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The Devil and Daniel Webster aka All That Money Can Buy

Director William Dieterle's star power had risen high after the success of RKO's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), starring Charles Laughton. As had many directors before him, Dieterle sought to gain further control over the pictures he helmed. He formed his own production company and set up an exclusive deal with RKO. For his first picture under the agreement, the director chose to adapt a well known short story, "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet. Dieterle followed a bit of conventional Hollywood wisdom in adapting a proven pre-existing property, but the inclination to "play it safe" with the film ended there. In making the movie Dieterle utilized unconventional casting, several innovative techniques in music and cinematography, and crafted a story with a potentially uncommercial mix of homespun folksiness and bone-chilling creepiness. Critics and audiences at the time seemed more perplexed than admiring, and it has taken some distance of time for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941 – aka All That Money Can Buy) to be recognized as not only one of Dieterle's greatest films, but one of the most daring, powerful, and idiosyncratic movies to come out during the height of the Hollywood studio system.

Stephen Vincent Benet's story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" was first published in 1936, in the Saturday Evening Post, and became a great popular success – a purely American fable that seemed instantly to enter into the same realm of folklore as older works such as those of Washington Irving. In his biography of the writer, Parry Stroud quotes Benet on the genesis of the story: "It always seemed to me... that legends and yarns and folktales are as much a part of the real history of a country as proclamations and provisos and constitutional amendments... I couldn't help trying to show [Daniel Webster] in terms of American legend; I couldn't help wondering what would happen if a man like that ever came to grips with the Devil – and not an imported Devil, either, but a genuine, homegrown product, Mr. Scratch." As Stroud observed about the story, "From one point of view 'The Devil and Daniel Webster' is a reworking in American terms of the biblical story of Job and the Faust legend," though Benet's protagonist "...sells his soul to the Devil, not for power, like the German, but for the American dream of prosperity." This folksy, American take on the legend struck a chord with 1930s readers; the story won the O. Henry Award as the year's best short story, and it was soon adapted for both the radio and the stage.

Benet himself worked on the screenplay for the movie, along with Dan Totheroh, a writer that had earlier adapted popular books for the screen, resulting in films such as The Dawn Patrol (1930 and 1938) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). The final screenplay added one major character to Benet's story (a bewitching female emissary of the Devil), but remained largely faithful to the original. In 1840 in the town of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, the local farmers are talking of organizing a Grange movement to combat the crooked creditors, such as Miser Stevens (John Qualen). Jabez Stone (James Craig) is in danger of losing his farm and homestead where he lives with his mother (Jane Darwell) and his new wife, Mary (Anne Shirley). Stone seems to have nothing but bad luck, and in a burst of frustration exclaims that he'd sell his soul for a bit of good luck. At that instant, a Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston) strolls out of mist in Stone's barn and offers seven years of prosperity to the farmer in exchange for his soul. Stone accepts the deal and uncovers a bag of gold coins beneath the boards in the barn. In the coming years, the farmer becomes wealthy, but often at the expense of his friends, who depend on Stone for seed for their crops. Stone also goes to great lengths to ally himself with the renowned Massachusetts senator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold). When Mary gives birth to a son, Belle (Simone Simon) arrives as a nurse; actually, though, she is an emissary of Scratch who beguiles Stone and drives him further from his family. As Stone's seven years of prosperity is coming to an end, Scratch backs Stone into a corner and the farmer seeks to break his contract. This results in a trail of the Damned, as Webster defends Stone before a jury of American villains and traitors chosen by Scratch.

Fortunately for Dieterle, RKO was then being run by George Schaeffer, who encouraged artistic innovation during his brief tenure as studio head. Orson Welles had completed Citizen Kane (1941) just a few months earlier, and many of the key production personnel from that film transferred straight to the Dieterle production, which began in March of 1941. Among the shared personnel were film editor Robert Wise, effects technician Vernon L. Walker, art director Van Nest Polglase, and most prominently, music composer Bernard Herrmann. Although it was only his second motion picture score, Herrmann was familiar with the material, having done the music for the radio adaptation of The Devil and Daniel Webster performed for the CBS Workshop series. As had been the case with Kane, Herrmann was also afforded the luxury of writing his score as the film was being shot, rather than after filming and editing, as was the industry standard. His work is considered to be one of the best scores of his career, mixing everything from quotations of standard folk tunes to experimental electronic tones. To achieve the maniacal fiddle playing of Mr. Scratch in the barn dance scene, Herrmann recorded four takes of a single violin playing "Pop Goes the Weasel" in slightly different styles; he then layered the four recordings to sound like a single player hitting an impossible sequence of notes. Herrmann would go on to win an Oscar for his score – surprisingly, it would be the only Academy Award win of his career.

