Monday, May 25, 2009

No Sympathy for This Devil


Turning a short story into a feature-length movie can be even trickier than adapting a novel. Unlike the novel, the short story is a compact piece of writing with all its elements compressed and, as Edgar Allan Poe defined it, designed to create a single impression. Short stories tend to have a limited number of characters, their concise plots telescoped into a few brief scenes, sometimes as few as one or two scenes. So the task of adapting a short story for the screen is largely one of expansion, of elaborating on what's already there by adding more details and often entirely new elements to create a fuller and more complex plot.

One common way of doing this is to use the original story as a framing device and invent an entirely new middle explaining how the situation described in the story came about. This approach was especially popular in the 1940s, with that decade's fondness for flashback plots that begin by showing the conclusion of the movie first. It was used in The Killers (1946), a brilliant film noir based on the story by Hemingway, and in My Foolish Heart (1949), based on J. D. Salinger's story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," the only one of his works ever filmed. No wonder Salinger hated the movie, since 90% of it was the creation of the screenwriter, who turned Salinger's bleak story of post-World War II suburban frustration and alcoholism into a sentimental wartime romance with a happy ending.

The 1941 film version of Stephen Vincent Benét's O. Henry Prize-winning short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (originally released under the title All That Money Can Buy but now generally referred to by the story's title) eschewed the flashback approach and stuck with the chronological structure of the story. Set in the 1840s, it is about Jabez Stone, an unlucky New Hampshire farmer who in a moment of exasperation impulsively blurts out that his misfortunes are "enough to make a man want to sell his soul to the devil . . . for two cents." When a mysterious stranger appears and offers to take him up on this offer, Jabez signs a "contract" in blood and sees his bad luck turn to good. When the contract comes due in seven years, Stone panics and turns to the renowned orator and statesman Daniel Webster for help.

The first half of Benét's story is quite sketchy, almost a summary of events that happen over those seven years. The second half is one long, fully developed scene of Daniel Webster demanding a jury trial for Stone and getting it. The movie kept this basic plot, using the diabolical trial as the dramatic concluding sequence. To get a 107-minute movie from a story little more than ten pages long, the screenwriter, Dan Totheroh, did the conventional thing—to embellish the plot with details of his own creation. The plot he devised remained faithful to the spirit of the story but amplified its nature and focus in significant ways and gave German-trained director William Dieterle the opportunity to fully exercise his considerable visual storytelling skills.

The movie emphasizes the essential nature of farm life: how the success or failure of a farmer is closely connected to the success or failure of his farm and so often determined by natural forces beyond his control. When the film opens, Jabez Stone's farm is mortgaged to a greedy money lender named Miser Stevens, and the mortgage payment is due. Stone, who doesn't have the money to make the payment, intends to use products from the farm to barter for an extension. But everything goes wrong for him. A prize piglet he plans to offer to Miser Stevens breaks its leg; he drops a sack of grain seed in the mud and it splits, spilling the seed and ruining it.

It is obvious that the economic problems of farmers and their helplessness in the face of bankers and mortgages have been added to the plot to make it more timely. When the movie was released in 1941, the country was just coming out of the Great Depression. This period in American history had begun not much more than a decade earlier with widespread agrarian economic disaster caused by crop failure and the massive amount of debt owed by farmers to lenders and lending institutions. Audiences of the time would have been well aware of this recent situation, and the realization that these are the very problems that drive Jabez to sell his soul to the devil must have resonated powerfully with them.

After Stone's pact with the devil, which occurs in April, he has enough money to pay off his entire mortgage and buy seed for a new crop. Stone's good fortune is signaled by a striking montage of springtime fertility reminiscent of those idealized views of collective farms coming out of Russia in the 1920s and 30s. In rapid succession we see simple shots of wheat being sown, growing, maturing, and ripening, along with shots of farm animals with their young—a group of chicks following a hen, newborn piglets suckling. And his young wife Mary (Anne Shirley), a sweet-natured but plain-looking and modest woman, announces that she is pregnant with their first child.

While Stone seems to have extraordinarily good luck, his neighbors seem to have extraordinarily bad luck. A freak storm late in the growing season wipes out their crops but leaves his fields untouched. So abundant is his crop that he hires his neighbors to harvest it. The sense of power produced by this ostensible act of charity initiates a marked change in Jabez Stone's personality. He becomes arrogant and greedy. He exploits his neighbors by lending them money at crippling rates of interest. He refuses to join the new Grange they have founded to pressure Congress into extending bankruptcy laws to farmers to protect them from predatory lenders like Miser Stevens and now Jabez Stone himself. He becomes a shallow social climber who goes fox hunting like a landed English aristocrat. He builds an ostentatious new mansion and moves into it without his neglected wife and disgusted mother (Jane Darwell), who prefer to stay on at the family's simple little farmhouse.

