Monday, July 18, 2005

The Devil and Daniel Webster

The success of the JK Rowlings Harry Potter books scares me and reminds me of the old movie "The Devil and Danierl Webster" made in 1941 and based on Stephen Vincent Benet's 1937 short story called the "The Gothic". Like the poor bankrupt farmer of the The Gothic in this story, JK Rowlings was a poor poor divorced mother living on the dole. She sold 250,000 books/hr and make 36,000,000 dollars on the opening day of sales of the latest book
(http://www.apnews.myway.com/article/20050718/D8BDG6P80.html). When I was a teenie bopper in the early 70's I saw this movie and have never forgotten it as I was an impressionalble youth. I don't know too many comtemporaries who are familiar with this movie inlcuding my lovely wife...
http://apnews.myway.com/article/20050718/D8BDG6P80.html.

Read below about this American Classic "The Devil and Daniel Webster".

A fascinating version of the Faust legend adapted from a Benet's short story. Craig is the poor New Hampshire farmer in the 1840s driven to such straits that he swears he'd sell his soul for two cents, and up pops Mr Scratch (Huston in a wonderful personification of the devil of New England folklore). A rapid rise to fame and fortune follows, with Mr Scratch's handmaiden (the delightful Simon) temptingly on hand. Things get a little portentously patriotic when the seven years are up, Craig elects to have the famous orator/politican Daniel Webster (Arnold) defend him against Mr Scratch's claim for his soul, and Mr Scratch counters by summoning famous villains from history as judge and jury. But it all looks terrific, directed by Dieterle in his best expressionist mood, with superb sets (Van Nest Polglase), score (Bernard Herrmann), camerawork (the great Joe August), and a township that looks as if it came straight out of a Grant Wood painting. Daniel and the Devil is a cut version running 85 mins

Here are some articles that outline others concerned over this amazing Potter Phenomenon
and futher down reviews of the "Devil and Daniel Webster. Enjoy, Francis
http://www.detnews.com/2005/books/0507/16/01-248054.htm
http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/2003/feb/03020703.html
http://www.catholicexchange.com/vm/index.asp?vm_id=43&art_id=29127
http://www.lifesite.net/features/harrypotter/
http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/2005/jun/05062709.html
http://www.dads.org/article.asp?artId=148
Michael O'Brien on Harry Potter
We especially direct you to the essay by Michael O'Brien in which he carefully analyzes the Potter phenomenon from a Christian perspective and points out the differences between the Harry Potter series and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis' Narnia fantasies. Lord of the Rings has a wizard as a main character, there is also magic, lots of monsters and constant battles between good and evil.

O'Brien's essay is an education in morally sound versus morally dangerous fantasy literature for children. The work goes beyond criticizing the Potter series and stirs the conscience to reflect more seriously on the loss of traditional faith and the danger posed by the secular entertainment media. O'Brien acknowledges the Potter series is a creative, imaginative and powerful drama filled with enticing ideas. However, the allure created, according to O'Brien, heightens the danger that the crude and morally confused concepts will be assimilated and put into practice - especially by some of the more vulnerable in the target audience of impressionable children.


A battle for a man's soul, May 10, 2005
Reviewer: Cory D. Slipman (Rockville Centre, N.Y.) - See all my reviews


The incomparable Walter Huston and the oratorical Edward Arnold are both superb in Williams Dieterle's memorable 1941 supernatural fantasy "The Devil and Daniel Webster". Based on Stephen Vincent Benet's classic short story the movie tells the story of dirt poor New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone, trying to eke out an existence in 1840.

Stone played nicely by James Craig is down on his luck, unable to pay the mortgage on his farm. He wishes that he could sell his soul to the devil. No sooner than the words are spoken, then poof, the impish and devious Mr. Scratch played expertly by Huston appears. He offers Stone 7 years of prosperity and all that money can buy for his soul. Stone accepts and becomes the wealthiest man around unfortunately at the expense of his friendships and the love of his wife Anne Shirley and mother played by the staid and righteous Jane Darwell.

Daniel Webster, played by the pompous Edward Arnold meanwhile is the celebrated governor of Massachusetts, lawyer and presidential aspirant. He is the favored son of Stone's home town and godfather to Stone's young son Daniel.

When Mr. Scratch comes to collect his debt 7 years hence, Stone has already realized his folly and implores Webster for help. A trial is set up with a jury of doomed souls, who have all made similar deals with Huston. Webster must convince them to free Stone from Scratch's debt or both he and Stone will be doomed.

Dieterle directs an impressive cast in some terrific acting performances that highlights Benet's moralistic passion play between good and evil.


"The Devil & Daniel Webster" is simply put, a great film with an important moral. It is based on a short story of the same name by Stephen Vincent Benét.

It takes place near the state lines of Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the 1840's. Jabez Stone, a struggling and destitute farmer signs a contract with Satan, offering to give him his soul after 7 years of good fortune. He has money but is very unhappy with his predicament. When the devil comes to collect, Jabez calls on Daniel Webster to help him void the contract.

