The Devil and Daniel Webster

Few films have had as exalted, or as tumultuous, a history as The Devil and Daniel Webster. Directed and produced by William Dieterle at RKO after his triumphant Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Devil and Daniel Webster is the finest of the ambitious productions that followed in the wake of Citizen Kane. Orson Welles’ movie does, indeed, loom large over The Devil and Daniel Webster. Kane was released the month before Dieterle’s movie started shooting, and RKO had long been abuzz with talk about what Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland had achieved in cinematic storytelling. This was, in many respects, the midst of the studio’s Golden Age—the four year period under George Schaefer, who sought to elevate the studio’s output and had brought Welles to Hollywood. Among Schaefer’s most important actions during this same period was his decision to back William Dieterle’s first independent production, a screen adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster”.

Dieterle inherited the services of several Kane alumni—editor Robert Wise, composer Bernard Herrmann, and special effects expert Vernon L. Walker. Already a veteran director, having made such classics as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Story of Louis Pasteur, and Juarez at Warner Bros., Dieterle was hardly one to take lessons from Orson Welles. Nor was he anything like the young, daring, and brashly iconoclastic Welles, although he was very discriminating about his films. Similarly, cinematographer Joseph August’s approach to his work was also vastly different from that of Gregg Toland.

And, yet, many parts of The Devil and Daniel Webster play like “Faust Meets the Mercury Theatre,” with dazzling time compressions in the writing and editing, extraordinarily mobile camera work, and complex shots involving long, uninterrupted passages of dialogue. The simplest explanation, and probably the correct one, is that Schaefer and, to a lesser extent, Welles and Citizen Kane, had fostered an environment in which this extraordinary film, which broke many rules in its own right, could be made. The Devil and Daniel Webster is resplendent in multiple levels of cinematic beauty: Dieterle’s direction, its dexterousness striking a fine cinematic counterpoint to the movie’s very Germanic mood and subject; August’s chiaroscuro photography, which made every shadow on the screen memorable; Bernard Herrmann’s score, a pastoral wonder that deserved at least as much recognition as Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring; and Robert Wise’s editing, which gave The Devil and Daniel Webster edges as finely cut as those of Kane.

And then there was the acting: Walter Huston’s cheerful, crafty Mr. Scratch, part-Beelzebub and part-carny show huckster, anticipating his performance in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Simone Simon’s evil, lustful demon-woman, purring kitten-like (and, not coincidentally, earning herself the title role in Cat People with this performance) as she seduces an entire village; Edward Arnold, replacing a gravely injured Thomas Mitchell in the final days of shooting, dignified but surprisingly passionate as Daniel Webster; H.B. Warner’s sinister Justice Hawthorne, presiding over a jury of the damned; and Jeff Corey and John Qualen leading a haunting array of roughhewn New England faces. Hailed as an instant classic, and later considered second only to Citizen Kane among all of RKO’s releases, The Devil and Daniel Webster was also one of the most harshly handled movies of its era. The many titles it has carried points up its star-crossed history. Previewed as Here Is a Man on July 16, 1941 at 109 minutes, it opened on October 16, 1941 at 106 minutes as All That Money Can Buy, was later distributed as The Devil and Daniel Webster, and was reissued in 1952 as Daniel and the Devil, in a version cut down to 84 minutes.

For the next 38 years—apart from one print discovered in Europe, with Danish subtitles burned into it—the movie was only known to exist as the 84-minute version. Portions of Bernard Herrmann’s Oscar-winning score were cut and other parts crudely spliced together, and there was a lot less of both The Devil and Daniel Webster than one would expect from the title.

Daniel and the Devil was a neat, compact adaptation of Benet’s story. Missing from it, however, were the moodiest and most atmospheric portions of the original script, along with all of the delicately constructed dramatic links between the story’s supernatural elements. Jabez and Mary Stone barely exist as characters in the 84-minute film, while Mr. Scratch’s demonic influence is too sketchy, and Daniel Webster is too far outside of the action. A series of false sightings of the full-length film during the late 1980s made the recovery of the original seem an unattainable goal. Then, in 1990, a full-length Devil and Daniel Webster was located in the form of a 16mm print that had seen more than its share of action. But it cleaned up well and looked better than some other recent restorations from the 1940s, and transferred digitally and retimed, it revealed more detail than anyone dared hope.

The subsequent reconstruction, utilizing the finest 35mm fine-grain short version and the 16mm long print, has given us the first look at the complete The Devil and Daniel Webster in 50 years.  The restored sequences include the legendary sleigh-ride scene, discussed in absentia for decades by fans of both the film and Bernard Herrmann’s score (a glittering adaptation of “Miss McLeod Reel”); the detailed seduction of Jabez Stone by Walter Huston’s Mr. Scratch with money and Simone Simon’s Belle with sex; the scenes depicting Stone’s deep love of his wife Mary, and his bitter recriminations as he sinks ever deeper into the debt of the Devil; the depiction of the bleakness of New England life in the 1840s; and the corruption of Stone’s son.

The result is a finer film, richer in detail, drama and magic, more ominous and more enchanting, and one that fully and finally lives up to the reputation it earned in 1941.

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