The Devil and Daniel Webster provides Walter Huston with one of the best roles of his career; he earned an Oscar nomination for his unforgettable turn as Mr. Scratch, a wily Earth-bound personification of The Devil – as smug in his satisfaction at stealing a pie as he is in stealing a soul. The movie also provided another noble role for the always-dependable Jane Darwell, fresh from her Oscar win as the Joad family matriarch in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Another showcase part that the movie provided was Belle, the sultry ethereal figure that Mr. Scratch sends to keep Jabez enthralled and apart from his wife. For this part Dieterle cast French actress Simone Simon, who had made an earlier batch of American films, including the lead role in Seventh Heaven (1937) with James Stewart. The matter of Simon's accent is deftly handled in The Devil and Daniel Webster; when asked by a neighboring farmer if she is French, Simon's Belle answers "I'm not anything" – the perfect response for a character that initially emerges through a whirl of smoke. It was on the strength of this appearance that producer Val Lewton cast Simon in the lead of his initial RKO horror film, The Cat People (1942). For the key role of Daniel Webster himself, Dieterle had cast Thomas Mitchell, one of the most recognizable character actors of the day. In 1939 alone, Mitchell could be seen in landmarks like Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind, and Dieterle's own The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Dieterle chose to film The Devil and Daniel Webster in an almost sequential fashion, and the entire production was nearly derailed by an accident that occurred six weeks into shooting. On April 21st, 1941, while filming the carriage scene in which Thomas Mitchell as Daniel Webster is giving a ride to Jabez's young son, the horses lurched and Mitchell was thrown from the carriage. He suffered a skull fracture and was laid up for weeks – with the key trial sequence yet to be shot, he had to be replaced in the role immediately. Edward Arnold stepped into the part, and the great majority of Mitchell's previously-filmed scenes had to be reshot. (A few long shots of Mitchell were retained).

RKO had fits over the title of their film. At the time, the word "Devil" was avoided because of concerns that exhibitors in the Deep South (i.e. the Bible Belt) would not put the word up on the marquee of their theater. Several substitutes prior to release included Temptation, It Can Happen to You, and A Certain Mr. Scratch. The film was previewed (in July of 1941) under the title Here Is a Man, but the final release title (in October of 1941) was All That Money Can Buy, and it was under this name that the film was shown for many years.

Reviews were generally good, even if the reviewers were sometimes perplexed. The writer for TIME magazine says the film is "definitely superior cinema" and has high praise for the actors, saying that "Dieterle wisely lets Actor Arnold play Daniel Webster without trying to look like the great man. His Webster is not the violent Massachusetts statesman but a homely, gusty humanitarian.... Walter Huston plays the Devil with demoniacal glee. Disguised as Mr. Scratch, a quizzical Yankee trader with a duck hunter's cap, bristly sideburns and stubble beard, he is a puckish tempter. Whether he is getting Daniel plastered, playing the bass drum in the village band, or spryly nibbling a carrot, he seems to be hugely enjoying his part."

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times found the film to be "pleasantly provocative and slyly humorous" but Crowther complains that "...Mr. Dieterle has failed to bring into related focus before our eyes that which is supposed to be real and that which is supernatural. The illusion of imaginative release is not properly created, so that one is likely to be confused by the constant interplay of shadow and substance without any explanations." This constant interplay which Crowther found so confusing is commonplace in modern films and television, so the style that Dieterle fashioned now lends The Devil and Daniel Webster a fresh, undated look to viewers today.

The Devil and Daniel Webster did not perform well at the box-office; it lost between $35,000 and $50,000 for RKO. Unfortunately, it may have broken even but for the cost overruns incurred by the need to reshoot many scenes following Thomas Mitchell's accident. For a reissue in 1952 (by Astor Pictures), the film was cut from 107 minutes to a running time of 85 minutes, losing many important scenes of character development. The 85 minute cut was the only available version for many years; fortunately a restoration was possible using a print that Dieterle himself had kept, and the full edit is now readily available.

Producer David O. Selznick must have admired The Devil and Daniel Webster; in 1948 he began production on a film version of the Robert Nathan fantasy Portrait of Jennie (1949), and he hired director William Dieterle and cinematographer Joseph August to approximate the look of the earlier film. Selznick also utilized Bernard Herrmann, who wrote "Jennie's theme" prior to the start of principal photography.

Producer: William Dieterle
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Dan Totheroh; Stephen Vincent Benet (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Joseph August
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Robert Wise
Cast: Edward Arnold (Daniel Webster), Walter Huston (Mr. Scratch), Jane Darwell (Ma Stone), Simone Simon (Belle), Gene Lockhart (Squire Slossum), John Qualen (Miser Stevens), H.B. Warner (Justice John Hathorne), Frank Conlan (Sheriff), Lindy Wade (Daniel Stone), George Cleveland (Cy Bibber), Anne Shirley (Mary Stone), James Craig (Jabez Stone)
BW-112 min.

By John M. Miller

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