The Devil Made Me Do It

DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, THE (1941)

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The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) exists outside the conventions and formulas of typical Hollywood genres, vexing those critics and writers who like to categorize. Currently streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, the film does not belong to horror, melodrama or historical drama, though critics have touted it as a combination of all or part of those genres.

The film does have an aesthetic and narrative context, however; it fits perfectly into an American art movement known as Regionalism. Regionalists, who emerged during the Depression, focused their attention on rural life as a significant part of America’s culture and history. A trio of painters dominated the era: Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood, whose iconic American Gothic is so well known that its original meaning has been lost to the art history books.

I don’t know if Regionalism directly influenced producer-director William Dieterle, but a connection definitely exists between the art movement and the film. That connection is Stephen Vincent Benet, a poet and writer who used American legends, folktales, songs and history as the basis of his work. Like Benet, the Regionalist painters often drew from American legends and folk stories for subject matter. It seems inevitable that Benet and the Regionalists would team up, and they did. John Steuart Curry illustrated Benet’s most famous work, the epic narrative poem “John Brown’s Body.” It was Benet who penned the Faustian short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” on which Dieterle’s film is based, and it was the director who hired him to cowrite the screenplay.

First published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1936, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” tells the story of a young farmer, Jabez Stone, who has experienced a string of bad luck. His solution was to sign away his soul to the diabolical Mr. Scratch, a folksy euphemism for the Devil, in return for seven years of prosperity. The original story begins when payment to Mr. Scratch is due. Jabez begs legendary lawyer Daniel Webster to use his famed oratory skills to break the deal. Mr. Scratch summons up a jury of the damned to hear the case, and he coerces Justice Hathorne, the judge from the Salem witch trials, to preside.

DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, THE (1941)

For the film version, Benet shifted the focus from Webster to Jabez Stone. While the original story mentioned a wife and children, Benet further developed Jabez’s saintly wife, Mary, and added a precocious son and a wise mother to the screenplay. The movie focuses on the path of Jabez’s moral decline as he lets his new success and materialism pervert his good nature. He neglects his family, exploits his neighbors’ misfortunes for personal gain and falls prey to the temptations of housemaid Belle. The trial for Jabez’s soul provides the climax to the film.

The trial showcases the acting skills of Edward Arnold as the cool, collected Daniel Webster and Walter Huston as the wily Mr. Scratch. Originally, Thomas Mitchell was cast as Webster, but, about six weeks into production, with most of his scenes already shot, Mitchell was thrown from a horse-and-buggy, fracturing his skull. Arnold took over the role with only one day’s notice, though viewers will not guess that from his skilled performance. Huston’s portrayal of Mr. Scratch reveals why he was so well respected during his career and why he was Oscar-nominated for this role. In his felt hat and fuzzy goatee, Scratch is at once likable and malevolent. At times, he is a more appealing character than Jabez, but look past his folksy charm, and you can see that his eyes glitter with malicious intent.

The story takes advantage of the tropes of American folklore surrounding the Devil. According to the opening title card, this is “a story they tell in the border country where Massachusetts joins Vermont and New Hampshire.” In folktales, borders are akin to thresholds or gateways, where evil dwells or emissaries from Hell can slip through. While many reviewers and critics noted that the story takes place in rural New England, where straight-talking Yankees tolerate no nonsense, I didn’t read one account that mentioned the name of the hamlet—Cross Corners. Fans of blues legend Robert Johnson will recognize the meaning of the crossroads: If you want to change your luck, you go down to the crossroads and sell your soul to the Devil.

DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, THE (1941)

The Devil and Daniel Webster captures the peculiar tone and atmosphere of folktales and lore. The atmosphere is not scary, or haunting, as in a horror film; it’s an uncanny, or eerie tone that occurs when a touch of the supernatural slips into the everyday world, and the characters accept it as possible—even normal. Thus, the mystical parts to the story involving the Devil are blended with Jabez’s earthly troubles, particularly the crisis he causes in his marriage to Mary. The scenes involving Jabez and Mary are depicted like melodrama. Trapped in her domestic situation as wife and mother, Mary suffers as her husband’s priorities change. She watches helplessly as her husband is transformed into a cad by his desire for Belle, the exotic housemaid who suddenly shows up “from over the mountain.” Jabez is not a typical Hollywood protagonist, because he is not heroic in the classic sense. As often occurs in folktales, he is the protagonist in need of a moral lesson. At first, he whines and gripes about his bad luck, then he makes a bad decision with disastrous repercussions for his wife and family. When he realizes the error of his ways, he begs Mary to forgive him. It is Mary who gains our sympathy, not Jabez. His moral decline turns him into a greedy, unlikable rake with a streak of violence and cruelty, reflecting the undercurrent of darkness in The Devil and Daniel Webster.