Note:
Daniel Webster was a real-life historical figure. He was secratary of State a few times and ran for president in 1836

I am reminded of Matthew 16:26
"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" I could almost say that this could be a Christian film. It goes to show that one's soul is more important that their life.

The acting in the film is excellent and a great Oscar® winning musical score. The film also includes the classic folk tune "Devil's Dream" which is a longtime favorite of mine.

The film was remade in 2001 by Alec Baldwin but never released due to budget problems in post production. Quite a shame as a remake would be great for the times we are living in.

Money isn't everything, April 11, 2005

Reviewer: Bomojaz - See all my reviews


This movie is based on Stephen Vincent Benet's fable of the same name (Benet helped write the screenplay, too). A poor, luckless farmer in New Hampshire makes a pact with the devil (called Scratch and played marvelously by Walter Huston) to have all the money he wants for the next 7 years, at which time the devil will "collect" his soul. He gets his wish, of course, and learns that money and riches do not make good substitutes for love and esteem. The climax of the picture is a trial between the farmer's lawyer, Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), and Scratch, with 12 rogues of the past as jury, to save the farmer's soul. Guess who wins?

Huston is by far the major attraction of this movie; one wishes there were more of him on screen. The picture is also famous for its cinematographic "tricks" (the dancing ghosts party scene, the trial), techniques recently introduced in CITIZEN KANE. Simone Simon also is very fine as a truly devilish vixen. It's a very handsome production and definitely worth a watch.

A chilling performance by Huston, March 29, 2005

Reviewer: Daniel D. Vander Haar "movie history survivor" (Grand Rapids, Mi. USA) - See all my reviews



People are forever making bad bargains, whether it be the buying of a lemon car, marrying a nagging wife or a lazy husband, or in some cases making a deal with the devil. In this latter category, there are at least four examples that come to mind from books, the movies, and other art and literature. Dr. Faustus tells the tale of a doctor who wanted to make discoveries in medicine in exchange for his soul. He got his wish, but in a dramatic TV showing, when it was time to reckon the account, the floorboards opened up, and slimy demonic hands reached up and grabbed Richard Burton as Dr. Faustus, and dragged him down ever so slowly to the fire and brimstone waiting below. And on an old Twilight Zone episode (1959, Escape Clause), a man agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality and indestructibility. He thinks that it is great that nothing can harm him, but he soon learns that nothing can thrill him either. In an attempt to find the greatest thrill, he confesses to murdering his wife--hoping to experience the now harmless electric chair. Instead he gets sent to life in prison, where in his 8 x 10 cell he can't even plan another hoped for thrill. Out of boredom, he cancels his end of the bargain, dies of a heart attack, and ends up in....And it may have been on the old Night Gallery TV show, where the devil will excuse a man from his devilish contract if the man can tell the devil to do something that the devil has never done, or to go someplace the devil has never been. But the devil warns the man that he the devil has been everywhere and done everything. The man thinks about it for a moment, and tells the devil to...get lost. This turns out to be the one thing that devil has never done, and the man is freed from his eternal peril.

And then there is this classic short story by Stephen Vincent Benet: The Devil and Daniel Webster. Like most of the people who make bargains with the devil, the main character, a farmer, is sincere, but terribly short sighted. All that is typically wanted are just a few short years of something in exchange for an eternity of torment--in this case just seven successful years of a successfully run farm. Talk about a bad bargain--seven good years for 10,000 years times 10,000 years of torment. It is no wonder that people come to see the bad bargain they have made, but by that time it is too late. Sooner more than later, circumstances often drive the victim to try and end the contract before the expiration date, and so that person doesn't even live to get his full end of the deal. And getting out of the devilish contract proves harder than getting a bank to lower their interest rate from 28%.

Well, you are dealing with the devil, so no matter what deals and promises you get from him, you can expect a loophole, a condition, a technical matter, or some fine point that wasn't exactly spelled out when the contract was signed, and so the victim ends up getting doubly screwed. So secure does the devil feel over the hapless and condemned farmer in this story that the devil jokingly agrees to a trial so that the farmer can go through the token act of defending himself, and to aid the farmer in his defense is the great politician, Daniel Webster.

The catch to all of this is that if Daniel Webster loses the case, the devil gets Webster's soul as well, and just to make things doubly interesting, the devil stacks the jury with what Webster calls, "the jury of the damned--"every known killer, murderer, cut throat, traitor, pirate, torturer, sadist, and scoundrel known from American history. So Daniel Webster has his work cut out for him. There is no cross examination allowed by the judge, so the trial is basically over before it starts, and since all of the jurists are made up of the dead and the damned, you might say the trial is being determined by a literal hung jury.

For those of you reading this who went to Seymour Christian school, let me take you back to junior high school. This short story was one of the stories we had to read and discuss in class, and if you recall it came from either a big red or blue hardcover book that weighed about ten pounds.

This film can be enjoyed today mainly for three reasons. One is the superb acting job of the cast--especially Walter Huston as the devil. Despite the fact that this movie was made in 1941, 64 years later Huston's performance can still be described as chilling. Very, very chilling. It even gave me the willies a bit. He portrays the devil as one who was there when every evil act was ever committed, and as one who believes he has absolute control. He is indeed like a roaring lion, constantly on the prowl looking for someone to devour. And the worst part is, he doesn't care. To him, stealing a soul is no different than stealing a pie left on the windowsill to cool. It is all a game that almost brings tears of laughter to him as he watches his victims writhe in agony.

