This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Travis McClain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The story here inserts Daniel Webster into the story of Faust, so that in the end the famed Congressman can argue that it's un-American to capitulate to the devil. It's the kind of conflation of religion and politics that tends to grate on my nerves very quickly, and the outdated views on American history are particularly irksome for me.
For instance, while preparing to oppose the devil in a trial for the soul of his client, Webster quips that "If two New Hampshire men aren't a match for the devil, we better give the country back to the Indians." That kind of racism makes me cringe whenever I encounter it. I am, of course, trained to distinguish between my contemporary values and those of the period being studied and for a film released in 1941 there's nothing peculiar about this.
Furthermore, there's the nagging matter of Webster's real life legacy. He espoused anti-slavery views, but later helped Henry Clay craft the Missouri Compromise that sacrificed a confrontation over slavery to preserve the Union. We can, of course, debate the pragmatism of the accord but we cannot divest Webster of it to accommodate the character in this film by that name speaking of how an American is not property, a point noted in Tom Piazza's essay, "The Devil and Daniel Webster: The Devil Gets the Best Lines".
Piazza is certainly spot-on as regards the character of Mr. Scratch (The Devil). The performance by Walter Huston is charmingly smarmy, a reminder that for all the talk of Hellfire and brimstone, The Devil is known not for intimidation, but temptation. He's genuinely likable here, despite the sinister undertones of being, y'know, The Devil.
[I would argue, though, that the single best line in the film belongs to Webster. Jabez declines some rum while they await the arrival of Mr. Scratch to claim his soul, to which Webster counters: "Just because you've sold your soul to the Devil, that needn't make you a teetotaler."]
Also engaging is Simone Simon as Mr. Scratch's cohort, the seductress Belle. Simon oozes sexuality every time she's in the frame, often distracting both other characters as well as audience. Her story doesn't really seem to go anywhere, though; she encourages Jabez to withdraw from his family and become more miserly and decadent, and clearly her endgame is to Jabez's utter ruin, but it's unclear whether she's actively pursuing a specific agenda or just along for the ride to ensure that Jabez is constantly surrounded by temptation.
In his essay, Bruce Eder posits that the film represents an artistic triumph borne directly out of Citizen Kane. I can appreciate the influence that Orson Welles's film had on the technical elements of The Devil and Daniel Webster (now that I've seen it, anyway), but where the story of Charles Foster Kane was a mystery to be explored, the tale of Jabez Stone is so obvious and predictable that I found myself wondering when we would just cut to the chase and get to the inevitable trial. Then, once we finally got there, I felt so annoyed at the banalities that there was no satisfaction to be found in the payoff.
I often hear the argument that "it's the journey, not the destination." As an explorer myself, I can appreciate the sentiment but this is an instance where the story is so clearly pushing its destination the whole time that it doesn't invite us to just enjoy the journey. Huston and Simon are enjoyable diversions, but we're so unmistakably headed for the trial that even their delicious scenes seem more to remind us to keep the story moving than to give us a moment to lose ourselves.
How It Entered My Flickchart
The Devil and Daniel Webster > Henry Poole Is Here
The Devil and Daniel Webster < After the Sunset
The Devil and Daniel Webster < Family Business
The Devil and Daniel Webster < Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
The Devil and Daniel Webster > The Shawshank Redemption
The Devil and Daniel Webster < This Film Is Not Yet Rated
The Devil and Daniel Webster < True Lies
The Devil and Daniel Webster < Bram Stoker's Dracula
The Devil and Daniel Webster > Army of Darkness
The Devil and Daniel Webster < The Iron Giant
The Devil and Daniel Webster entered my Flickchart at #657/1408