Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Movie Review: The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Devil and Daniel Webster/All That Money Can Buy*  (1941)
directed by William Dieterle, starring James Craig, Walter Huston, Edward Arnold

*The Devil and Daniel Webster is the original title of this movie; it was changed to All That Money Can Buy for its first release. Later releases of the film would revert back to the former title and that's the one I will use for this review.

(Note: This film review is my entry for the Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association.)

Nothing seems to go right for Jabez Stone (James Craig). His farm is failing, he's in debt to a greedy moneylender, and no matter what he does, he'll always be poor. In a fit of anger, he vows he'd sell his soul to the devil for two cents. Well, quick as a wink, a silver-tongued gentleman appears with a contract all ready and waiting. The Devil (Walter Huston) assures Jabez that for seven years, he can have "all that money can buy" and then his soul will belong to Hell. Tempted by the sight of gold coins pouring out of the earth, Jabez accepts. With the help of the gold, he suddenly find himself able to do everything he ever wanted. He can loan money to his needy friends, buy his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) a new bonnet, and treat himself to the best of everything. But his mother (Jane Darwell) is suspicious of his miraculous wealth: "When a man gets his money in a bad way...the Devil's in his heart."

As time passes, Jabez goes from being a simple, honest man into a greedy, arrogant bully, egged on by the Devil's kindly advice. His moral dissolution is also hastened by the arrival of the mysterious Belle Dee (Simone Simon), sent to be his child's nursemaid. With soft words and seductive smiles, Belle soon ousts the goodhearted Mary from her husband's life. But Mary, driven to desperation, enlists the help of Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), the politician that everyone respects for his oratory and loyalty to the working man. Webster vows he'd "fight ten thousand devils to save a New Hampshire man." But it will take all of Webster's eloquence and all of Jabez's desperate, sincere repentance to win the trial for a man's soul. And when you're going up against the Devil, don't expect it to be a fair fight...

This simple morality tale, adapted from Stephen Vincent Benét's short story, is yet another superb movie from 1941. Yes, there were a lot of them that year, weren't there? Directed by the underrated William Dieterle, with cinematography by Joseph H. August and musical scoring by Bernard Herrmann, The Devil and Daniel Webster is one of those rare films that's a perfect example of classic Hollywood filmmaking and yet doesn't really feel like any other movie. The filmmakers take Benét's relatively simple narrative and expand it with humor, depth, and an imaginative perspective on eternal damnation. Believe me when I say that after watching this, you will never look at moths, recruitment posters, or "Pop Goes the Weasel" the same way again. But more than that, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a movie that can turn the old tale of good versus evil into something truly fascinating.

Something about tales of the fantastic and otherworldly seemed to strike a chord with director William Dieterle since his other great film of the 40s, Portrait of Jennie, was also about the arrival of the uncanny into ordinary life. Also made with the help of August and Herrmann and damn, why didn't those three collaborate more often? But while Jennie was lushly romantic, Devil is archly funny and straight-faced, lulling the audience in with its portrait of bygone America before it takes you by surprise. The visuals here are some of the most striking I've ever seen in a film. Like the first entrance of Satan, backlit and glowing more like an angel than the Prince of Darkness. Or the way Dieterle and August show the final temptation of Jabez, with the man caught in a crowd of whirling dancers, the play of light and shadow on their bodies slowly morphing into the image of hellfire. Even a relatively simple romantic moment between Jabez and his wife becomes something more, with the already-corrupted Jabez leaning over Mary in dark silence and her looking back with an expression that hints both at fright and sensual surrender. It's like the Tippi Hedren close-up from Marnie, twenty years before Hitchcock ever thought of it.

If Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it," then it's just as fair to say that this movie is very much of the Devil's party and is fully aware of that fact. Oh sure, we're rooting for Jabez to free his soul, but who could begrudge Walter Huston's incredibly charismatic Devil the chance to make some mischief? Like Ray Milland would find out in Alias Nick Beal (another great Faustian film), playing the Devil is just about as much fun as an actor can have. Huston's grin is so wide it doesn't quite seem attached to his face. He's a joking, courteous Devil ("I won't come to the christening...it would be in wretched bad taste"), running rings around Jabez with ease. The sinister aspect comes not so much from Huston trying to project real menace but from the good-natured satisfaction he has when explaining his position. Huston's performance as the unhappily married millionaire in Dodsworth is one of my personal favorites but this film shows he's just as wonderful when he plays it broad as when he plays it subtle. He was nominated for Best Actor (losing to Gary Cooper), but I wish it had been in the supporting category where he might have had a better chance. 

