The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
Reviewed on 2011 June 6
Interesting, vivid telling of the old fable about Daniel Webster taking on the ultimate opponent in the courtroom battle of his life.
Jabez Stone (James Craig) just can’t seem to get a break on his farm. It’s New Hampshire, a 19th Century winter, and life offers little room for mistakes. His deeply religious mother (Jane Darwell) and his wife Mary (Anne Shirley) take enough strength in their faith to roll with it, and usually Jabez does too, until he snaps one morning as a bag of grain splits. This was after a long string of mishaps and just sent him over the edge. He grumbles to himself that he’d sell his soul for an easier life, and is overheard by a gnomelike man who introduces himself as Mr. Scratch, but regardless of what he calls himself the viewer knows who he is. It’s also obvious that this will not end well, but Jabez isn’t thinking about any of that as Scratch pours handfuls of gold coins into his palms and promises him that for seven years, he’ll live like a rock star. All he has to do is part with his soul. Jabez agrees and while the money flows in, the more problems he incurs, including his transformation into a complete S.O.B. Only one Yankee can help him now…
Even though it’s so old it creaks, the movie still tells a good story, and makes the point that no, you can’t take it with you. What’s interesting is that it didn’t just gloss over the Stone family’s poverty and hard life with a bunch of platitudes. The viewer could feel the frustration with Jabez’s situation. (Milk and mashed potatoes as a standard dinner? Scurvy or beriberi, anyone?) I think a lot of what powers it is Walter Huston’s gleeful portrayal of Mephistopheles, having him roll from scary to smarmy charm to childish glee at something like Webster having a little too much wine, all within the blink of an eye. Simone Simon was also a standout as Belle, the creepy she-demon who probably exuded more perfume than sulphur. Listen to the music when she’s introduced.
Three chocolate morsels.