The Regionalist painters who turned to American legends, history and tall tales for subjects also captured the darkness that is part of our agrarian or rural heritage. Regionalism is often mistaken as an expression of nostalgia for America’s past. But, the echoes of violence in the stories depicted by Thomas Hart Benton, the severe stoicism expressed in the paintings of Grant Wood or the vicious passion of John Steuart Curry’s historical figures belie simple nostalgia. The Regionalists may have embraced rural culture and themes as the backbone of America but they did not retreat from depicting its darker impulses. Check out Benton’s “A Social History of the State of Missouri,” which he did for the Missouri State Capitol: Alongside the grain elevators, hearty pioneers and hard-working men, Benton included a lynching in addition to a white man using whiskey to barter with (i.e. exploit) a Native American.

DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, THE (1941)

Benton’s interpretation of American history and lore is echoed in the climactic sequence of The Devil and Daniel Webster, again exposing the movie’s dark undercurrent. During Webster’s oratory to free Jabez from his contract, he argues that an American citizen cannot be forced into service for a foreign country, meaning the Devil is an outsider and Hell is a foreign land. But, Mr. Scratch takes exception to this, claiming his enthusiastic participation in American events: “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. Am I not in your books and stories and beliefs, from the first settlements on?” To this he adds, “‘Tis true the North claims me for a Southerner and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. I am merely an honest American like yourself—and of the best descent—for, to tell the truth Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.”

Susan Doll

15 Responses The Devil Made Me Do It
Posted By Emgee : May 29, 2017 5:37 am

I see another recurring theme: outsiders are not to be trusted.

Posted By Doug : May 29, 2017 8:26 am

Emgee writ:
“I see another recurring theme: outsiders are not to be trusted.”
With good reason-the history of Man is a constant playing of “Risk”, the old board game. Invade and take over, or be invaded by those of your neighbors who think they can take you. Rinse and repeat.
Thank you, Susan, for another fine, well written post.
I pulled my Benet off the shelf and will read the story over breakfast.
It’s been too, too long since I’ve seen this film-maybe high school?
I’m convinced that Walter Huston is the devil, which is apt; that would make John the son of the devil. See “Chinatown”.
Back to the film.
From mother Google: “Jabez or Jabes is a Biblical male given name from the Old Testament. In 1 Chronicles, Jabez is a well-respected man (hinted to be an ancestor in the lineage of the kings’ tribe of Judah, though none of his family is mentioned) whose prayer to God for blessing was answered (see 1 Chronicles 4:9-11).”
I don’t think Benet simply skimmed the Bible looking for some patriarchal name for his Jabez Stone.
But his Jabez puts his faith in Daniel Webster, and is blessed.
I think we all have a bit of Jabez Stone in us, and not enough Daniel Webster.

Posted By Chuck Berger : May 29, 2017 9:08 am

Having seen this flick when I was a child when it was released in the theaters, I wasn’t able to appreciate the acting of Edward Arnold and Walter Houston. As I got older, and viewed the movie(many times), I grew to appreciate the acting of both those gentlemen. Arnold, was known to be a scene stealer in many of his movies. Houston, along with Walter Brennan were two of the finest character actors in the movies.

Posted By Arthur : May 29, 2017 11:14 am

The actress that played Belle played a similar “Jezebelish” role in CAT PEOPLE which had a similar feel and air as this one.

“When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck” Reminds me of Mick Jagger’s opening lines in “Sympathy for the Devil.” Could the film in general, and the Devil’s comments in the trial in particular, have inspired it?

Faust, this film, the story it is based on, numerous Twilight Zone episodes and countless similar tales down through the ages all warn that, yes, one may succeed using “other forces” but they will rebound to do you great harm.

