Friday, August 20, 2004

Well, I'll Be --

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has a good post on William Dieterle's film version of Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster." (Available on DVD only through overpriced Criterion, but worth it.) In watching the more-or-less uncut version of the film (there are a few bits that seem to be lost, hence the abrupt cut after the jury pronounces its verdict in the trial scene), you can sort of see why RKO originally chopped it down to 85 minutes: it takes a short, punchy story and inflates it with all sorts of background stuff that the story dispenses with in a few lines: why Jabez Stone sells his soul, how he sells it, what he gets in return. Audiences were, in all likelihood, fidgeting and becoming impatient to get to the trial scene that is the centerpiece of the story. Some of the best stuff in the film is in the original material, like the scenes involving Satan's designated temptress Belle. But it's not hard to see why audiences might have felt cheated that a movie version of "The Devil and Daniel Webster" seemed to be taking to long to get to the point.

Plus the film was a work of '30s-style New Deal populism that came out at a time when the issues it dealt with seemed less important than they had a few years earlier. The theme of the movie is the struggle for America's soul, between the forces of greed and every-man-for-himself-ism represented by Scratch, and the forces represented by Daniel Webster, who believes in putting honesty above personal ambition. We know Jabez Stone has gone bad when he refuses to join a union (sorry, "grange") and instead becomes a big capitalist boss, exploiting the other farmers. As Mr. Scratch's famous speech ("when the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there") makes clear, he is no less representative of America than Webster is, and the question, which the ending leaves open, is whether the best American values (hard work, community) will prevail over the worst (grabbing for money and power). This is all good stuff, but a couple of months after the film opened, Pearl Harbor was bombed, and even before that, American popular culture was becoming more concerned with external threats, rather than the internal threats posed by Mr. Scratch, real as those threats were. Daniel Webster stands as a movie about the best vs. the worst of America that happened to come out at the wrong time for that kind of movie; in this, it has a lot in common with another cinematically ambitious RKO production from 1941, Citizen Kane, which was also about the best vs. the worst of America (both the best and the worst embodied by one man, Kane), and also underperformed at the box office.

The print used for the DVD is about as good as we're going to get considering that many of the formerly-lost scenes had to be taken from various different sources; the superb cinematography, and Dieterle's experments with camerawork and lighting (as interesting as Welles', in their own way) come across very well. Unfortunately the soundtrack doesn't do justice to Bernard Herrmann's score -- it sounds like Criterion used too much noise-reduction, making the soundtrack kind of strident -- but at least there's an extra that analyzes the various musical themes in the picture. A great movie, well worth seeing or buying.

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