Second, is the way Criterion has restored this film to pristine condition. I have reviewed other Criterion restored films in the past, and some of these films can be a bit of a challenge to watch, as they are classic foreign films. Those films can also be greatly enjoyed, and the ones I have along that line are highly recommended, but they are still foreign films that challenge you to sit through a foreign language. But Criterion also does an excellent job presenting old classic American films that otherwise because of their age would be grainy, and full of scratches. Here we are watching a film that for its great condition could almost have been released in the year 2000 or later--at least if people could accept the fact that this film is presented in black and white.

Finally, this film shows what Hollywood can do when it decides to get away from overacting, plot cliches, and mushy love stories. There are very surreal elements to parts of this movie, and subtle touches that remind us of who we are dealing with, and how best to express that reminder in the visual medium of film. In a nutshell, this film is almost ahead of its time, and while Citizen Kane, released the same year is often seen by many as the greatest film ever made, The Devil and Daniel Webster might just give that film a run for its money.

And if that were not enough, this film is from the old school, where people could pray on screen, read from the Bible, encourage each other with Biblical quotations, as is done here, without seeming preachy.

This film is a must see, and if I were you I'd demand to come over and watch this film, demand that your church show this movie to the congregation, or that you go and rent this Criterion Collection movie. It is a great way to end a work week, because if you thought your job week was bad (I am being euphemistic here) you aint seen nothing until you watch someone sign a pact with the devil, and then watch his life get better materially, but go down the tubes in all other aspects. The last frame of the movie is a real, real kicker. Oh my, yes.

One of the actors in this movie is Jeff Corey, and nearly thirty years later he was still making movies, having appeared in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and True Grit with John Wayne (1968). That is a long time for anyone's movie career.

Stephen Vincent Benet wrote an introduction for this movie, and he said there are two ways to learn about a country. One way is to read the history books, and the deeds of the men and women who made the country what it is. The other way is through hearing of the legends, the tall tales, the folk tales, and such, and this is where The Devil and Daniel Webster comes in. The story is not just about resisting the devil and he will flee from you. Rather it is a tall tale, and a second way to defeat the devil is with a good Vermont lawyer and strong drink. If you like the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and the like, you have reason enough to enjoy this movie. Otherwise, hang on to your hat, because spiritual warfare is about to hit town. Frank Peretti might as well just stay home and not waste his time coming out.

Don't let this happen to you:

An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw
A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the Riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

Yippie yi Ohhhhh
Yippie yi yaaaaay
Ghost Riders in the sky

Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat
He's riding hard to catch that herd, but he ain't caught 'em yet
'Cause they've got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snorting fire
As they ride on hear their cry

As the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name
If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride
Trying to catch the Devil's herd, across these endless skies

Yippie yi Ohhhhh
Yippie yi Yaaaaay

Ghost Riders in the sky
Ghost Riders in the sky
Ghost Riders in the sky

American History Lesson, February 25, 2005
Reviewer: C. Roberts "Movie Madman" - See all my reviews


William Dieterle's brilliant film adaptation of Steven Vincent Benet's short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster (along with Orson Welles' equally superb Citizen Kane) offers intriguing insights into the American pysche as it developed over the course of the 19th century into the 20th. In this film, great ambivalence is expressed about material success. However hard pressed Jabez Stone's life has been when we encounter him at the start of the film, we can see that he has the love and support of his wife and mother which are rock solid. He can't perceive this however due to his run of bad luck. It's when he makes his deal with Mr. Scratch and find the treasure trove of Hessian gold in his barn that his fortunes change. Superficially, it's all for the best as he becomes the richest man in the land. Yet, we are shown the corruption and rot that sets in his soul as he uses his money to enslave and dominate his neighbors.
Only when Jabez sees that Mr. Scratch has just warmed up and wants not only his soul but that of his son as well that the scales fall from his eyes. It's when Jabez tries to break the contract that he has to call on Daniel Webster to save him from his folly. Although Webster successfully saves Jabez's soul, what the film demonostrates is how very dark strands are threaded throughout the American character. The push for success and prosperity and caring for your family can mutate into heavy-handed use of economic power to dominate those around you and reduce them to the condition of sychophants or virtual slaves. It highlights one of the contradictions in the American character in that striving for individuality, which many view as meaning individual economic success, can result in a situation where the successful individual can tyrannize the less successful through his money and power.
That's why I think the ending of The Devil and Daniel Webster is frankly too optimistic. True, Daniel Webster gets Jabez off, but it through what's tantamount to jury nullification where the defendent is acquitted because the prosecution, here Mr. Scratch, is viewed as unsympathetic and obnoxious. The actual facts in evidence are effectively ignored. A more realistic ending is that of Citizen Kane where Charles Foster Kane is imprisoned and isolated by his great wealth and withers away as a person.
Yet, despite this caveat, The Devil and Daniel Webster is truly a great film.

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