Note in the trial the Devil also says, “I am merely an honest American like yourself—and of the best descent—for, to tell the truth Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in this country than yours.” This is the underside of America, the many mis-deeds brushed under the rug to gain the power. But there’ll be hell to pay, one day. . .

Posted By kingrat : May 29, 2017 12:56 pm

Thank you for pointing out the connection to Regionalist paintings. That really helps put the film in the right context.

Posted By Doug : May 29, 2017 2:21 pm

Before writing this comment I want to state that, although what I say may skirt close to (shudder) politics, I do not want to ‘go there’. This is a film blog, and politicals can go find their own place.
With that said, I write to amuse myself, and years ago I wrote a Faustian/The Devil and Daniel Webster short about ‘Old Scratch’ setting up shop at a Washington DC school Harvest festival two weeks before every Presidential election.
The contending Presidential candidates know that if they want to win, they must visit and strike the best bargain with the Devil.
But the ‘winner’ will pay the greatest price/bear the greatest burden/actually lose.
Not really a political story-more about how much people are willing to pay for success in this world.

Posted By Emgee : May 29, 2017 3:05 pm

@ Arthur: “Reminds me of Mick Jagger’s opening lines in “Sympathy for the Devil.” Could the film in general, and the Devil’s comments in the trial in particular, have inspired it?”

That song was in fact based on the novel The Master and Margarita by by Mikhail Bulgakov, in which the master is indeed the devil.

Posted By EricJ : May 29, 2017 4:16 pm

If you read Benet’s story, it’s really about New England Folklore, and how native New Hampshirans turned the mighty, mighty Daniel Webster into their own local Paul Bunyan.

The problem is, in the story, when he lets loose his champion speech-making powers to bring the evil demon-jury to tears, Benet never tells us WHAT he says. Just generally that he rhapsodized about the sun, and the earth, and all the good things, and, being Webster, his rhetoric melted their hearts like it conquered the Senate.
By 1941, though, we DO know what he was talking about, since they have to film it onscreen–We get a speech that Jabez Stone must have his “Freedom!”, at which point we realize the whole darn film was not only meant as WWII folk-Americana, but as hometown morale propaganda as well.
(Not sure if it’s pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist propaganda, where Americans are “luckier to enjoy their freedom” than those poor other sucker countries in Europe, but it’s nothing on the level of “God’s Country” from Babes in Arms.)

We don’t feel “cheated” for it, but it does seem an easy way out.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 4, 2017 1:16 pm

Doug: Thanks for adding the info on the name Jabez. I was wondering where such an unusual name came from.

Posted By robbushblog : June 15, 2017 3:37 pm

Man, I love this movie! I remember seeing Simone Simon as Belle for the first time, and rewinding the scene where she first appears. She is magical and the camera loves her. I was also very happy to find her in THE CAT PEOPLE and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE.

It was quite risque that Jabez leaves his wife in one house, and goes to live with Belle in another, essentially abandoning his family completely. This movie was made in the 1940s! And in the end, he is free and clear. Amazing. Great movie, and Walter Huston is tops. I don’t know how anyone could trust that old goat. He is unsettling.

Posted By Emgee : June 15, 2017 3:43 pm

“She is magical and the camera loves her.”appartently Hollywood didn’t cause she made very few movies there. I heard she was considered as “difficult”.

BTW What happened with the Cat People comments section? Closed for repairs?

Posted By robbushblog : June 15, 2017 3:51 pm

It’s too bad. She was so very cute. And I think we’ve seen all we’re going to see of the CAT PEOPLE comments. It’s too bad. I had the popcorn at the ready.

Posted By Emgee : June 15, 2017 4:00 pm

“the CAT PEOPLE comments.”Wow, those Russians work fast! Or is it Kim?

Posted By robbushblog : June 15, 2017 4:13 pm

Kim don’t play dat.

Posted By Doug : June 15, 2017 5:26 pm

I apologize to any and all if my ‘popcorn’ comment to robbushblog broke the internet.
It was all meant in good fun; until I saw this:
“With FilmStruck and TCM currently celebrating Pride Month,”
I hadn’t realized that Filmstruck and TCM WERE celebrating anything.
I keep going back to promoting the same great movie: “The Loved One” from 1965 but it works for Pride month as it has nearly every well known {closeted} gay actor from the 1960′s showing up-even Liberace!

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