Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Classic Movies Digest Premiere Post


With the thousands of classic movies to chose from for discussion for this, the debut of Classic Movies Digest, I wanted to shed a little light on one that is lesser known than say Gone with the Wind or any number of Bette Davis' movies. I'm talking about The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).

Although I had heard of this movie, I had never had the opportunity to see it until recently. From the basic information I had, it sounded like an entertaining way to pass 107 minutes. What I found instead was a solid gem of movie making magic! So many elements were perfectly in sinc to come together as a well oiled machine. Made at RKO, The Devil and Daniel Webster wasn't a blockbuster film with huge superstars or big name value. The principal players and most of the supporting cast were veteran movie actors. Even Anne Shirley, as the young farmers wife, had made her claim to fame as Anne of Green Gables nearly a decade before.

Originally released as All That Money Can Buy, Stephen Vincent Benet's story centers on young New Hampshire farmer Jabez Stone, who sells his soul to the Devil, ala Faust, in return for seven years of prosperity. When things take a dark turn, he beseeches the formidable attorney and statesman Daniel Webster to act on his behalf in an effort to reclaim his damned spirit.

From beginning to end the film is sumptuously striking, an enchanted visualization with expert cinematography (Joseph August) special effects (Vernon L. Walker) and lighting. Too many masterful uses of these cinematic tools to list here, but a few that stand out are worthy of note. The silhouetted shadow of the Devil cast eerily behind Daniel Webster as he writes his speech. Mr. Snatch's (the Devil) first appearance to Jabez Stone back lit as he comes forth from a hazy, smoky backdrop. The use of smoke and a firelight background is also used when we first meet seductress Belle (played by French actress Simone Simon) kneeling by the kitchen hearth.

One of the most effective scenes to relay the message of the organized chaos about to befall farmer Stone is at the harvest dance when rapid camera shots pan at lightning speed between Jabez, standing in the center of the crowd of frantic dancers, Belle laughing and dancing around the mesmerized young farmer and the wicked Mr. Snatch, playing his fiddle with reckless abandon. All this devilish intrigue is set to an Oscar winning musical score by Bernard Herrmann, which perfectly accentuates the mood of the film scene for scene.

Not to go unmentioned is the fine performances given by the entire cast. James Craig's Jabez Stone raised him from the ranks of B-movie player and helped garner him a contract with the prestigious MGM. A solid actor during the war years, Craig takes Jabez from down on his luck farmer to wealthy yet corrupt landowner to dark lost soul with all the gusto of a performer ready to break out of his shell. French actress Simone Simon is mysteriously seductive as the agent from Hades sent to tempt a very willing farmer Stone. As Daniel Webster, Edward Arnold makes the role his own (although he replaced an ailing Thomas Mitchell). Finally, Walter Huston is outstanding as the impish Mr. Scratch, the Devil incarnate. Nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Huston's Scratch is mischievously menacing, amiable and gleeful in his sinister task, as opposed to monstrously evil.

For anyone who has yet to see this superb fantasy, I highly recommend that you take the opportunity. You're in for a real treat.


4 comments:

  1. with the french actress Simone Simon who made some movies with Tourneur ! I don't see this movie yet, it's pretty rare piece of William Dieterle, a honest director.

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  2. I was taken by the magical displays. It was eerie and so dramatic. I was also surprised by the political undertones it portrayed. I esp like the devilish Mr. Snatch and his onery, to say the least, demeanor. The very ending with him looking for his new recruit and then devilishly pointing to "you". It was great. miz nancy

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  3. Very well done, Rupert.

    I love both Huston and Arnold in this film. You can tell both men are enjoying themselves.

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  4. Walter Houston is priceless & the perfect thespian for Snatch. This has been my favorite for years!

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