Have I mentioned how much I love Edward Arnold? He was the consummate character actor, a man who could play outsized comic parts or dead-eyed villains with equal mastery. But he shone brightest when he could play it smart. He had a way of sizing someone up with one quick, shrewd glance, saying nothing but letting his presence speak for him. In von Sternberg's adaptation of Crime and Punishment, Arnold was a surprisingly effective Inspector Porfiry, smilingly working at poor Peter Lorre's nerves the way an old woman would wind up a ball of yarn. Here he has the immense task of creating a Daniel Webster that lives up to all the hype. The Webster in this tale is a noble and courageous politician, a  man whose fiery rhetoric is in service to the people, not his own ambition. In short, he's the kind of man we dream of, not the man we ever meet.

In Arnold's hands however, Daniel Webster is a very enjoyable hero, clever and funny but with an air of real experience that makes his nobility seem hard-earned. Part of it can be attributed to the script, which allows Webster to be a little less than perfect. He's an overly enthusiastic drinker and smoker. He allows himself to get carried away by arrogance at times. And we can see that he too has to live with the Devil at his elbow, always tempting him with promises of the Presidency. Thomas Mitchell was slated for the role of Webster before breaking his leg. He would have been superb, but Arnold's performance is there already. When he makes his speech at Jabez's trial, we can see both the very real fear of a man facing the Devil himself and the deeper courage and fire that all of us would want to see raised in our defense.

There's a surplus of other great supporting perfomances in The Devil and Daniel Webster, from Jane Darwell's no-nonsense Ma Stone to John Qualen's hauntingly frightened Miser Stevens, the last man to make a bargain with the Devil. But by far the one you can't take your eyes from is Simone Simon as Belle Dee. She's ravishingly sexy here, so much so that it's no surprise that poor, simple Jabez falls for her charms in the space of about five seconds. Simon's French accent gives a strange, sing-song quality to her lines that's totally appropriate to a character that's meant to be otherworldly. "I'm from over the mountain," Belle says, in lieu of any other explanation. As attractive as Belle is, she's also quite creepy, with her constant smiles and ability to insinuate herself completely into the Stone household, replacing Mary entirely. It's hard to look at Simon's performance here and not imagine that Val Lewton was thinking of it when she was cast as the equally sexy and supernatural Irena in Cat People.

With Huston and Arnold holding up the smart, comic side of things and Simon handily taking care of the sex, there isn't much left over for our simple lead couple, James Craig and Anne Shirley. They represent the good American Everyman and his wife; two people that were meant to lead ordinary, uneventful lives. Craig gets the potentially interesting challenge of depicting Jabez's disintegration from true-hearted farmer into greedy, immoral layabout. But Craig doesn't have the ability to give any kind of complexity to the part. He's not bad, but he can only feel one thing at a time. Whether he's beaten down with remorse or trembling with greed, well that's all he feels. I feel that an actor like Joel McCrea or James Stewart could have made Jabez seem less like a pantomime character and more like a tormented, recognizable human being.

Anne Shirley is even less interesting than Craig and no wonder, she gets the worst part in the movie. The fact is that Mary Stone is such a monument of patience and sincerity that I doubt even Teresa Wright could make her credible. She waits in hopeless obedience for her husband to return to the path of goodness for seven years. She bows her head even when he forbids her from disciplining their son. She loves him even when he kicks her out of the new house so he can live there with his mistress. The only direct action she can take is to implore Daniel Webster to help her, crying that her lousy husband's behavior must be her fault somehow. Shirley does what she can (she tended to get stuck with these winsome ingenues time after time) and you can believe that she's a devout, loving woman and all that. But after all she endures, it's close to impossible to believe that she could ever trust and respect her husband again. There's too much poison between them.

In the end, we know that good will triumph and villainy will slink away unrewarded. Still this film is all about the journey we take to get there and it's a fun, fantastic trip all the way. It has rich performances, witty lines, and an imaginative use of sound and shadow that will linger in your memory. It deserves to be classed as one of the great films of the 1940s. And I suggest you spread the word about it right now, before Walter Huston makes you his next victim.

Favorite Quote:

"Oh, come, come now. Just because you sold your soul to the devil that needn't make you a teetotaler."

Favorite Scene:

The party at Jabez Stone's new mansion. While spoilers don't really apply to a straightforward plot like The Devil and Daniel Webster, I think it's best when Dieterle and August's uncanny visuals are left as a surprise. So I won't give too much away about what happens at the party and what we see. Suffice to say that it's one of the most memorable parties in cinema, one to put alongside The Masque of the Red Death. We get to see the final sum of all that Jabez has hoped for, along with his well-deserved comeuppance. We get to see the Devil's sharp assessment of the man he has caught: "I could fit your soul in my vest pocket." We see Belle's true nature revealed as she leads the revelry of the damned. And we're left with the haunting image of what happens when the Devil chooses to bring you into the dance.

Final Six Words:

Bewitching tale of dark fantasies fulfilled


  1. I always enjoy watching this--I'm a Faustian fan, too. I agree with you that Arnold and Huston are what makes this such a great film. Wonderful review!

