Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941) I've known about this film for years, because it was the film that won Bernard Herrmann his only Oscar for Best Score, over his other score that year, "Citizen Kane." It's had a checkered history, though, after a less than blockbuster business it was cut by 20 minutes and released with a sexier, less folksy ad campaign (see right) under the name "All That Money Can Buy," which seems to celebrate the profilgate life-style, rather than the altruistic, socialist one espoused by the film. It seems that Jabez Stone only really finds redemption until he's joined the Grange. I may be revealing the ending here, but, really, the outcome is inevitable considering the extraordinarily heavy hand that is used to show the tyrannies of wealth, lust, and greed that are the by-products of selling your soul to the Devil. Fortunately, the great orator Daniel Webster is around to plead the case for the defense when a breach of contract occurs. Usually these scenes are the highlights, but in this film it's a disappointment. Even though played vigorously (by the least likely actor, Edward Arnold, well-known for playing power-brokers and fascists in many a movie) the Webster homilies that are spun are so much sentimental goo and would curl the lip of Aimee Semple McPherson, much less the hardened denizens of Hell that make up the jury in the matter. Even Frank Capra must have rolled his eyes. But Dieterle seems to have shurked those sections to go all-out for his scenes with The Devil. Mr. Scratch's entrances are extravaganzas with light and smoke, he has the best lines (of course), and a truly creepy performance by Walter Huston (John's dad) with maliciously twinkling eyes, and a smile that's so broad that it may turn feral at any moment. Huston is the thing to see in this film, although Jane Darwell (Ma Joad from "The Grapes of Wrath") and Simone Simon (just before she became big with "Cat-People") do wonders with their material as well.

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