The Devil and Daniel Webster [Criterion Collection] [DVD] [1941]

A cinematic retelling of a classic piece of American folklore that has rarely been seen in the original form since its initial release in 1941, director William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster gets the usual loving treatment from The Criterion Collection, albeit with a few disappointing, but unavoidable, flaws. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, the image is remarkably clean given its age, with few signs of wear or speckling. Though the image itself is crisp and sharp, there is a distracting flickering that is, unfortunately, present throughout the film. While this flaw may prove somewhat distracting to some viewers, most will likely find it only a minor annoyance to an otherwise well-presented film. Unfortunately, the sound, as presented here, is also somewhat distracting, though likely unavoidable given the elements with which Criterion had to work. An underlying hiss is present throughout the film, with slightly muddled dialogue and an unevenly mixed musical score proving a minor annoyance in an otherwise enjoyable film. It really should be noted that the film is still extremely enjoyable if one is able to lower their expectations from modern standards of sound and image, and given the film's varied history, it's a pleasure simply to see it completely uncut and in the form Dieterle had originally intended. As is par for the course with Criterion, an abundance of generous and entertaining extras have also been included on this release. A commentary track featuring film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith is remarkably detailed, featuring minute information on everything from the unconventional methods used to calm a restless sow to revealing information about the innovative methods composer Herrmann used to give the Devil's rendition of "Pop Goes the Weasel" a truly otherworldly feel. Eder and Smith really know their stuff, and their commentary track is a virtually bottomless wealth of information concerning the film. Comparisons between The Devil and Daniel Webster and Here Is a Man (the alternate title for the preview version of the film) offer an interesting look at a few techniques that would ultimately prove ineffective, and a reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's original short story The Devil and Daniel Webster by actor Alec Baldwin proves to be an enjoyable listen. Also included are the original, Columbia Workshop radio performances of both The Devil and Daniel Webster and Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent (with both featuring the music of Herrmann). Though the sound on both of these presentations leaves quite a bit to be desired (it actually sounds as if someone is crinkling foil during Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent), they nevertheless contain a remarkably warm, nostalgic feel that make them entirely listenable. An interactive essay by Christopher Husted on the music of The Devil and Daniel Webster is as innovative as it is fascinating and a gallery of behind-the-scene photos and promotional material are likewise well presented and of very high quality. Rounding things out are some informative liner notes featuring both The Author Is Pleased, an original New York Times essay by Benet himself, and a fascinating article by Tom Piazza, appropriately entitled The Devil Gets the Best Lines.
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Overview

Special Features

  • New high-definition, digital transfer with restored image and sound
  • Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith
  • Reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's original short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by actor/director Alec Baldwin
  • Comparison between "The Devil and Daniel Webster" and the earlier preview version of the film, "Here Is a Man"
  • The Columbia Workshop's radio dramatizations of Benét's short stories "The Devil and Daniel Webster" and "Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent," both featuring music by Bernard Herrmann
  • The music of" The Devil and Daniel Webster" presented in an interactive essay by Christopher Husted of Herrmann's estate
  • Behind-the-scenes photos and promotional material
  • New essay by author Tom Piazza and a reprinted article by Benét
  • English subtitles
  • RSDL dual-layer edition

Synopsis

The Devil and Daniel Webster
This classic fantasy was based on a story by Stephen Vincent Benet. Jabez Stone (James Craig) is a simple New England farmer who has been suffering from a long run of bad luck. One day he mutters that he'd sell his soul for a little money and a decent crop. Moments later, who should appear but The Evil One himself, Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston). Scratch offers Stone seven years of wealth and good fortune in exchange for his soul; Stone, assuming it's some sort of joke, agrees. Soon Stone's fields are plentiful and money is rolling in, but his financial success comes with a price; he becomes a cold and greedy tyrant, losing the affection of his family and the respect of his peers. In time, Stone realizes that he's made a terrible mistake and that Scratch won't let him out of their deal without a fight. Desperate to regain his soul, Stone turns to the greatest legal and oratorical mind of his day, Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), who challenges Scratch to put his contract with Stone to the test in a fair trial. While a critical success and a favorite of film buffs, The Devil and Daniel Webster fared poorly at the box office; it was eventually released under five different titles and clipped to 85 minutes in hopes of winning a larger audience, though it was restored to a 107-minute length for release on home video. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

Cast & Crew

  • Edward Arnold
    Edward Arnold - Daniel Webster
  • Walter Huston
    Walter Huston - Mr. Scratch
  • James Craig
    James Craig - Jabez Stone
  • Jane Darwell
    Jane Darwell - Ma Stone
  • Simone Simon
    Simone Simon - Belle
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