  2. Aubyn, a great, very articulate post on a film from the forties that should be better known. I especially liked your paragraph (and examples) about the visuals being some of the most striking you've ever seen. I feel the same way. Of all the fantastic scenes in the movie, for me Huston's first appearance takes the cake! I have to agree that I wish Huston had been nominated for best supporting actor, which to me is where he belonged. I don't know if he would have prevailed against winner Donald Crisp, but he would have had a real chance. I'm also glad you singled out the photography by Joseph August--really impressive, especially the lighting in certain scenes.

    I've read about Thomas Mitchell originally being cast as Daniel Webster (and also that some long shots of him can still be found in the film), but as much as I admire Mitchell, I can't see him being as good as Edward Arnold was in the part. Mitchell always struck me as a sympathetic everyman, while Arnold always seemed bold and larger than life, and I think those latter qualities are what the character of Daniel Webster needed.

  3. I've been wanting to see this movie for a while now, ever since I heard La Belle Simone was in it. Plus, I'm in need of another good Walter Huston movie after subjecting myself to his starring role in D.W. Griffiths's abysmal 1930 Abraham Lincoln. Huston did what he could, but Griffiths wasn't giving him much to work with.

    "Simon's French accent gives a strange, sing-song quality to her lines that's totally appropriate to a character that's meant to be otherworldly...As attractive as Belle is, she's also quite creepy, with her constant smiles and ability to insinuate herself completely into the Stone household...."

    Yep, for someone so cute and sexy and charming, it's that creepy "off" quality to Simon's work that makes her so memorable, and particularly right for supernatural parts.

    This is such a fabulous review. You've finally motivated me to go on and sell my soul already to see this movie.

  4. You have vividly brought back all the emotions felt while watching "The Devil and Daniel Webster" in this piece. The film is a real masterwork, worthy of your tribute.

    Twenty years later Thomas Mitchell would get his kick at the devil in an episode of "Zane Grey Theater" called "A Warm Day in Heaven". He pulled it off with nice mix of charm and malevolence.

  5. KimWilson: Thanks. I like it when somebody can bring some new life into the old "Deal with the Devil" story, as they do here.

    R.D. Finch: I always look forward to your comments, R.D. I don't begrudge Donald Crisp his Oscar for he's wonderful in an entirely different way. Still, I can't help thinking what might have been. Looking back, I wish I'd talked more about August and his work here, which is phenomenal. I also gave short shrift to Herrmann and this was his Oscar-winning score. You have a point about the difference between Mitchell and Arnold but I don't know, I've yet to see Mitchell in a less-than-excellent performance and I think he could have been a different kind of Webster. But still I wouldn't trade Arnold.

    Laura: My love for Simon is such that I would probably watch a film where she did nothing but talk on the phone to tax attorneys. You have to feel sorry for Anne Shirley, having to play opposite her in a tight bun and drab dress.

    Caftan Woman: Thanks for the tip about Mitchell. You figure playing the Devil is sort of like Hamlet and every great actor should get to have a crack at it.

  6. Huston and Arnold are great foils! However, it's not just a matter of great actors, they beenfitted from a strong script, too. (I always felt sorry for Ronald Colman and Vincent Price--two of my favorite actors--when they faced off in a similar trial in THE STORY OF MANKIND). Very enjoyable review of a fine movie that rarely gets the attention it deserves. And yes, I'd watch Simone talk with tax attorneys, too!

  7. Excellent, as always, Aubyn. I have never been interested in seeing this movie, but of course your treatment makes me want to check it out immediately! I've missed your superb writing -- thank goodness for blogathons!

  8. Aubyn, a lovely post on one of my favorite movies. I especially got a chuckle out of this sentence: "Huston's grin is so wide it doesn't quite seem attached to his face." HA! So true, and beautifully phrased.

    There's a mood to this film that few other films have achieved. Put this with a double feature of "The Night of the Hunter" and you would have a one-two punch of one-of-a-kind films, a darker look at Americana than other movies of those periods.

    I've always pictured technicians working at RKO in 1941, working on this and "Citizen Kane." They must have gone home agog every night.

    I enjoyed your writing and have bookmarked your site. I'll be checking in more often.

  9. This is one I missed, but now I am putting in my "must see" list. Thanks for a well-written, informative and entertaining post.

  10. What a great review of a film I've never heard of! I've come to really like Walter Huston, so I would watch this just for him. The added presence of Edward Arnold makes it a definite must-see.

    Thanks for bringing this film to my attention.

  11. Rick29: I agree that a good script is essential. A quick IMDB search tells me that the screenwriter (Dan Totheroh) doesn't actually have many credits to his name, surprisingly. However, a lot of the dialogue and scenes are taken directly from the original story.

