“The Devil and Daniel Webster”

is an American classic story by Stephen Vincent Benet that I read in my grade 12 prose anthology back in 1967, which at that time was already 30 years old. With the decline of public interest in classics, American history, and religion, this is a charming, amusing morality tale which is largely no longer remembered.

Jabez Stone, an early hard-luck New Hampshire farmer, makes a bargain with the Devil exchanging rights to his soul for material prosperity. It’s a bargain as old as Christopher Marlowe’s Tragedy of Dr. Faustus and Goethe’s Faust with the tricky part coming when the Devil comes to collect. In Benet’s story, he is defended by a popular lawyer of the day Daniel Webster, who outwits the Devil and saves Stone.

The story is punchy and memorable, and after Benet first published it in 1937, it was turned into a popular movie in 1941. Benet co-wrote the screenplay and was happy with the result as he got to expand the details, characters, and humor. There is more emphasis on the changes Stone goes through, his mother and wife are both expanded, and numerous area residents add to the plot and themes. One clever touch is the Devil sending a damned woman Belle to work for the Stones after they have a baby and continue to prosper. Belle distracts Jabez and becomes his mistress, driving a wedge between him, his wife and family, and his better self. As well, the scene-stealing performances by Walter Huston as the Devil and by Edward Arnold as Daniel are not to be missed.

The black and white movie, which runs 106 mins. in a nice highly-recommended Criterion package with extras, has many special effects and the settings create much more atmosphere and suspense than the original story. Special effects such as the square dance and the wild dance at the Stone mansion as well as the set-piece trial remain strangely haunting. and frightening for younger audiences. And the AA- winning soundtrack of Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s collaborator, forms an eerie, weird audio background.

The Devil and Daniel Webster movie has been restored and looks generally great despite instances of periodic lines. It is amazing that the restorers were able to save this worthy film classic from years of neglect and damage. (ps/If it’s possible, try reading the story before the movie to increase your appreciation of the adaptation.)

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