Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Review of The Devil and Daniel Webster

I recently watched The Devil and Daniel Webster after having it recommended to me by Diggs. I'm not sure why I hadn't seen it before. This was a really excellent movie! It feels like it should be a classic, but it appears to be one of those under-appreciated movies. The Devil and Daniel Webster came to theaters in 1941. It was made by people who would have just survived The Great Depression, and it shows. It shows in the script, it shows in the poverty of the farmers, and it shows in the attitude towards the loan sharks and rich businessmen that take advantage of those with less. There is an evil in this movie which is shown through the "oppressor" or rich jerk. Oddly, the devil and his demon friend are some of the more likable characters! It is said during the commentary on the DVD that one of the reasons audiences didn't connect to the movie at first was the idea of evil characters being likable or seductive. I don't understand what's not to connect to. If the devil isn't likable, if he doesn't manipulate you into making a deal, who'd sign their name on that wicked line?

I'll give you a brief background on the characters. Jabez Stone lives with his new wife and religious, no-nonsense mother in a simple farm shack in New Hampshire. (There is a lot of New Hampshire pride in this story.) The Stones have a few animals and not a lot of money. What they do have is a lot of love for one another and their lack of money doesn't seem to matter all that much. They just need to scrape enough together to pay a loan shark so they can stay on their land. The Stones decide to sell some things to get the money but problem after problem occurs. Their pig is injured, and then their seeds all fall in the muck. Jabez becomes so angry that he announces that he'd make a deal with the devil to improve his situation.

Then on cue, he appears - Walter Huston as the devil, out of a bright, hazy light in the barn. He's amazing in his role. He's a folksy, funny old huckster with some of the best lines. As I said before, you'll actually like the guy! If you're wondering if Walter Huston is any relation to Angelica Huston, yes - he's her grandfather.

The devil introduces himself as Mr. Scratch and hands Jabez his card. Jabez doesn't take it and the card lights into flame and disappears. You will see some pretty impressive special effects for 1941 in this movie. Heck, they're impressive now. In a way, I prefer them to some of the modern, overblown, computerized special effects seen today. Mr. Scratch does a little convincing and it doesn't take much to get Jabez to sign his contract. Mr. Scratch's attitude is pretty much "Soul, Shmoul. You don't need one of those!" After he gets the signature he wants, Mr. Scratch (in another piece of movie magic) writes Jabez's name and the date seven years from then into a tree. Smoke flies from the tree as the devil writes his evil date into it. Jabez has a bit of a wake up call at this point, as he sees that he only has seven years until he has to pay off his bargain.

Jabez and his newfound wealth
During this time we also meet Daniel Webster, a local politician and lawyer who would like to become president. Daniel Webster was an actual man, but it sounds like he was embellished a bit in fiction. In reality he didn't come through for the common people, but he's a very cool character in this movie. The movie version of Daniel Webster would have my vote! He is clearly the smartest one in the story. He's cool, calm headed, able to give a convincing argument or the perfect speech. He cares about the people, he respects those from other political parties for standing up for different views, he loves America and will stand up for his friends. Mr. Scratch would like to have a part in writing Daniel Webster's speeches, but Daniel pretty much tells him to buzz off. At one point he says to Mr. Scratch "I'd rather see you on the side of the opposition." and Mr. Scratch replies quietly "Oh, I'll be there too..."
Daniel Webster writes a speech while being pestered by the devil.

The next seven years go well for Jabez in some ways. He becomes extremely wealthy. He is able to pay off the loan shark and then some! By the way, the actor who played Miser Stevens, the loan shark is one of the best actors in this. I loved watching his smarmy, twitchy, jerky performance. It was so mean and creepy that it was funny. After Miser Stevens is paid off, he notices that Jabez has given him the exact gold coins he already has plenty of. These are unusual coins, and we realize the loan shark is also in league with the devil.

The creepy Miser Stevens

So Jabez becomes wealthy. He also loses his character as he mistreats his fellow farmers. When the other farmers have a bad growing season, they are forced to take unfair loans from Jabez. He's worse than the loan shark, because he pretends to be their friend and gives them an even worse deal. Then Mr. Scratch creates a massive hail storm, ruining the other farmers' fields. Jabez's wife Mary cries for the other men and their misfortune. Jabez just laughs in their faces and brags about his own "good luck". The other farmers have to suck up their dignity and work for Jabez in hopes of staying afloat.

It's around this time that Jabez and Mary have a son. It looks like Jabez might turn around his evil ways for a brief moment. The devil sees this and decides to up the ante by inviting one of his
"friends" to be a maid for the family. His friend is a female demon named Belle Z. (As in Beelzebub). Belle is played by Simone Simon, who is pretty darn sassy in her role. She was probably walking the line of getting censored for sexiness for a 1941 movie.

