Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) William Dieterle

Originally called “All That Money Can Buy”, so as not to offend the religious right who abhorred any use of “devil” in a title, the story by Stephen Vincent Benet is the classic tale of selling one’s soul to the devil for money and power. The movie depicts the character transformation of James Craig after his deal.

Walter Huston was deservedly nominated for Best Actor, and as Mr. Scratch (the Devil), he takes over every scene in which he appears. Simone Simon is equally slyly devilish as Huston’s assistant, and you’ll get the shivers when you watch her singing to the baby of James Craig and Anne Shirley. (Simone gained fame the following year in “Cat People”.) Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) plays the solid-as-a-rock mother and mother-in-law, and Edward Arnold, as Daniel Webster, is a force to be reckoned with, as Mr. Scratch finds out. Notable appearances are also made by Gene Lockhart, John Qualen, and H.B. Warner.

Filmed in the studio with some use of rear-projection, the cinematographer (Joseph H August) still manages to offer up some nicely-produced, atmospheric scenes. Bernard Herrmann won the Oscar for Best Musical Scoring; music is minimal throughout much of the early film but becomes more important and effective as the movie goes on. Note the maniacal “Pop Goes the Weasel” played by Huston during a dance when Simone is first introduced.

The party at the mansion is eerily evil, and you will discover who else has sold his soul to the devil. But the trial at the end of the movie with a “jury of the damned” (“bastards, liars, traitors, naves”) is not to be missed, along with Scratch looking at “you” at the end. Dialogue is witty, eloquent, and humorous.

Walter Huston lost the Best Actor award to Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York”, as did Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane.” I’d say that’s pretty good company.

(One last note, Robert Wise, who was not yet a famous film director, was the film editor for this movie as well as "Citizen Kane".)

I never did hold much with Job, even if he is scripture. Took on too much to suit me. Course I don’t want to malign the man, but he always sounded to me like he come from Massachusetts. (Jane Darwell)

If two New Hampshire men aren’t a match for the devil, we’d better give this country back to the Indians. (Edward Arnold)

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