DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, THE (ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY) (director: William Dieterle; screenwriters: Dan Totheroh/Stephen Vincent Benet/based on the story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet; cinematographer: Joseph August; editor: Robert Wise; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Edward Arnold (Daniel Webster), Walter Huston (Mr. Scratch), James Craig (Jabez Stone), Jane Darwell (Ma Stone), Simone Simon (Belle), Gene Lockhart (Squire Slossum), John Qualen (Miser Stevens), Anne Shirley (Mary Stone), H. B. Warner (Justice Hawthorne); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Dieterle; Criterion; 1941)
“It’s the heavy Teutonic Faust, but made American lite in this supernatural tale.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Criterion restores the film to its full-length, which is generally a good thing (though a few overlong scenes might have been better off left cut). This fluffy feel-good American classic is ably but not inspiringly helmed by German-born director William Dieterle (“Fashions of 1934″/”Magic Fire”/”The Hunchback Of Notre Dame”). It’s the heavy Teutonic Faust, but made American lite in this supernatural tale. The parable suggests that craving money and selling oneself to the devil for it, leaves one without a soul (in this case, money being the root of all evil). It’s set in 19th-century New Hampshire (1840) and uses historical figures and some inventive Hollywood devices (like Wellesian slow dissolves) to tell its smart devilish tale. It’s based on the short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, who also cowrites it with Dan Totheroh.
Jabez Stone (James Craig) is the impoverished New Hampshire farmer who is in such a financial pickle that he vows to sell his soul for two cents. Suddenly Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) appears, apparently a personification of the devil of New England folklore, and strikes a deal by offering the farmer seven years of luck for his soul. We’re off to the races as Jabez eases his way to fame and fortune, while Scratch’s delightful handmaiden Belle (Simone Simon) makes for a wonderful temptress as the live-in servant for the married man. Jabez becomes despised by his neighbors, has marital difficulties with his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and finds himself alienated from his mother (Jane Darwell). By the end of the seven year contract, the devil comes around for his due and Jabez needs help from the statesman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to break the contract and to be a free man again. This results in a trial by a jury of his peers, as Webster takes the devil to court. Webster defends his client with a long-winded patriotic speech about Good and Evil, the need for forgiveness and for freedom. Despite Scratch summoning to the stand infamous criminals from history and a twelve man jury to make his case against breaking the iron-clad contract, Webster wins the day by eloquently arguing that all men have the right to have free souls. With Jabez once again on his own, he’s touted to join the Grange and thereby unite with other farmers to make a stand against difficult economic conditions. It concludes with the caveat that though the devil is beaten, he is still around to tempt those who are looking for an easy fix to their problems.
Even though the message seems trite and forced, the landscape looks artificial and the acting from everyone besides Huston and Simon is not that great, there’s nevertheless a certain charm to this fantasy folk tale that plays well to the populace and makes it a genial watch but not the kind of film that knocks the sox off you.
REVIEWED ON 7/11/2007 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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