Belle and Jabez start their flirty ways
Anyone can guess what happens next. Jabez and Belle have an affair and don't even try to hide it. He and his mistress move into a giant mansion up on a hill, while his wife Mary and his mother live in the old shack below. Jabez and Belle dress in fancy clothes and shove their wealth and relationship in everyone's faces. Jabez is mean to his wife, he's mean to his mother, and he raises his son to be the brat of the century.

Jabez and Mary's son is named Daniel in tribute to Daniel Webster. Mary admires Daniel Webster and asks him to be her son's godfather. You get the feeling that she's known the politician for some time. Mary ends up reaching out to Daniel Webster in an act of desperation. She tells him how her husband has changed and he tells her he will help. As it happens, Jabez has invited Daniel to his house for a party, but I think it was mostly just to make himself look important. Daniel Webster visits Jabez in his grand (almost tacky) mansion and sets him straight. Jabez yells at both Daniel Webster and his wife and continues to make a fool of himself. At that point, Daniel, Mary, and Mary and Jabez's son decide to leave.

Poor Mary, who is completely innocent through this entire movie.
Jabez angrily sits down and of course Belle is there to comfort him. She's just been dancing what could be called a "dance of death" with Miser Stevens, the loan shark. It would seem Miser Stevens' seven years were up. Then the devil appears with a moth that has a tiny little voice that sounds like it belongs to Miser Stevens. Jabez now sees what happens to your soul if you sign it away to the devil. He freaks out and runs to Daniel Webster and Mary. He apologizes and Daniel agrees to help him out. Daniel will act as Jabez's attorney against the devil in a desperate fight for Jabez's soul.

Thus begins a classic scene that was even parodied on The Simpsons! At the end of "The Devil and Homer Simpson" there is a scene with "The Jury of the Damned". There are some pretty funny parts in that clip.

Back to the movie... The devil calls his jury, full of ne'er-do-wells, like Benedict Arnold and a whole pack of pirates. The judge presiding will be Judge Hawthorne of The Salem Witch Trials infamy! The judge doesn't allow much out of Daniel Webster, but in the end Daniel gives an awesome speech. It amounts to this - You were all once Americans, like Jabez. Your freedom was taken from you by the great oppressor - the devil. No one deserves to be oppressed like that. Give this fellow American another chance. It's a really stirring speech, filled with history. Here it is:

Spoiler Alert.... Even these wicked men are impressed by Daniel's speech. Mr. Scratch makes a confused expression that is hilarious. Jabez has his life back. His tacky mansion on the hill burns to the ground. We end with Daniel Webster sitting down with Jabez and his family for dinner, along with all the other farmers. Jabez's mom comes out with a peach pie made especially for Daniel Webster. Ah, but when she lifts the pie lid, it's gone! It appears the devil has been at work again.

The Devil and Daniel Webster is the best movie I've seen in a while! See if you can find it. I had some luck finding it at a local library. It will make you think, it will make you mad, and it will make you laugh. I just know you'll appreciate the Hitchcockian style shadows and excellent music too!

Speaking of the music, I'll end with one of the songs from the movie. This song, "Sleigh Ride" is what got the initial conversation going about The Devil and Daniel Webster. Never mind the sweet Christmas images in this video. The song is actually kind of frenetic and unnerving!


  1. I have so often heard of this movie, but have never seen it. Will definitely look it up! Thanks! :0)

    1. Jeanne ~ That's just where I was at before seeing this! I'd heard of it, and on some level I knew it was a classic story. It's really worth watching. We should have been reading/watching this story in school! I actually ran across a few video projects kids made about this story for school while I was looking for video clips for my blog. So it's a part of some kids' education. Those videos the kids put together were pretty funny/entertaining!

  2. Oh Justine, one of my favorite movies! Walter Houston is amazing as Scratch (He was good in the Treasure of the Sierra Madre as well!).

    Listen to that soundtrack too, you can hear Bernard Herrmann INVENTING American cinematic film scoring!

    Have you seen Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter"? I would definitely recommend it as a film in a similar vein. A bit darker, but with similarly brilliant cinematography, performances, and values.

  3. Mantan ~ I can see why this would be one of your favorite movies! It feels like it should be a classic. I thought Walter Huston was perfect. I heard on the commentary that Claude Rains had been interested in playing the role of Mr. Scratch. That would have been different! I haven't seen the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but I should add that to my to-watch list.

    The soundtrack was so great. Do you own a DVD of The Devil and Daniel Webster? If so, you probably already know all the soundtrack trivia that's on the commentary. There were some really inventive things going on, like the layering of different violin songs during the harvest dance scene. People weren't doing stuff like that back then!

    No, I haven't seen Night of the Hunter. In fact, I don't think I've even heard of it. I just looked up some info about the movie and it sounds like something I'd be interested in! I'll try to get a hold of it next. Thanks for the suggestion!