Not only does Stone lose his humanity, but he also loses his religion. Incidents added to the plot by Totheroh show him breaking, either directly or indirectly, nearly every one of the ten commandments of his Protestant faith. The God he now worships is money, which at this time was not the paper bills of today but minted gold coins (in a way, graven images). An extremely attractive and openly erotic woman named Belle (Simone Simon), clearly an emissary of the devil, mysteriously shows up as nursemaid to Stone's newborn son, and it is obvious that she quickly becomes his mistress. Jabez stops going to church, preferring to stay at home on Sunday with Belle playing cards and gambling with his dissolute cronies. He covets his neighbors' land and soon acquires it, symbolically stealing it through his money-lending. His formerly respectful attitude toward his mother becomes rudeness and ridicule of her religious faith. She is especially offended by his repeated use of the oath "Consarn it," an obvious euphemism for "Goddam it." (Neither Belle nor the mother appears in the story.)

But even with all these potent thematic elements, it is Walter Huston as the devil who dominates the movie. In Benét's story he is described only as a "soft-spoken, dark-dressed" man who "smiled with his teeth." Huston takes this terse description and runs with it, creating an innocuous-looking character neatly dressed in a dark suit and tweed hat, always smiling, always speaking in a gentle voice, but somehow exuding quiet menace. He is less a threatening demon than a mischievous leprechaun secretly amused by his invisible power over humans, confident that his inducements are too tempting for most humans to resist. His role, in truth a supporting one (even though he gets top billing and received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best actor), is still the most prominent one in the movie from the sheer force of his presence. He regularly visits Jabez and frequently shows up in the background, nodding and smiling merrily in crowd scenes and scratching his bearded chin. (The first time he appears, he introduces himself as Dan Scratch.)

Huston is also prominently featured in the movie's most visually exciting sequences. When Jabez, standing in his barn, makes that crack about selling his soul to the devil for two cents, he opens his hand and finds himself holding two coins. At that moment the wall of the barn seems to open up and becomes flooded with brilliant light. Slowly the form of a well-dressed man scratching his chin emerges from the light, walks up to Jabez, introduces himself, and holds out a business card, which promptly bursts into flames in his hand. It is Huston. Later in the year at the harvest dance, he shows up as the grimacing fiddler, manically sawing away at his instrument faster and faster while Jabez and Belle whirl in a frenzied dance and in the house Mary Stone is delivering her child. (At this point I should mention Bernard Herrmann's Oscar-winning score which, like Joseph August's equally brilliant lighting and photography and Robert Wise's editing, contributes immeasurably to the picture.)

Huston also turns up when Jabez invites the whole town to a housewarming party at his gaudy new mansion. Nobody else comes except Mary, who is immediately turned away by Belle. "You're in my house," Belle says to her. When Jabez walks to the window to look for people arriving, he sees an eerily silent horde of the damned from hell lurking outside. As he walks away from the window, he turns around to find the damned crowding around the lavish buffet laid out in the dining room and the devil sitting in a chair by the fireplace.

Mr. Scratch has come to remind Jabez that the seven years of his contract are nearly up. As he and Jabez sit across from each other, a large moth flutters from the devil's pocket and lands on Jabez. "Neighbor Stone, help me!" a tiny voice pleads. It is the voice of Miser Stevens. Huston explains that he was another client and that the moth is his soul. This incident has been transposed from early in Benét's story and is a clear allusion to the attraction of moths to flame. In fact, fire is a recurring motif in the movie, from the devil's calling card, to the indoor scenes that take place before open fireplaces, to the destruction by fire of the grand mansion at the end of the movie. Huston reaches out, scoops up the moth, and wraps it in a handkerchief. When Jabez begs for an extension of his contract, Huston says he might consider it . . . if Jabez will deliver him the soul of his young son. (Is this a parallel to the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, but intended to test Jabez's allegiance to the devil?) Killing is just about the only commandment Jabez has not yet broken, but this suggestion is too much even for him.

And Huston shares the spotlight in that famous trial sequence when Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) argues for Jabez Stone before a "jury of the damned" chosen by the devil. Webster's chief argument is that as an American, Jabez Stone is entitled to freedom, and that for the devil to claim him would be a violation of that freedom. This leads to the most stinging bit of dialogue in the movie, taken directly from the story and still relevant today. When Webster calls the devil a "foreign prince," the devil takes exception: "Who calls me a foreign prince?" he asks. "Well, I never heard of the dev—of your claiming American citizenship," says Daniel Webster. "And who with better right?" the devil replies. "When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo, I stood on her deck. . . . I am merely an honest American."

As a studio product of the 1940s and with its strong element of patriotic Americana (although to be fair, this comes from the story and is actually downplayed for the film), the movie's outcome is never seriously in doubt. On its own, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a very entertaining movie, a narrative and visual treat that should please anyone interested in the best motion pictures of the American studio era. But for those interested in literature as well as film, and in the process of adapting literature for film, its interest is more than cinematic. The movie follows the structure of the story respectfully and yet finds ways to expand it to feature length that are equally respectful. Little that I have described, aside from the trial and a very few details, can be found in the story, yet the movie is wholly consistent with the spirit and intent of its source material. It is a true exemplar of the tricky craft of transforming a great short story into an outstanding movie.
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The Devil and Daniel Webster airs on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday, May 31, at 7 a.m. Pacific time. (Check local times.) TCM shows the beautifully restored, unedited version released by Criterion in 2003.

