In many ways, The Devil and Daniel Webster is different from all the other Faustian tales we have encountered over the years. Not better, just different.
First of all, in most such stories, the Faustian character is a bachelor, one notable exception being Damn Yankees (1958), in which Joe Boyd is a married man. But in any event, they all live comfortable lives. They sell their souls because they are discontented. As a result, we never understand why they would be so stupid as to agree to spend an eternity burning in the fires of Hell for a few decades of whatever it is they want: wealth, power, fame, sex, or a baseball team that can beat the Yankees.
In The Devil and Daniel Webster, on the other hand, Jabez Stone (James Craig) is a poor farmer for whom everything seems to be going wrong. In particular, the note on his farm is due the next day and he doesn’t have any money, meaning he will lose the farm. He supports his mother, Ma Stone (Jane Darwell), and his wife, Mary (Anne Shirley), who falls off the wagon and is unconscious. In his utter exasperation, he says that it’s enough to make a man sell his soul to the Devil. Needless to say, the Devil, who goes by the name of Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston), shows up ready to make the deal. At least this makes some sense. Every man has his breaking point, and Jabez has reached his. We might actually believe that a man might make a Faustian bargain under such desperate circumstances.
Second, in all other Faustian tales, the two principal characters are the man who sells his soul to the Devil and the Devil himself. But in The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Faustian character is not in the title. Rather, it includes some third character. In fact, so prominent is the role of Daniel Webster in this movie that I’m almost surprised they found room in the title for the Devil. Now, we all know who Daniel Webster is, a politician of note in the years leading up to the Civil War. But the excessive adoration of Webster that this movie evinces is beyond anything most of us would ever have imagined.
Third, in most Faustian stories, the Devil lives up to the letter of the contract, but not the spirit. He grants the Faustian character his wishes, only to undermine them in some way. As Roger Ebert once argued, the Devil should do everything he can to satisfy the Faustian character so that he will tell all his friends about the good deal he made. A little word-of-mouth advertising might net the Devil a few more souls. In this movie, however, Mr. Scratch doesn’t pull any sneaky tricks. He allows Jabez access to a big supply of gold coins, which solves most of his problems right there. Mr. Scratch even goes beyond what was required in the agreement, beyond just the money. He protects Jabez’s wheat against a hailstorm that destroys the wheat of all the other farmers. And he sees to it that the Jabez family gets Belle (Simone Simon) for a maid so that Jabez can have an affair with her. As a result, for seven years, the agreed upon length of time Jabez has before he must die and go to Hell, Jabez is on top of the world.
When Jabez first comes running into the house to tell his mother and Mary about the Hessian gold that he found underneath the barn, Ma Stone is suspicious. “Most outlandish thing I ever heard tell,” she says. “Doesn’t seem right somehow.” Now, we all know that Jane Darwell has played in a lot of movies in which she has down-to-earth common sense and gritty wisdom, but this is a little too much. On that very morning, the sheriff has stopped by to tell them that they will be thrown off the farm the next day. They can’t sell the pig because he just broke his leg. Mary’s tells Jabez the butter money is gone because she needed it to pay the vet to treat the horse. He decides to sell the bag of seed he was going to use for the spring plowing, but it rips open and spills out onto the mud. And then, ten minutes after Mary has fallen on her head and was knocked unconscious, Jabez comes running into the house to tell about the Hessian gold he just found. And yet, Ma Stone suspects something. Like what? Does she think Jabez just committed highway robbery? It’s almost as if she suspects Jabez must have sold his soul to the Devil. Why accept a natural explanation like buried Hessian gold when there is a perfectly good supernatural explanation ready at hand?
In any event, for seven years Jabez is a happy man. It is only when his time is up that he starts bellyaching, claiming that he has been cheated, which he has not. He says, “You promised me prosperity, happiness, love, money, friendship.” Mr. Scratch replies that all he promised him was money and all that it could buy. More to the point, Jabez had the love of his wife, but he not only cheated on her, but also mistreated her. He had friends, but once he got his hands on the money, he started taking advantage of them, until no one liked him anymore. In short, he becomes such a jerk that we really don’t care if he does go to Hell.
That is what makes the intercession by Daniel Webster seem so unwarranted. But intercede he does. After admitting that the document in which Jabez signed over his soul is properly drawn, Webster says, “But you shall not have this man! A man isn’t property!”
This just a touch ironic in light of Webster’s speech promoting the Compromise of 1850 and his support for fugitive slave laws on the grounds that slave owners were entitled to the protection of their property. However, the year in which this scene takes place is 1847, back when his opposition to slavery in principle was perhaps a bit more credible. But then, this movie was made in 1941, long after we knew better. In fact, one might say that Webster had made something of a Faustian bargain himself. So, maybe he does belong in this movie.
All that may be beside the point, however, because when Webster says that Jabez is a “man,” he probably means a white man. And not just any white man, but an American citizen. Since slaves were neither white nor American citizens, their status as property undoubtedly seemed acceptable to him: “Mr. Stone is an American citizen,” he continues, “and no American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince.”
Mr. Scratch takes exception to the notion that he is a foreigner. When asked if he is claiming to be an American citizen, he replies:
And who with better right? 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 the deck. Am I not spoken of, still, in every church in New England? ’Tis true, the North claims me for a Southerner, and the South for a Northerner, but I am neither. To tell the truth, Mr. Webster, though I don’t like to boast of it, my name is older in the country than yours.
That much having been established, Webster demands a trial by jury, saying that if he cannot persuade the jury to let Jabez go, then Mr. Scratch gets Webster’s soul too. The jury consists of wicked Americans who now reside in Hell as the result of once having made the same deal that Jabez has, men such as Captain Kidd and Benedict Arnold. In addressing the jury, Webster goes on at great length about how wonderful it is to be an American, which is just one long non sequitur. But then he appeals to the fact that they all wish they had a second chance, so why don’t they give Jabez a second chance? By doing so, he argues, they will be standing up for freedom, for America.
And so, Jabez is acquitted. I guess the point of this story is that if you are an American citizen, you can sell your soul to the Devil and get away with it. Perhaps this is what they mean by American exceptionalism.