    Shadowsandsatin: And I'm so glad that you've decided to write for this blogathon, too! I loved your piece on Criss Cross which is a favorite of mine as well.

    Kevin Deany: Your idea for a double bill of this and Night of the Hunter intrigues me. Now that's an inspired match-up! Glad you like the site.

    FlickChick: Right back at you for your great review of City for Conquest.

    Patti: I would watch a lot of films just for Walter Huston, too. I think you'll like this film.

  12. Aubyn,
    So sorry I'm late getting here.

    You've certainly written a fascinating review of a very good film. (I've seen it only once and it)

    I had forgotten that Ann Shirley was in this film, but like you mention, her role was the least memorable.

    For some reason whenever I think of Walter Huston, I think of how vile he was in Kongo. Then here you are discussing this film that I tend to forget for some reason. He really was a brilliant actor who could take on any role. But like you, I loved him most in Dodsworth. (Being mean to Lupe does cause a lot of trauma, especially when he creeps around.)

    You've certainly reminded me of a great film from the 40s that I need to watch again with this very honest and nicely written piece.


  13. Great film. I reviewed it a few years ago and am glad you enjoy it as well.

  14. Page: I'd never even heard of Kongo before you brought it up so I did some research and yikes! Yeah, that kind of movie certainly leaves an impression, alright. Maybe this is the moment to also bring up that Huston starred in Gabriel Over the White House, in which he solves all of America's problems by turning it into a fascist dictatorship. And Mission to Moscow, which was a propaganda film to urge support for Stalin. You get the feeling that Hollywood liked to use Huston's talents to disguise movies that were flawed, bizarre or downright ugly.

    Classicfilmboy: Happy to hear that you're a fan of the film, too. A lot of people were talking it up to me before I finally saw it.

  15. Aubyn, Saw "The Devil and Daniel Webster" on TCM for the first time a few years ago and haven't seen it since, but you've brought everything I loved about it back to me, and more. Such a gorgeous and clever film. And Bernard Herrmann. Enjoyed your insightful and eloquent post from beginning to end. Walter Huston is a joy to watch (I remember thinking that in this role I could finally see his resemblance to his son - not sure what that implies about John Huston, though). He and Simone Simon both have quite a time of it in plum roles. I have only one reservation and that is James Craig who just seemed out of his league as an actor here.

  16. Great review! I love this movie - especially Walter Huston and Edward Arnold. (Such a rip-off that Huston wasn't nominated as Best Supporting Actor, as you pointed out.) It's time to see this gem again.

  17. The Lady Eve: Hah, I can definitely see a Huston resemblance. To tell the truth, while John Huston doesn't have the the absolute tyrant reputation of a Ford, a Lang, or a Preminger, I always found him to be the most frightening. Always came off as the guy who could convince his actors to do anything because he was so charming...and diabolical. I agree that James Craig doesn't really shine here. You can see he's trying his hardest and he has good moments, but well, he's just not in the heavyweight class.

    Silverscreenings: I'm not sure why Huston got the Actor nomination here...although he does dominate the film and in a weaker year than 1941, he could have gotten a win out of it.

  18. Excellent piece, Aubyn, about an excellent choice for the blogathon. Bruce Eder's commentary on the DVD goes into all the confusion about the title (and what a can of worms that was!). One of the truly eerie touches, for me, is the movie's almost total silence about the fate of Dorothy, the servant girl who suddenly vanishes, to be replaced by Belle. Characters notice that Dorothy is gone, but nobody seems to wonder why; it's as if they're all under some spell (and Herrmann's music is at its creepiest when Belle is around).

    Thomas Mitchell was a better physical match for the real Daniel Webster, but Edward Arnold could scarcely be improved upon. I'm more inclinded to be patient with James Craig and Anne Shirley than you or some of your commenters, but your points are well-taken. Eder says Craig couldn't even handle the laugh when Jabez cackles at the misfortune of his neighbor; he had to be dubbed by Arnold.

    And by the way, in the quick glimpse we get of Jabez's fancy new mansion, did it look familiar to you? I can't prove it, but I'm certain that it's the Tara set from Gone With the Wind, slightly redressed -- the upper veranda and overhanging gable (no pun intended!) added as either a glass shot or hanging miniature.

  19. Jim Lane: Thanks so much for the detailed comments. I wish I'd had the chance to listen to the DVD commentary. You're right in singling out the reactions to Dorothy's disappearance. Throughout the film the characters do have an unsettling tendency to accept the supernatural as it happens around them and yet deny it at the same time. I don't think either Craig or Shirley are bad. Shirley puts a fair amount of quiet intelligence into her part that makes Mary's helpless compliance all the more maddening. For Craig, I like him best in the moment where he almost repents and you can see the torment he's going through. I can't say for sure about the mansion since I haven't seen Gone With the Wind in ages. I was more struck by just how opulent it looks in comparison to all the farm sets.