The Devil & Daniel Webster (DVD)

The Devil & Daniel Webster (DVD)

Stephen Vincent Benet wrote several short stories featuring famed statesman, orator, and lawyer Daniel Webster as an American folk hero, sort of a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Paul Bunyan. But of those tales, "The Devil And Daniel Webster" most captured the public's imagination, inspiring a Simpsons parody and two film adaptations. (The still-unreleased second version marks the directorial debut of Alec Baldwin, who reads the short story aloud on the new DVD version of the 1941 original.) Pure cornball Americana, The Devil & Daniel Webster concerns the plight of James Craig, a luckless New Hampshire farmer, husband, and Christian who considers himself a modern-day Job. Craig's fellow farmers urge him to join forces to help fight off predatory loan sharks, but he receives a much sexier offer from the Devil, played with incorrigible glee by Walter Huston. In exchange for his soul, Craig is transformed from a rural everyman into an 1840s Charles Foster Kane, complete with a hauntingly empty giant mansion and a large contingent of bitter former friends. The Devil eventually comes to collect, causing Craig to seek out the services of Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), a booze-loving champion of the common people equally prone to pitching a friendly game of horseshoes or delivering stirring bits of oratory. Arnold and Huston explicitly represent the angel and devil hovering just over Craig's brawny shoulders, but on a more metaphorical level, they represent the egalitarian promise of American Democracy and the greed that serves as its downside. A textbook example of New Deal populism, the film depicts the Devil as just another loan shark, albeit one whose terms are more draconian than most. Director William Dieterle turned The Devil & Daniel Webster into a highly stylized cross between fantasy pulp and a civics lesson on what it means to be an American, and he heavily underlines his points. The result isn't subtle, but the film's hokey folksiness is offset by its bracing acknowledgment that while its fondly realized old New Hampshire may be God's country, the materialism of its inhabitants makes it the Devil's playground, as well.

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