The Devil & Daniel Webster (1941) evokes It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) for me. Both are about men who make unfortunate decisions but discover the error of their ways and are given an opportunity to return to their original lives. Also, both save the climactic resolutions for a few minutes at the end, the bulk of the story depicting how they learn their lessons.
While not a horror film per se, The Devil & Daniel Webster is a fantasy that contains some horrific scenes, embellished by early optical effects and an unsettling score by Bernard Herrmann. It’s also an early example of a genre film being nominated, and winning, Academy Awards. Walter Huston was nominated; Herrmann won.
It’s a story they tell in the border country, where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire. It happened, so they say, a long time ago. But it could happen anytime – anywhere – to anybody…
Yes – it could even happen to you.
Jebez Stone (James Craig) is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. In debt up to his eyeballs with compounding financial problems on his farm, he’s at the end of his rope when the opportunistic “Mr. Scratch” (Huston) appears through the fog outside the barn. He’s there to make Stone an offer and kicks up a floorboard to reveal a pile of gold coins.
Scratch will give Stone luck and good fortune in exchange for his soul at the end of seven years. He burns the date in a tree as a constant reminder of the date: April 7, 1947. We anticipate the lesson Stone will learn, even if we didn’t read the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet when we were in school.
However, at first it seems like Stone will handle his newfound wealth with compassion and generosity, sharing it with his financially struggling neighbors with no request for repayment. We’re not sure what exactly happens, but after time passes, he’s suddenly selfish and greedy, demanding that debts be paid with interest.
Concurrently, lawyer and statesmen Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), inspires the farmers who believe he will enact change in Washington and possibly become President of the United States. Interestingly, Webster is also being tempted by Scratch, but has the integrity to refuse his offer. If anyone could stand up in “court” to argue the case for Stone’s soul, it would be Webster.
And that’s exactly what happens at the end of seven years when Stone pleads with Webster to help him. Say what you will about the devil, but he sticks to a deal and promises to abide by the jury’s verdict, even as he builds it with despicable characters from American history such as Benedict Arnold. John Hathorne, one of the magistrates of the Salem Witch Trials acts as judge.
Director William Dieterle made the excellent 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton and seems to have had a “thing” for the devil. He appeared as an actor in Faust (1926) and directed The Devil’s in Love (1933) and Satan Met a Lady (1936), both crime dramas with misleading titles. He also made Portrait of Jennie (1948), another great fantasy.
I enjoyed The Devil & Daniel Webster. I wasn’t expecting its rah-rah patriotism, especially during the finale, but I may have accidentally learned something about American history while being entertained. You may find it under the title All That Money Can Buy, because the original name was changed to not confuse Oscar voters with another 1941 film, The Devil & Miss Jones, a romantic comedy with another misleading title.
Written by Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benet
From the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet
Directed by William Dieterle
Starring Edward Arnold, Walter Hutson, Jane Darwell, Simone Simon, Anne Shirley, James Craig
RT 107 min.
Released Oct. 17, 1941
Home Video DVD (The Criterion Collection)
Rating 8 Frankenstein Monsters (out of 10)