Friday, July 15, 2011

#214: The Devil and Daniel Webster

(William Dieterle, 1941)

The Devil and Daniel Webster tells the story of a farmer who sells his soul to the devil and the senator who helped win it back. That senator is based on a real life politician, Daniel Webster (who twice could have become second-in-command to president who would go on to die before the end of their term), but is a bizarrely inaccurate portrayal of his political leanings, turning a big business defender into a man of the people. In fact, the bulk of the movie could stand in as a campaign video for Webster, a man who apparently loved New England and New Hampshire like God loves the Earth, could drink any man under the table, and never refused a man his time or effort. This is all before he convinces a jury of some of America's most despicable and infamous criminals that they should defy the devil (a scene parodied in The Simpsons on an early and classic Halloween special).

Of course, the film was made nearly 100 years after Webster's death, so it's hard to accuse it of party-centered mythmaking. The movie (and the short story it was based on) seems more interested in building up America as the ultimate opponent for the devil than Webster or any specific person. The movie reminded me of Darryl Zanuck's overwrought Wilson in terms of Hollywood crafting tales of American history with contemporary goals in mind. Oddly, the shift of Webster from anti-abolishionist reality to fiery orator who argues that no American can be someone's property is perhaps the most American element of the film, drawing on the country's ability to merge its history into its reality as it is reborn.

Possibly Dieterle's best-known film (with only The Hunchback of Notre Dame as its competition, though his The Life of Emile Zola is one of the more mediocre films to win best picture), The Devil and Daniel Webster is a light-hearted fable with top-notch production that makes for an entertaining viewing. But compared to some of the other films from 1941 (one of the best years ever), it's a minor work.

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