4 comments:

John said...

R.D.
A fascinating review that has whet my appetite to watch this film, which I have never seen. You have done a marvelous and in depth job at comparing the film vs. the short story. As you say, it is difficult to stretch out a short story, a few pages in length, into a full length film. How many of the films based on Edgar Allan Poe just use the title and the filmmakers go on to do a story that in no way is related to the original Poe story.

Thanks for the heads up on its upcoming showing on TCM. For anyone interested on the east coast, the film is showing at 10AM on May 31st.

Sam Juliano said...

Well, well, another exhaustive labor of love at The Movie Projector by it's resident cineaste. The entire thrust of the piece of course concerns the remarkable nature of turning a short story into a full-length film, in this case fleshing out so much that wasn't implied in the "sketchy" short story gem by Mr. Benet. When one thinks of short stories made-into-films, one can't help but invoke Edgar Allan Poe (upon which a number of full-length films have been successfully adapted) and some single pieces like D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner" and James Joyce's "The Dead" both of which were turned into very fine films by Anthony Pellisier and John Huston. Of course your example here of the Siodmak film is impeccable.

Of course you get to the crux of the situation here:

"To get a 107-minute movie from a story little more than ten pages long, the screenwriter, Dan Totheroh, did the conventional thing—to embellish the plot with details of his own creation. The plot he devised remained faithful to the spirit of the story but amplified its nature and focus in significant ways and gave German-trained director William Dieterle the opportunity to fully exercise his considerable visual storytelling skills."

Indeed, indeed.

And not enough can be said about that Oscar-winning score you rightly pose here by Bernard Herrmann, which ranks among his greatest. (Despite his yeoman work for Hitchcock and Harryhausen, my nominee as his greatest score ever is the ravishing one he composed for Nicholas Ray for the film noir ON DANGEROUS GROUND. But it admittedly hard to compare his greatest achievements. One thing however is irrefutable: He's the greatest film composer of all-time. Only Max Steiner pushes close, while Korngold, John Williams, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, Alfred Newman, Miklod Rosza and Franz Waxman would be on that shortlist, methinks.

You are right-on to assert that Walter Huston is the center of the film, and that particular nod to Joseph August's lighting, which is this film is a formidable element. Engaging retelling of the story here, one of the best I've ever read on this film.

But even though you point to the film as a sterling example of the greatest of the Hollywood studio system of that period, and this work's considerable value as a work of cinema and as entertainment, it's here where your crucial deliniation is made:

"But for those interested in literature as well as film, and in the process of adapting literature for film, its interest is more than cinematic. The movie follows the structure of the story respectfully and yet finds ways to expand it to feature length that are equally respectful. Little that I have described, aside from the trial and a very few details, can be found in the story, yet the movie is wholly consistent with the spirit and intent of its source material. It is a true exemplar of the tricky craft of transforming a great short story into an outstanding movie."

This is clearly one of the finerst essays every published at this site and for a fascinating specification and timeless American classic to boot.

R. D. Finch said...

John and Sam, thank you so much for your comments on this post. It is encouraging to know that mine is not just a voice in the wilderness. Getting some feedback is really encouraging. I have to admit that I don't find writing these pieces as easy as I used to. I guess I had a lot of pent-up things to express about movies and have gotten a lot of what I wanted to say out there already in the last few months. John, considering the films you've expressed fondness for at Twenty Four Frames, I predict you'll find this one well worth watching.

Sam, thank you for your thorough commentary. Comparing works of written fiction to their film adaptations is not an approach I ordinarily find terribly fruitful. But I wanted to write about this movie, and when I reviewed my copy of the story (which I hadn't read in decades), I saw that I could use it as a way in to the subject. You mentioned a couple of other fine adaptations of short stories. I saw "Rocking Horse" not too long ago and thought it a fine film. "The Dead" is my favorite short story, and the Huston movie, which I've seen several times, is to me a flat-out masterpiece. Greta's monologue and the "snow is falling" passage at the end is one of the most affecting scenes not only in literature but also in cinema. As for Huston pere, who could choose between his performance in this movie and in "Dodsworth" or "Sierra Madre"? He deserved Oscars for all of them. They're all of genius level, and so different from one another! I'm pleased that you approved of this approach to the movie. I was unsure of it, but I recognize you as a reliable arbiter of quality and accept your praise with sincere thanks.

Rupert Alistair said...

THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER has become one of my favorite films of the Golden Age. Although I had heard of it before, I didn't have the opportunity to see it until several months ago. Brilliant! Bernard Herrmann's score, Huston and Arnold as well as French Simone Simon and future MGM contractee James Craig. Wonderful on all levels.