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Remind Me

The Big Idea Behind THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER

First there was Faust, in all its forms, the story of a man who sells his soul to the Devil, trading eternal peace in the afterlife for material gains in this world. The first printed version of the legend of Faust was a chapbook published in 1587. The story was reworked and borrowed from frequently, and there were at least a dozen other "Faustbooks" in that era.

The early Faust chapbook circulated from northern Germany to England, where in 1592 an English translation was published. Playwright Christopher Marlowe used that as the basis for his play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, first published around 1604.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's early 19th century version of the story, a cross between a play and a long poem (known as a "closet drama," meaning a dramatic work meant to be read, not performed), extended the simple morality tale by bringing in elements from Christian, medieval, Roman, Greek, and eastern poetry, philosophy and literature. In this version, Faust isn't merely a greedy man eager for money; he is a scholar seeking the true essence of life, and his bargain gains him knowledge, as well as satisfaction of his more base desires. The legend obsessed Goethe throughout his life. He worked on it for nearly sixty years, and the final version, published after his death in 1832, is recognized as one of Germany's great literary works.

The first American take on the tale was "The Devil and Tom Walker," a short story by Washington Irving first published in 1824, about a man who sells his soul to the Devil for wealth.

Irving's story was taken up by Stephen Vincent Benet, winner of the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for John Brown's Body, a book-length narrative poem about the Civil War. Benet made his hero a poor New England farmer and added the element of having his legal case be argued by historical figure Daniel Webster before an underworld court. In creating his fable, Benet drew on the New England legends that had grown up around Webster even more than historical accounts of the man. The story appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1938 and won an O. Henry Award. It was the first of three stories Benet wrote around this time using Webster as a central character. The work added much to his reputation as one of the best known and most respected authors of the time. It was praised for its use of distinctly American humor and folksiness (notably in its decidedly homegrown devil), blending New England vernacular with broad literary references and styles.

New Hampshire-born Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was a leading American statesman in the period prior to the Civil War and one of the country's most famous orators. He served in the U.S. Congress and as Secretary of State under presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, and unsuccessfully ran for president himself. Educated in the law, he was particularly known for successfully arguing several cases before the Supreme Court, including ones that broadened the interpretation of the Constitution and strengthened the power and scope of the federal government over the states. Oddly, one of his most significant cases reaffirmed legal protection of contracts, although in Benet's story, it is Webster's intervention that nullifies Jabez Stone's contract with Mr. Scratch. Benet found in the statesman an adaptable character "majestic in his strengths and weaknesses, national in his values."

German-born film director William Dieterle's first film for RKO and its biggest moneymaker in years, the highly successful The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), put him in position to negotiate an independent production deal with the studio. For his first project under this arrangement, he chose Benet's short story, which he purchased in 1940.

The time was ripe for Dieterle to strike out on a very personal project with the potential to push film boundaries. George Schaefer was the new head of RKO, and during his brief reign there, the studio was to reach new heights in artistic achievement and cinematic experimentation. Citizen Kane (1941) had just been completed, and director Orson Welles was about to begin his second picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). More than most studio executives of the time, Schaefer was amenable to giving directors free rein with their projects.

Benet was contracted to work on the screenplay, but Dieterle also brought in playwright Dan Totheroh, who also had experience in screenwriting for more than a decade. While much of Benet's original, including sections of dialogue, made it intact into the script, Totheroh added greater depth and complexity to the characters. It's also quite likely he created the character of Belle, the Satanic serving girl who becomes Jabez Stone's mistress, and whose presence would push the censors' limits on seduction and adultery on screen.

The one area where RKO did step in was the matter of the title. Benet's had two drawbacks. First, the word "devil" was believed to be a hard sell on theater marquees in the Bible Belt. And the historical associations of Daniel Webster's name marked it as a period film, something that rarely did well at the box office unless it was full of action and adventure. Several other names were suggested: "Black Daniel," "The Devil to Pay" (begging the question of which of those two would play better in the South), "It Can Happen to You," "Temptation." It finally went into production as "A Certain Mr. Scratch."

Two actors Dieterle had directed before, Paul Muni and Claude Rains, were among those interested in playing the Devil.

One of the busiest and most popular character actors of the time, Thomas Mitchell, was chosen to play Daniel Webster. Mitchell had recently won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Stagecoach (1939), as well as acclaim for his work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939).

by Rob Nixon

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