The Devil and Daniel Webster (1936)
[T]hey say that whenever the devil comes near Marshfield,
even now, he gives it a wide berth. And he hasn't been seen in the state
A young nation, built on reason and skepticism, America doesn't have a whole lot of myths and legends. With the possible exception of Parson Weem's tales of young George Washington, the stories of Washington Irving, and a few tall tales like Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and John Henry, the best might be found in Stephen Vincent Benet's Faust-influenced but distinctly American short story and screenplay, The Devil and Daniel Webster, which has also been adapted for the stage and turned into an opera.
Jabez Stone of Cross Corners, New Hampshire is a man of little luck, until, with his wife and children ill and a whitlow on his own thumb, he barks :
I vow it's enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devill And I would, too, for two cents!
With that, a stranger appears and Jabez makes a deal, signing it in blood, which changes his luck drastically.
Over the next ten years, Stone prospers, becoming wealthy and an important man in politics. But with his mortgage to the stranger coming due, Jabez Stone regrets the deal he's made and pays a visit to his neighbor, Daniel Webster, of Mansfield, NH--the nation's greatest lawyer and New England's most revered citizen--to see if Mr. Webster will take him on as a client and see if there's not some way out of the deal. A lesser man might balk at the prospect of such a fight, but Daniel Webster has a special regard for his constituents and cheerfully assures Jabez that they'll prevail :
For if two New Hampshiremen aren't a match for the devil, we might as well give the country back to the Indians.
Webster's first ploy is to challenge the stranger's right to prey upon Americans :
'Mr. Stone is an American citizen, and no American
citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince. We fought England
'Foreign?' said the stranger. 'And who calls me a foreigner?'
'Well, I never yet heard of the dev -- of your claiming American citizenship,' said Dan'l Webster with surprise.
'And who with better right?' said the stranger, with
one of his terrible smiles. 'When the first wrong was done to the first
Indian, I was there.
This prompts Webster to recourse to Stone's rights as an American :
'Aha!' said Dan'l Webster, with the veins standing out in his forehead. 'Then I stand on the Constitution! I demand a trial for my client!'
'The case is hardly one for an ordinary court,' said the stranger, his eyes flickering. 'And, indeed, the lateness of the hour-'
'Let it be any court you choose, so it is an American
judge and an American jury!' said Dan'l Webster in his pride.
And so begins a trial, presided over by Justice Hathorne, who likewise oversaw the Salem Witch Trials, with a jury made up of the likes of Walter Butler, Simon Girty, King Philip, Reverend John Smeet, and Morton of Merry Mount. Inevitably, even these dastards are swayed by the rhetorical power of Daniel Webster and Jabez is released from his contract. The stranger good-naturedly conceding :
'Perhaps 'tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence,' he said, 'but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.'
Despite this graciousness, Daniel Webster grabs and threatens him, but then relents to his pleading. In exchange for being let go, the stranger predicts Webster's future for him. The stranger well knows of Webster's desire to be president one day and of his pride in his speaking ability. He warns that the dream will never come true and, perversely, the ambition will be thwarted by Webster's own talent :
'[T]he last great speech you make will turn many
of your own against you,' said the stranger. 'They will call you
Ichabod; they will call you
Webster takes the news surpassing well and in turn receives an assurance :
'So it is an honest speech, it does not matter what men say,' said Dan'l Webster. Then he looked at the stranger and their glances locked.
'One question,' he said. 'I have fought for the Union all my life. Will I see that fight won against those who would tear it apart?'
'Not while you live,' said the stranger, grimly,
'but it will be won. And after you are dead, there are thousands who will
fight for your cause,
'Why, then, you long-barreled, slab-sided, lantern-jawed,
fortune-telling note shaver!' said Dan'l Webster, with a great roar of
Sure enough, Webster's great speech in favor of the Missouri Compromise in 1850 would ensure its passage but with its provision for admitting a new slave state to the Union would make him anathema to hardcore abolitionists and doom his presidential hopes.
Benet helped adapt this story for the screen and it made for one of the really underrated great American films. With sterling performances by Edward Arnold as Webster and Walter Huston as the stranger, here called Mr. Scratch, the middle portion of the story, detailing Jabez Stone's rising fortunes and declining character, is greatly expanded. This is problematic because James Craig as Jabez is pretty nondescript, but Jane Darwell as his mother and Simone Simon as a sultry vixen who becomes the Stone's housemaid help to carry us through until the trial starts.
One interesting aspect of Benet's tale is his refusal to let his countrymen off the hook; the Devil is obviously integral to the American experience and though Webster matches the Devil in the end, he too hears the siren call of Mr. Scratch. In the end though Webster is redeemed by his all consuming love of the nation :
And they say that if you go to his grave and speak
loud and clear, 'Dan'l Webster--Dan'l Webster!' the ground'll begin to
shiver and the trees
What a worthy legend for America and for one of the greatest of her citizens.
See also:Short Stories
-ESSAY: The Devil Gets The Best Lines: on The Devil and Daniel Webster (Tom Piazza, Criterion Collection)
Book-related and General Links:
-Stephen (Vincent) Benét (1898-1943) (kirjasto)
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "benet, stephen vincent"
-ETEXT : The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benet
-ETEXT : The Devil and Daniel Webster (Law in Popular Culture Collection - E-texts)
-RADIO PLAY : The Devil and Daniel Webster (WNYC)
-OPERA : The Devil and Daniel Webster (Opera America)
-POEM : Excerpts from John Brown's Body
-POEM : THE BALLAD OF WILLIAM SYCAMORE, 1790-1871
-POEM : Talk
-POEM : American Names
-POEM : Winged Man
-POEM : The General Public
-POEM : Poor Devil
-ESSAY : Freedom from fear (Stephen Vincent Benet, Saturday Evening Post)
-The Benet Family (Arlington Cemetery)
-The Devil's Jury WebQuest : An Internet WebQuest on Daniel & the Devil (Christine Brannen & Lauren Bienstock, Point Loma High School)
-ESSAY : The Historical Authenticity of John Brown's Raid in Stephen Vincent Benet's 'John Brown's Body' (Mary Lynn Richardson, West Virginia History)
-ESSAY : Talk Not of a Wife : American interpretations of the Faust legend in 'The Devil and Daniel Webster,' 'Cabin in the Sky' and 'Damn Yankees' (Thomas L. Cooksey, Fall 1999, Journal of Popular Film and Television)
-ARCHIVES : "stephen vincent benet" (Find Articles)
DANIEL WEBSTER :
Recommended films by William Dieterle :
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd