DVD Movie Guide @ dvdmg.com
Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main


William Dieterle
Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, Jane Darwell, Simone Simon, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen, H.B. Warner
Writing Credits:
Stephen Vincent Benet, Dan Totheroh

Jabez Stone is a hard-working farmer trying to make an honest living, but a streak of bad luck tempts him to do the unthinkable: bargain with the Devil himself. In exchange for seven years of good fortune, Stone promises "Mr. Scratch" his soul. But when the troubled farmer begins to realize the error of his choice, he enlists the aid of the one man who might save him: the legendary orator and politician Daniel Webster. Directed with stylish flair by William Dieterle, The Devil and Daniel Webster brings the classic short story by Stephen Vincent Benet to life with inspired visuals, an unforgettable Oscar-winning score by Bernard Herrmann, and a truly diabolical performance from Walter Huston as the Devil.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural

Runtime: 106 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 9/30/2003

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Herrmann Biographer Steven C. Smith
• Reading of the Original Story From Alec Baldwin
• “The Columbia Workshop” Radio Shows
Here Is a Man Comparisons
• “The Devil In Context” Interactive Text
• Gallery
• Booklet

Search Titles:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


[an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Devil and Daniel Webster: Criterion Collection (1941)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 21, 2003)

If you don’t believe in souls but the devil arrives and offers to purchase it from you, wouldn’t that confirm the existence of souls? That makes sense to me, though it seems that movie characters are usually pretty dense about these things. We discover a typically thickheaded protagonist in 1941’s The Devil and Daniel Webster.

Set in 1840, the movie introduces us to a young New Hampshire farmer named Jabez Stone (James Craig) who lives with his cute wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and his stern, Bible-thumping mother “Ma” (Jane Darwell). Not faring well, Stone owes much money to local lender Miser Stevens (John Qualen). Stone becomes increasingly desperate to find ways to pay his debts, especially when an accident injures Mary. Eventually Stone declares he’d sell his soul to the devil for two cents and some good luck.

Enter Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), a shady character who promises Stone seven years of good luck for his soul. Stone readily agrees and quickly enjoys the fruits of his bargain. Time passes, Stone changes, and he starts to face the consequences of his actions. When the time comes for Mr. Scratch to claim Stone’s soul, the latter rethinks his decision and gets local friend Senator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to plead his case for him. The movie climaxes with a trial in which Webster attempts to win back Stone’s soul.

All film adaptations of written works take liberties with the source material, but most contract the original text. Devil, however, expands upon the story from Steven Vincent Benet, mostly in its decidedly pro-socialist bent. The movie includes a subplot in which farmers try to start a collective to help each other, but Stone doesn’t go down that path. Instead, he seeks nothing more than personal glory for himself and his family, and that almost leads down the path of ruin.

Granted, the theme seems subtler in the movie itself, but the subtext doesn’t add much to the movie. Benet’s original story appears concise and intriguing, whereas the movie becomes rather slow and bloated at times. It adds so many elements that they slow the tale and make it take much longer for us to reach its ultimate point.

Part of the problem stems from the fact all the additional scenes mean we see more of Craig as Stone. A stiff and lifeless actor, he presents a rather broad and wide-eyed performance as Stone. Because the movie focuses so heavily on Stone, this makes his cartoony work all the more problematic, and he stands out in a negative way. Stone never becomes charismatic, sympathetic, interesting or likable. He feels like a flat presence with nothing much to lead the movie.

The supporting actors fare much better, especially in the case of Huston. He plays Scratch more as a sly and homey huckster than a force of evil, and that seeming innocuousness makes him all the more insidious. Huston steals every scene in which he appears and creates the film’s most compelling moments.

Though the flick plods during its first two acts, it comes together nicely at the end. Not coincidentally, those are the sequences that most heavily hew to Benet’s original story. Once we get to the trial implied in the title, the movie turns richer and becomes something worth watching.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with more than an hour of poor acting from Daniel Craig to get to that point, and The Devil and Daniel Webster can’t quite overcome the sluggishness of its first two acts. The movie presents more than a few interesting elements and has many positive moments, but it plods too badly to be anything terrific as a whole.

Note: this Criterion DVD restores Webster to its original length. Apparently the movie got cut down pretty badly over the years, but the DVD brings back the material from its initial conception.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio C-/ Bonus B

The Devil and Daniel Webster appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While much of Webster looked very positive, too many problems developed for it to muster a mark above average.

