Monday, October 24, 2016

The Devil and Daniel Webster (From Page to Screen to Screen)

The Story:

Stephen Vincent Benét, best known for John Brown's Body, had "The Devil and Daniel Webster" published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1936.  The story is presented as an old New England folktale, about the time a down on his luck farmer, Jabez Stone, sold his soul to the devil for seven years good luck, only to regret his decision and ask Daniel Webster (the real life congressman and orator, often held to be one of, if not the, most eloquent and honest men to ever serve in the US government) to represent him and get him out of the contract.  The devil agrees to a trial, stocks the jury with cutthroats and traitors from American history, and sets an unrepentant judge from the Salem witch trials to justice.  Old Dan'l speaks all night and convinces the jury that a man's freedom is too valuable, and the sinners relent, giving Jabez Stone his life back.

The story's themes of perseverance through tough times, and the resilience of the American people (especially farmers), would strike a special chord with audiences in the middle of the great depression.  It's a wonderful story and you can read it here on Gutenburg Australia.

The Films:

Director: William Dieterle
Runtime: 107 minutes

The first film adaptation was released in 1941, with a screenplay co-written by Benét.  The plot is much the same as the story, with some additions, most notably a seductive demon (at least that's what we're led to assume) that supplants Jabez's wife.  There's more time devoted to the plight of poor farmers, and the corrupting influence of wealth is hammered down a bit more, in a way that may seem trite today.  There's a lot of folksy New England humor, like when Jabez's Ma points out that "hard luck - well, we made New England out of it.  That and codfish."

Jabez and Ma Stone

While the entire cast ranges from adequate to great, the standout star of the film is Walter Huston (father of John Huston, Academy Award winner for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), who plays the Devil, or Scratch, as he's often called in New England.

Unfortunately, the scene I wanted to embed wasn't on Youtube, but if you have six minutes, watch Webster's speech to the damned.

All That Money Can Buy (which was titled as such to avoid confusion with The Devil and Miss Jones) was a flop at the box office, despite receiving an Academy Award for its score (which is great) and a best leading actor nomination for Huston.  A restored version of the film was released in the 1990s, with the intended title, The Devil and Daniel Webster.  While certain aspects have aged poorly, it's nonetheless a great film.

Director: Alec Baldwin
Runtime: 106 minutes

The fact that Alec Baldwin used a pseudonym for his directorial credit should be a sign of how this 2003 film turned out.  Baldwin (who also produced the film) stars as Jabez Stone, a down-on-his-luck writer in Manhattan with a bit of talent but no success.  After a fantastically bad day in which he loses his job, is humiliated by a publisher (whose name is Daniel Webster, played by Anthony Hopkins), finds out a friend of his has sudden remarkable success (making him jealous), is mugged, and later kills an elderly woman by throwing a typewriter out a window, Stone is approached by the Devil, who is played by Jennifer Love Hewitt.  She offers to give him ten years of success (and unkills the old lady) in exchange for his soul.  Jabez agrees.  As opposed to the original story and the 1941 film, in which the deal is made official by a contract signed in blood, Stone and the devil seal the deal by, well, sealing the deal.

fig. 1.1 Contract Law

The first half hour or so of the movie works pretty well, but things quickly devolve from their.  This may be the most over-edited movie I've ever seen.  Nearly every other scene ends with either an iris in/out or with tonally inappropriate wipes, as well as an inexplicable frequent use of slow motion shots, which don't make things more dramatic, as the editor intended, but merely more baffling.

This film has a great supporting cast, including Anthony Hopkins, Dan Ackroyd, and Amy Poehler, although the latter two never get much chance to prove how funny they can be.  Like in the original story, Jabez ends up regretting his deal, and enlists the help of Daniel Webster.  The Webster in this case has no connection to the historical figure.  He's just a publisher named Daniel Webster who happens to have considerable experience in suing the devil.  The courtroom scene is a real mess, with Webster using at least a few different defenses, and no real emotional power like the 1941 version.  Hewitt's devil isn't sure whether to be menacing, erotic, or inscrutable, making the performance none of the above (although this isn't Hewitt's fault.  There's only so much she could have done with the script). One point that bugs me deals with the jury in this case.  Stone has become a massively successful author, though one that's critically panned.  The jury, rather than traitors and scoundrels, is composed of authors.  Only four are named, though many are identifiable by appearance (e.g. Woolf and Joyce).  The four named authors are Truman Capote, Jacqueline Susanne, Ernest Hemingway, and Mario Puzo.  Susann and Puzo are best known for writing books that were massively successful but critically panned, so putting them on the jury doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.  Anyway, Webster and Stone win the case, and time is reversed to before the deal is made.

1 comment:

  1. Cool! My dad used to read me this story when I was a kid.