Dan’l Webster Examines the Details

devil webster4We folk hear tell of stories of the supernatural; of encounters with vile critters from far beyond this plane. Faust made a deal with Beezlebul, and Tom Walker did too. Charlie Daniels commemorated Mephistopheles’ trip to Georgia in song and Tenacious D challenged the Prince of Darkness to a rock off.

Taking cues from the Faust and Tom Walker legends, there was written yet another tale; the tale of the unfortunate New Hampshireman, Jabez Stone, who departed with his soul for two cents and bestowed it upon cunning Old Scratch himself. Stephen Vincent Benét’s classic short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” reminded the reader of the pride of being a real, red-blooded American and warned of the dangers of taking the easy path. It was a fable as simple, earnest, and true to the spirit of America as the words of Twain or Irving.

What’s up, Doc?

The 1941 RKO adaptation was a special sort of film. Directed by William Dieterle (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and starring Edward Arnold (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) as Daniel Webster and Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as the devil, The Devil and Daniel Webster was one of those unflinching American movies that celebrated legendary ideals in much the same way John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) or Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) did. They hearken back not to the current America we know and picket, but the magic in what it all was supposed to be once upon a very long time ago. There’s a profound sense of patriotism in these movies and so what better foe for a proud American orator like Mr. Webster than the devil himself? If he can beat Satan and save Jabez Stone’s soul then perhaps there is hope for the rest of America.

devil webster2

Get off my back.

Jabez Stone (James Craig) is an unlucky New Hampshire farmer in the 1840s. He dreams of being a lucky man. This is just the kind of thing that Scratch waits for. [Scratch was a regional colloquialism for the devil, which adds such sumptuous local atmosphere to the story, don’t you think?] Scratch (Walter Huston) is as subtle a Satan that ever graced the silver screen. He’s tattered and unassuming, yet somehow diabolical and refined. He seems like just another kooky old coot, but there’s a sinister confidence that broadcasts all too loudly just how much sharper he is than you. He has an oily grace and a malevolent grin full of ingratiating teeth. His tricks and entrances are subtle but subtly disturbing. He accepts Stone’s soul and promises him seven years of good fortune, but as we good folk all know, the devil does not soon forget a deal and he always comes to collect. Jabez Stone loses his humanity and happiness and even pushes away his wife (Anne Shirley), mother (Jane Darwell), and friends all in favor of the acquisition of wealth. He builds a mansion and bankrupts fellow farmers and spends more and more time with a crafty demon maid (Simone Simon) while his young son becomes increasingly bratty and malicious.

I’m not a witch.

When Jabez Stone’s poor wife can take it no more she gets the only person who can help him: the great senator, statesman, and New Englander, Daniel Webster. Attack of the history!

I enjoyed this movie the whole way through. Up until the final act it’s a splendidly solid film about the trap of greed, but in the homestretch it just gets awesome. Famous historical orator, Daniel Webster, will defend the fallen Jabez Stone against Scratch in a trial in Stone’s barn on the very spot where the deal was initiated and the judge and jury will be a court of the damned. The jury are all famous condemned Americans (pirates, chiefs, traitors, murderers, and madmen) brought back from hell to judge whether or not Jabez Stone and Daniel Webster will keep their souls or be turned into moths and kept in Scratch’s pocket. Them’s some high stakes. How awesome is this? The answer: pretty awesome.

You sicken me.

The great Walter Huston (father to John and grandfather to Angelica) was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but lost to Donald Crisp in How Green Was My Valley. Mr. Huston was full of wonderful characters. Fortunately he did win best supporting actor for Sierra Madre (directed by his son). Huston really is one of the best movie devils. Some movie devils are quietly unnerving like Robert De Niro (Angel Heart) or corporate and bombastic like Al Pacino (Devil’s Advocate). Sometimes they’re more sinister businessmen like Peter Stormare (Constantine) or Billy Crystal (Deconstructing Harry). Other times Chuck Norris can round-house kick the devil in the face (Hellbound). I like ’em best when they’re merely amorally mischievous like Peter Cook (Bedazzled) or Danny Elfman (The Forbidden Zone). Another shout out goes to Tom Waits’ superb portrayal of pure evil in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Trey Parker’s gay Satan from South Park is another favorite. F. W. Murnau had a particularly grand representation of the devil for his adaptation of Faust (Svankmajer’s version is a bit weird). And yes, yes, Tim Curry had good makeup in Legend but I like my Lucifer more subtle. The devil is always a fun character in movies and while we might never know who’s is the most accurate depiction, we can all have our opinions of who is the most fun to watch.

devilwebster

You’re next.