Sharpness fared well. Only a smidgen of softness crept through on rare occasions. For the most part, the movie looked nicely distinct and well defined. No issues related to jaggies or shimmering appeared, but some light edge enhancement showed up periodically throughout the film.

Black levels seemed fine. The movie presented generally positive contrast and created a nicely defined silvery image. Low-light shots were clean and appropriately detailed. Shadows appeared concise and accurate.

Most forms of print flaws failed to appear during Webster. I noticed a few small specks and the occasional blotch, but most of those kinds of defects remained happily absent. Unfortunately, an odd kind of dancing shadows appeared throughout the entire film. These flickered across the screen constantly and became a distraction. Quite a few examples of thin vertical lines also came up during the film, and a few scenes displayed frame jumps and a bobbing image. For example, the latter flaw appeared at around the 33-minute mark. The strengths of Webster were enough to overcome the various problems, but I still couldn’t give it a grade above a “C” due to the pervasiveness of the other concerns.

Similar consistent issues affected the monaural soundtrack of The Devil and Daniel Webster. The prime offender came from persistent hiss throughout the film. The levels of hiss varied but usually seemed pretty loud and distracting. Speech was intelligible and lacked edginess, but the lines sounded fairly sibilant at times. Effects didn’t suffer from any distortion but they were thin and trebly. The music showed tones much along the same lines, though some parts of the score came across as surprisingly robust. Louder musical elements seemed quite deep and full-bodied; in particular, drums presented firm and tight bass response. That positive kept the track from falling below “C”-level, but overall, the mix sounded rather harsh and noisy, even for a film from 1941.

The Criterion release of The Devil and Daniel Webster includes a nice roster of supplements. We open with an audio commentary from film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith. This offers an edited affair. Eder dominates as he provides a running, moderately screen-specific track. Smith only pops up in the middle for one extended section in which he gives us good biographical notes about Herrmann as well as information about the composer’s work on Webster.

Other than that fairly short interlude, this is Eder’s track, and he mostly makes it compelling. Actually, it starts well, as Eder runs through many compelling subjects. He gets into the origins of the piece and compares the movie to the short story on which it was based. He also discusses the flick’s many alternate titles, its shortened version and the scenes restored to this edition, production challenges and biographical notes for cast and crew. Most of the time, Eder makes this a very informative and interesting track, but unfortunately, sporadic empty spots mar it, especially during the last third of the flick. These never become overwhelming or excessive, but they turn an otherwise great commentary into merely a very good one.

More audio features show up next. The Devil and Daniel Webster features a reading of the Stephen Vincent Benet short story that inspired the movie. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, this lets us hear the full original work. Baldwin always does a good job as a voice actor, and he brings “Webster” to life nicely in this entertaining piece.

Within The Columbia Workshop we get two period radio dramas based on Benet’s work. The radio show adapted both Devil as well as Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent. This rendition of “Devil” takes a few liberties with the original tale and doesn’t seem as effective as Baldwin’s reading. Since we don’t hear it elsewhere, “Serpent” is fun to get, even if the actor who plays Webster does a terrible job.

Next we get the Here Is a Man Comparison. According to the program’s text, Webster wasn’t originally previewed on July 12, 1941, as Here is a Man, but it was altered somewhat and eventually released under the title All That Money Can Buy. (That’s the same film as Webster - it just got retitled again.) The four-minute and 37-second compilation presents scenes from Webster and then shows corresponding shots from Man. Overall, the two appear identical except for the new title and quick inserts of Mr. Scratch in a few scene where problems befall Stone.

An interactive text appears via The Devil In Context. Written by Christopher Husted, the official representative of the Herrmann estate, “Context” tells us how the composer ended up on the project and provides information about all of the movie’s themes and tunes. It also presents some production stills. Husted gives us a tight and informative little text.

The Gallery shows 12 stills. Most are shots from the set, and the last few provide original poster art for All That Money Can Buy. Finally, the DVD’s booklet includes a 1941 essay from Benet about his work plus comments from author Tom Piazza in appreciation of the film.

At its best, The Devil and Daniel Webster provides an entertaining fable. However, it takes way too long to get to its point and suffers from poor acting by the actor who spends the most time on screen. Picture and sound appear fairly average for their era, but the set includes some nice supplements highlighted by a somewhat erratic but generally solid audio commentary. Webster works well enough to merit a viewing, but it seems inconsistent overall.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.6666 Stars Number of Votes: 21
1 3:
View Averages for all rated titles.