I saw the DVD The Devil and Daniel Webster at the library today, so I grabbed it. It is one of those titles that stand out as something you must have seen but have no memory of. On reading the case, I realized that I hadn’t seen it. But it was irresistible. It was yet another story about a man who sells his soul to the devil. I think I have a special love for that plot because it is so problematic. In almost all cases, it depends upon some trick to get the hero out. And when it is a tragedy, as with Dr Faustus, it has the problem of being silly. What person who believes in God would sell his soul for 26 years? Or seven years, as is the case with this film.
As with Dr Faustus, it is far easier to side with the Devil than it is to side with the protagonist, Jabez Stone. In fact, the contract with the Devil seems to be the least of his concern. He turns into a truly vile human being — only seeing the error of his ways in the final hour or so before the Devil comes to collect his soul. Such redemption comes easy as the people who love him quickly forgive him. That leaves only for the family friend Daniel Webster to come to the rescue and defend him in front of a kangaroo court. Frankly, the only reason that I cared was because Webster had to put up his soul in exchange for Devil’s allowing the trial. Stone’s redemption didn’t much matter at that point.
The film was made in 1941 — released just two months before the United States entered World War II. And it is a curious mix of New Deal patriotism. It clearly vilifies money, and goes to great lengths to claim that the problem isn’t money itself. I think what the film is trying to say is that money is going to corrupt anyone who isn’t as great as Daniel Webster. Overall, it is a very liberal film. At one point Webster notes that political freedom means nothing if you don’t have personal freedom. That’s an idea that has lost all its currency in modern America. Now it seems that Americans think everyone is free, even if they can’t find a job and can’t pay their bills. That’s no kind of freedom.
The best line in the film goes to the Devil himself. Webster claims that the Devil has no right to take Stone because the Devil isn’t an American. The Devil claims he is very much American. As proof he says, “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.” Can you imagine the outrage — even among many Democrats — if a major Hollywood film said such a thing today? That’s not the American way! Today, we make films glamorizing psychopaths and weep about how hard a time they have reentering regular society.
It’s an interesting — and in its way a great — film. But it stands out to me as a political document. I wish I could get all Democratic activists to watch it. It shows how liberals can grab onto populism and patriotism. I talked about this with regard to William Jennings Bryan. Patriotism doesn’t have to be stupid. It is just that we’ve allowed the Republicans to claim that theirs is the only kind of patriotism. And that is nothing but the festering corpse of patriotism. It is patriotism used for one purpose: to make the rich and powerful ever more rich and powerful. Shame on us liberals for allowing that to happen. We aren’t channeling Daniel Webster and we’ve allowed the Devil to take control of our country.
The real Daniel Webster was a great man. However, in his later years, his lust for the presidency did cause him to abandon the “common man” who he had spent most of his career working for. It seems the Devil eventually got to him. But this isn’t the Daniel Webster I am talking about above.