The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

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.

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Damn Yankees (1958)

Damn Yankees (1958) is a musical about a man who sells his soul to the Devil for the sake of baseball.  It is the dumbest version of the Faust legend I have ever seen.

This is not to be confused with the fact that the story about Faust does not make sense to begin with.  According to the legend, Faust sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly goods, such as knowledge or pleasure, and then, after twenty years or so, he will be forever damned.  Who in his right mind would make such a deal?  Evil may be fascinating, but stupidity never is, and we quickly lose interest in the fate of anyone stupid enough to do that. To put it differently, anyone who sold his soul to the Devil would for that reason have to be mentally impaired, and thus would deserve to be forgiven.  Of course, the Faust of legend is supposed to a great scholar, so that rules out the stupidity excuse.

If the Devil manifested himself one day in my living room, promising me whatever I wanted, pleasure, power, wealth, fame, or knowledge, if only I would sell him my soul, which would then mean suffering eternal damnation once I died, there is no way I would agree to such an offer.  What I would do, however, is spend the rest of the day saying to myself, “Wow!  All that stuff about God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, is true.”  And then I would completely change my life. From then on, I would turn the other cheek, give all my worldly goods to the poor, and never again look at a woman with lust in my heart. Thanks for the heads up, Satan!

I think that would be a perfectly rational choice on my part, for what could be more important in this world or the next than avoiding the fires of Hell?  But is this the reaction that Faust or the later Faustian characters have when they encounter the Devil? No, never, not once do they react that way.  Instead, with only a hint of hesitation, they condemn themselves to eternal torment for a mess of pottage.  In Goethe’s Faust, the title character sells his soul and gets to have sex.  In The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), a struggling farmer gives it up for seven years of prosperity.  And so it goes.  Why such stories have captured the imagination of people for centuries is beyond me.

A couple of movies have managed to transcend the inherent absurdity of the Faustian premise.  Bedazzled (1967) is religious satire, and it is hilarious.  When a movie makes us laugh, all sins are forgiven.  And Angel Heart (1987) is believable because the Faustian character in that story figured he had a way of cheating the Devil.

But as I said, Damn Yankees is the worst of the lot.  I tried to suspend disbelief, accepting for the sake of the movie that there is such a thing as the Devil and Hell, and I even tried to make allowances for Faustian imprudence on the grand scale. But even so, the thing just didn’t make sense.  It all begins in the living room of Joe Boyd, who is yelling at the television because his favorite baseball team, the Washington Senators, is losing.  In his exasperation, he says he would sell his soul if the Senators had a slugger who could put the ball over the fence, beating the Yankees.  Suddenly, the Devil appears, going by the name Mr. Applegate (Ray Walston), ready to make a deal.  He says that in exchange for Joe’s soul, he will make Joe the greatest baseball player ever, who will help the Senators win the pennant.  He will make him Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), and he will be twenty-two years old.  Joe has misgivings, thinking for a moment about his job and his wife Meg, but Applegate says this is too big a deal to worry about them.

In the end, Joe deserts Meg.  From the song she was singing earlier, lamenting how during baseball season, which is six months of the year, she is neglected, we gather that she and Joe are now in their forties.  She appears to be a housewife, a common role for women in the 1950s.  And so, after Joe leaves her, she continues in her role as a housewife without the slightest concern that there is no longer any income with which to pay the bills.  In other words, it is not just the supernatural part of this movie that makes no sense.

In making the deal, Joe insisted on an escape clause.  If he changes his mind before the last game of the season, by midnight of September 24, the deal is off. So, we figure that is how he will get out of the deal.  He will play baseball until then, and then back out at the last minute.  But that is not what happens.  To keep Joe from invoking the escape clause so he can go back to Meg, whom he misses, Applegate has a lost soul named Lola try to seduce him.  This results in complications and a few songs, but the end result is that Joe does not back out at the last minute.  He stays with the Senators.  And so, we figure Joe will continue helping the Senators win the pennant and then be dragged down to Hell.