It must be said: I love this movie. The Devil and Daniel Webster is fantastic. It’s wonderfully produced with some great photography, lighting, music and many lines of dialogue (particularly those of Scratch and Webster) were taken directly from the short story. As a fellow New Englander (and someone who loves history), I enjoyed much of the feel for the location and the attitudes of the characters. It feels distinctly American, but perhaps moreso the pure America of legend and folklore. It’s as refreshing and pure as a slice of apple pie. Read Benét’s short story and go watch this movie.

http://vitagraphamerican.blogspot.com/2011/04/vital-graph-devil-and-daniel-webster.html

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdreviews10/the_devil_and_daniel_webster_.htm

http://michaeldemeng.blogspot.com/2010/02/deal-with-devil.html

The Other Passion

passion7It is not a commonplace thing in modern American society to face death squarely in the eye for your faith in the Almighty. Seems religious trials are almost unheard of these days. And, no, that science teacher who belittled you for thinking the earth is only being 6,000 years old doesn’t count as persecution. Martyrdom, to most Americans, is something that happened a long time ago or, if it is still happening, is very far away. It is something we, happily, do not really have to see or experience…which is why I think it terribly important to acquaint oneself with it. Some significant films that deal with this subject include James Collier’s The Hiding Place (1975), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It is Dreyer’s film I have selected to champion today (although watch the other movies too as they are all very good).

passion4The Passion of Joan of Arc was directed by Carl Dreyer (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet) in the late 1920s (and, yes, is silent). Sergei Eisenstein’s influence on Dreyer is apparent. The same ground-breaking art of montage editing that Eisenstein used to amazingly cinematic effect in The Battleship Potemkin (1925) (and in Abel Ganz’s Napoleon, 1927) is used once more and with great skill and emotional power by Dreyer to heighten the urgency, peril, and frenetic horror of the trial of Joan of Arc. The phenomenal editing coupled with the frequent use of overpowering close-ups and the stellar acting (most notably by the lead heroine played by Maria Falconetti) make for a stirringly dramatic tour-de-force.

And to think it was lost for several decades before it was found in the early 1980s in a Norwegian mental institution.

passion8The Passion of Joan of Arc does not follow the life or brave actions of the female French martyr who heard voices that told her to lead an army against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. The movie presumes we already know Joan and so does not go into the details of her life story or the surrounding circumstances of her arrest, but instead documents her trial by the British for heresy in 1431 in Rouen. By focusing on only the final leg of Joan’s incredible life, Dreyer is able to fully explore one of the most famous trials in human history and immerse the audience in the frustrating hysteria and hypocrisy of the time.

passion6Renee Maria Falconetti (predominately a stage actress) plays the ill-fated Joan of Arc, in what is considered by many to be one of the best screen performances in film history. She is on trial for heresy because she claims that she was commanded by God to dress as a man and go to war for her country. Her persecutors cannot accept this as this would mean that God was against the English (and that God, furthermore, condones cross-dressing).

passion3The trial consists of a series of ornery old clerics bandying words in desperate attempts to trap Joan into admitting or denying her knowledge of being under God’s grace; the knowledge of one’s salvation was considered quite heretical at that time. Instead of giving them what they want and signing the confession that will lead to her execution—but at least, in their eyes, she will be pardoned by God for her offense—Joan instead shows her resilience, intelligence, and steadfast faith that God will protect her. They threaten her and torture her and taunt her with communion, granting it to her only if she confesses. Joan has principles and beliefs and so lying about hearing God to avoid torture would be the greater evil than her being tortured and killed as a heretic. In Joan’s mind she cannot be wrong and in the mind of men who are interrogating her she cannot be right. When two opposing forces are so fervently convinced of their own divine knowledge, where then shall reason seek council?

passion5The final act is no less compelling or stirring than the rest of the film. Joan’s death by being burned at the stake is shocking and unforgettable (and there is a bit more to it than just an execution). Average moviegoers might get to the end of this movie and ask themselves, “Well, what was the point of that?” but I encourage you to allow the film to wash over you and consider the undaunted faith of one person. This film is anything but hollow. As a depiction of injustice, hypocrisy, the dangers of theocracy, and the products of unshakable faith, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a must-see. It’s a grand visual spectacle with marvelous, realistic performances, and expert cinematography and editing (and if you watch the Criterion DVD you’ll be treated to the fantastic new score composed by Richard Einhorn—originally the film was meant to be musically silent, but the wonderful scoring does add a bonus layer of emotion).

passion2In America we have it pretty easy as far as martyrdom goes. Religion is allowed to be a punchline. Many times a person is viewed as simple, naive, hypocritical, or just plain dumb for submitting oneself to a higher unseen authority. Probably because, in many cases, many practitioners of faith are just that: ignorant, bigoted hypocrites. They are allowed to be because they are not challenged. When faced with certain death, what does your faith look like? How strong is it? To what are you clinging and why? I think that’s an important question.

passion9Perhaps what stirred me most about Dreyer’s film is not just its visceral beauty and technical prowess, but its immense fervency and maturity in its depiction of theological struggle. He manages to humanize the whole court, not just Joan. Everyone is wrestling with God in this narrative. There is much to glean from in The Passion of Joan of Arc. This is a strongly recommended and thoroughly arresting feast for the soul.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Sept. 15, 2009