Devil and Daniel Webster, The (1941)

“I’ve had more than my share! Nothing ever goes right for me!”

Synopsis:
A poverty-stricken New England farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig) sells his soul to the devil (Walter Huston) in exchange for seven years of prosperity, and soon finds his luck changing entirely — but his loyal wife (Anne Shirley) and no-nonsense mother (Jane Darwell) notice profound changes in his personality, and are especially distressed when he appears to be having an affair with a seductive nanny (Simone Simon) sent by Mr. Scratch (Huston) to keep an eye on him.

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Review:
William Dieterle directed this highly cinematic adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story — originally titled All That Money Can Buy to avoid confusion with The Devil and Miss Jones (1941). Huston plays “Mr. Scratch” with gleeful abandon, never not enjoying his earthly travails with humans who are so eager to trade their souls; and the rest of the cast is superb as well (as a side note, Shirley looks particularly like Olivia de Havilland). Bernard Herrmann’s film score — made the same year he scored Citizen Kane (1941) — creatively uses period folk tunes to set the mood and the era, and justifiably won an Oscar. While the entire storyline is well-handled (the DVD commentary track is worth a listen), perhaps the most famous sequence is the final barnhouse trial with infamous criminals coming in ghostly form to listen to Stone’s case. Film fanatics won’t be disappointed by a revisit of this enduring and enjoyable classic.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Dieterle’s direction
  • Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch
  • Fine supporting performances across the board



  • John August’s cinematography

  • Many memorable scenes

  • Bernard Herrmann’s Oscar-winning score

Must See?
Yes, as an impressive and still powerful classic.

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One Response to “Devil and Daniel Webster, The (1941)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history. As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “They watch us carefully – our neighbors and our friends – and they see much more than we think they do. And understand much more.”

    ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ (1941) [on FilmStruck]: William Dieterle’s fantasy of moral compromise (told in Faustian form) got good notices from critics but was not a box office success. So, later, when RKO re-issued the film as double-bill fare, it had 20+ minutes chopped from it. Thereafter (until the 1990s, when a full print was found), all existing prints had a badly compromised storyline. Criterion now has the film as it was meant to be seen, cleaned up and everything, and it’s an example of why film preservation can be quite valuable. I had only seen this film once before – in its cut version with a grainy print. So, essentially, seeing it now was like seeing it for the first time. It’s a fine – and rather gothic – tale, set in New Hampshire in 1840. The devil – known as ‘Scratch’ and played to gleeful perfection by Walter Huston – is first seen in shadow, whispering to congressman Daniel Webster (dependably sturdy Edward Arnold) about how he will make him a great man. But Webster has backbone and will not be tempted. So Scratch goes to someone who is so desperate for advancement that he *will* listen… and sell his soul. The film becomes intense progressively – and scarier as it goes. It’s aided by marvelously atmospheric photography and an Oscar-winning score by Bernard Herrmann.

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