The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

As I’ve said elsewhere, having seen Gil Gunderson on The Simpsons made it hard for me to fully accept Glengarry Glen Ross. Curiously, having seen Matt Groening’s little yellow folk take on this story before I watched the original telling of it didn’t pose any comparable problems. I’ve filed this one under “horror”, cos “fantasy” didn’t seem quite right to describe it, although “horror” doesn’t seem entirely right either. Whatever. Our Homer… er, protagonist is Jabez Stone, a New Hampshire farmer falling on hard times like his fellow farmers in 1840. When he mutters something about selling his soul for a doughnut… sorry, two cents, someone’s there to overhear him. That someone is Mr Scratch, and he’s got an offer Jabez can’t easily refuse: seven years of prosperity and “all that money can buy” in exchange for his immortal soul. Something must’ve been in the water at RKO back then, cos after giving Orson Welles free rein to make Citizen Kane they then decided to repeat the experiment with William Dieterle; the result was pretty singular again (and just as unsuccessful at the box office) albeit in different ways; though clearly based upon the Faust legend more than any native American tale, it still retains a specifically American flavour, further complicated by Dieterle’s German background and his expressionistic stylings learned therefrom. And it foreshadows what Robin Wood called an important development in American horror cinema, the shifting of evil from something exotic and remote to something close by and domestic; here Mr Scratch is no outsider to this New Hampshire community, instead he’s causing havoc right from within it. And though Daniel Webster does indeed beat the devil at the end, it’s a noticeably temporary victory; though there may be something light-hearted about the final scene (if Mr Scratch can’t have Webster’s soul, he’ll have his pie), that doesn’t alter the fact that Scratch is still free to try his tricks again. At least the Universal horrors offered the illusion of the monster’s defeat. A fascinating bit of 40s cinema.


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