And then, from out of left field, Applegate decides he is going to make the Senators lose the pennant.  But that would mean he would not be living up to his end of the bargain. So, we now figure that when, against all reason, Applegate makes the Senators lose the pennant, Joe will not have to go to Hell, because Applegate failed to fulfill the contract. No, that’s not it either, because in his effort to make the Senators lose the pennant, Applegate turns Joe Hardy back to Joe Boyd, thinking he will not catch the fly ball.  But Joe does catch the fly ball, and so the Senators do win the pennant.  So, that means Joe is going to Hell after all, right?

No, Joe goes back home.  For some reason, Meg takes him back, as if being abandoned didn’t bother her in the slightest. Applegate shows up, we think to collect Joe’s soul, but instead he acts as though Joe is in the clear.  He offers Joe the chance to help the Senators win the World Series in exchange for his soul.  I suppose if Joe had made that deal, then at the last minute, Applegate would have tried to make the Senators lose the World Series, but when he failed and the Senators won the Series anyway, Joe would go back home then too, and once again be in the clear, for reasons that don’t make sense, either in this world or the next.

Angel Heart (1987)

One of the problems with the story of Faust, the man in the German legend who sold his soul to the Devil, is that we never understood why anyone would make such a foolish bargain in the first place. A few decades of wealth, power, fame, and sex in exchange for an eternity of suffering the fires of Hell? The story fares much better when understood in the allegorical sense, of course, but it is always better if a story makes sense literally if it is to have much value figuratively.

Angel Heart (1987) solves that problem. Johnny Liebling is a crooner who thinks he knows a way to trick Satan. He makes a pact with him, in which Satan gets Johnny’s soul in exchange for fame as a singer, under the name Johnny Favourite. Having made the deal and benefited from it, he then performs a ritual that involves cutting the heart out of a soldier and eating it. By so doing, Johnny is able to substitute the soldier’s soul for his own, the result being that the soldier’s soul will have to suffer the fires of Hell, while Johnny’s soul does not. The soldier’s name is Harold Angel, suggesting his innocence, of course. As part of the ritual, the soldier’s dog tags are sealed up in vase. Only if Johnny himself opens the vase will the ritual be undone. Because Satan wants Johnny’s soul and not Angel’s, he must trick Johnny into breaking open the vase.

When World War II breaks out, Johnny is drafted and subsequently suffers an injury, which causes him to have amnesia. He spends some time in a hospital, but his friends get him out. Not knowing what to do with him, they simply drop him off in a crowd of people on New Year’s Eve, hoping that will jog his memory. As a result of Johnny’s confused memory about swapping souls with Harold Angel, he comes to believe that he is Harold Angel, and eventually starts working as a private detective under that name.

Ten years after the war, which is when the movie starts, this Harold Angel is hired by Louis Cyphre (Lucifer) to find Johnny Favourite. Angel does not realize it, but he has been hired by the Devil to find himself. We do not realize it either, at this point, and we are encouraged by the movie to like Angel and to identify with him. He seems to be basically a nice guy. As he starts investigating, he begins experiencing disturbing images from the past. Little by little, he begins to suspect the truth. He is horrified at the idea that he might be Johnny Favourite, and having come to like him and identify with him, we are horrified too.

In his desperation to assure himself that he is who he thinks he is, he breaks open the vase, and the dog tags of the real Harold Angel fall out. The spell is broken. At this point, Louis Cyphre appears, announcing that Johnny’s soul now belongs to him. Finally, recent memories that Johnny had distorted are replaced by accurate ones, and he is forced into the realization that he has murdered several people.

Because Johnny thought he had a way to trick the Devil, this story works on a literal plane. And by making us like him as Harold Angel and identify with him, the movie forces us to realize that we too may not be as good as we like to think we are, that we too have something inside us that is evil.

But a remark made by Louis Cyphre gives this Faustian story a new twist. Cyphre says that Johnny was doomed the minute he cut that boy’s heart out. In other words, all that dabbling in black magic and making a pact with the Devil was just so much hocus-pocus. In itself, it was harmless nonsense, and Johnny would never have gone to Hell for that. It was only when he did something truly evil, when he murdered that soldier, that Johnny was damned. By this remark, Cyphre links the literal understanding of this story with its allegorical one.