to think about that…
Webster kicking Scratch out the door is well done, and here there’s a good bit of material about the future which the film omits. It does get the short story into more uncomfortable areas. Told that he will make an unpopular speech, Benet has Webster say, “So long as it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say.” The speech appears to be the one supporting slavery. I think it’s sensible of the movie to simply omit all this. The fictional Webster would never make that speech, I want to feel.
Coda: rather neatly judged. Satan is too charismatic to be as soundly banished as he is in the story, but we need some relief for the Stone family. The jolly laughter round the breakfast table could easily become intolerable, though, but here comes Mr. Scratch with his little book…
“It could even happen to YOU…”
There’s more, much more, to be said, but I’ll leave it to you. Also, I may have more Dieterle posts later in the week: I’ve barely scratched the surface with him. Next week’s movie is LE MEPRIS: feel free to suggest more, and start getting your hands on that one now!