Blog Directory CineVerse: The "Devil" is in the details

The "Devil" is in the details

Thursday, October 9, 2014

"The Devil and Daniel Webster" may have been mandatory reading for many Baby Boomers in high school, but the film adaptation of this popular story is an oft-overlooked and forgotten relic from Hollywood's golden age. We unearthed this chestnut last evening during our CineVerse group meeting and came away with the following observations:

·       Excellent casting choices, especially Walter Huston as Old Scratch, Edward Arnold as Webster, and Simone Simone as the seductress manifestation of Lucifer.
·       It features a number of RKO in-house craftsmen who worked on “Citizen Kane,” including Bernard Herrmann (who won an Oscar for this score), Robert Wise as editor, and the same effects technician and art director.
·       The visuals are quite interesting and ambitious, with its use of high contrast lighting, odd camera angles, unorthodox juxtapositions of shots (e.g., long mastershots followed by extreme close-ups), suggestive dissolves (e.g., the wheat fields dissolving into a supine and pregnant Mary stone, insinuating fertility and sex), zippy editing and writing that moves us quickly through time, sophisticated shots that depict lengthy and undisturbed stretches of dialogue, and innovative special effects (e.g., the axe that disintegrates in midair, carving the initials on the tree).
·       This film would have been daring and risky as a commercial film, considering its mix of macabre elements and agrarian folksiness and its political themes.
·       The lawyer is seen as an upright moral bastion of society in this film, which would have been fitting for this era, when attorneys like Clarence Darrow were considered national treasures and respect and adulation were bestowed upon courtroom professionals, unlike today.

·       According to essayist Tom Piazza, this movie plays as an allegory for America on the cusp of World War II, painting a picture of a “society gone mad with materialism, a premonition of the opportunities and dangers awaiting the United States as it recovered from the Great Depression.”
·       Piazza continued: “The Devil and Daniel Webster contains numerous traces of the leftist and populist politics of the 1930s, but the film is ultimately morally and politically ambiguous. Its implied moral equation seems is: that neighborliness, and mutual aid—community—as exemplified by the grange, are good. The Devil, being bad, undercuts community by encouraging people to indulge their individual appetites at the expense of group values. So the question of personal choice is a question of community health as well, and one cannot secede from the social contract without doing immense damage to all the other souls around one.”
·       Put in other words, the film’s moral message could be that mutual help is mutually beneficial and good, while the inclination for self-advancement is greedy and bad. This can be reflected in a larger lens upon the people of America, who, it is suggested here, must work together for us to survive and prosper collectively and for us to overcome the temptations and evils of the world.
·       In short, this is a film about performing the greater good instead of following materialism.
·       Nationalism and patriotism are other themes suggested; consider how Webster pleads for Jabez’s soul to be saved in the context of American nationalism. “Jabez’s freedom from damnation is directly equated with American freedom from oppression and the constitutionally enshrined right to self-determination. “Ladies and gentleman of the jury don’t let the country go to the Devil,” Edward Arnold’s Webster argues at one point,” wrote reviewer Richard Scheib.
·       The picture is also surprisingly partisan in depicting Webster as an unabashed Republican (despite the fact that he was a member of the Whig and Federalist parties) and espousing conservative Republican values of this period. It also lionizes Webster as a flag-waving, patriotic hero, when, ironically, he had supported slave owner rights politically in legislation like the Fugitive Slave Act.
·       Ironically, conservatives would have raised an eyebrow at the notion of the central theme at work here: that the formation of a Grange (an agricultural commune where area farmers pool their resources together and balance out the rewards and risks) is the economic answer to a longtime agricultural problem. This smacked of socialism/communism.

·       A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1934)
·       The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
·       The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
·       Portrait of Jennie (1948)

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