(I know this month’s blog theme is “Legal Writing.” I have to admit I was stumped on a movie that would fit in here. Then Mark Caldwell, Whitney Untiedt, and I were having dinner before the start of a program in Houston and I asked them for help. We kicked around some ideas – and then Mark suggested a film that starts with a piece of legal writing – a contract – and grows from there. Props for the suggestion, my friend!)
We often hear courthouse folk talk about “the case from Hell,” “the lawyer from Hell,” “the jury from Hell”—sometimes, I’m sorry to say, even “the judge from Hell.” This month’s movie has every one of those—literally.
1941’s The Devil and Daniel Webster is based on a short story of the same title by Stephen Vincent Benét. Its setting is an American version of Faust. Jabez Stone, a struggling New Hampshire farmer, sells his soul for seven years of prosperity. As the contract is signed, the purchaser, “Mr. Scratch,” assures Stone that he won’t miss his soul at all. During the seven years that follow, Stone is amazingly successful, but he becomes arrogant and unfeeling as his wealth and power grow. Stone alienates his wife and mother and falls under the spell of a new servant, Belle (sent from where do you think by who do you think?). And, as always when a contract is signed, Stone is eventually called on to fulfill his side of the bargain.
But Stone resists, and like so many people unhappy with a deal, he hires a lawyer: Daniel Webster, Senator from New Hampshire, brilliant orator and known as the best lawyer in the country. After a failed negotiation with Scratch for an extension of the contract (on utterly unacceptable terms), Webster demands a trial by jury. Scratch agrees, but only if Webster is willing to wager his own soul in exchange for such a trial. Webster does so, demanding an American judge and an American jury. Scratch gives Webster what he asks for, but certainly not what he wants; after all, the jury includes Benedict Arnold. There follows the trial from Hell. While you might be able to guess the verdict, how it’s arrived at is wonderful display of advocacy; Webster’s “ask” at the end of his closing argument is a classic, almost up to par with Atticus Finch’s in Mockingbird. It’s also as honest and heart-felt a plea for the value of freedom that you’ll ever hear.
Veteran character actor Edward Arnold portrays Webster, who, as you know, was an actual historical figure. Walter Huston was nominated for Best Actor for playing Mr. Scratch. Huston was the son of one of our great directors, John Huston, and is best remembered for his cackling portrayal of Howard, the old prospector, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which he did win an Oscar. The cast also includes Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) as Stone’s mother and, as Belle, the truly bewitching Simone Simon (best known for her appearance in one of the most frightening movies ever made, Val Lewton’s Cat People).
The movie was originally released under the title All That Money Can Buy, but when edited for TV, had the title changed to what it’s called today; the DVD you can find is the full, unedited version. The movie originally starred Thomas Mitchell, who broke his leg during filming and was replaced by Edward Arnold. Although Huston didn’t win an Oscar, Bernard Hermann did, for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture.
The Devil and Daniel Webster is not as famous as many other movies about the law and about trials, but it deserves a better place in that pantheon. It is well acted, and well directed, and it speaks to timeless values. How can you go wrong watching a movie like that?