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Literature / The Devil and Daniel Webster

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"I'd fight ten thousand devils to save a New Hampshire man."
Daniel Webster

"The Devil and Daniel Webster" is a 1936 short story by Stephen Vincent Benét, which in turn was based on the 1824 short story "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving. Both stories are based on the legend of Dr. Faustus.

Set in early-19th-century New Hampshire, the story centers around farmer Jabez Stone, a man on whom fortune has never shined and whom it has, in fact, laughed upon. That all changes when the sly Mr. Scratch, who is none other than Satan himself, comes visiting. Jabez sells his soul to the devil and enjoys seven years of contractual good luck. However, near the end of the deal, Jabez decides to find some way out of it; he finds it in the famed attorney Daniel Webster. Now, Jabez can only hope Webster can give him a chance out of hell.

Its most well known adaptation was a 1941 film directed by William Dieterle, starring Walter Huston as Scratch, Edward Arnold as Webster, James Craig as Jabez Stone, and Simone Simon as Belle. It was retitled All That Money Can Buy in some states, as well as on Academy Award ballots. At that year's ceremony, it won composer Bernard Herrmann his only Oscar for his original score.

Was given a short musical parody by DominicFear. There is also an operatic adaptation by Douglas Moore, who also wrote The Ballad of Baby Doe. There is an animated Funny Animal adaptation for children called The Devil and Daniel Mouse.

This short story contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: The devil is depicted as not all that bad of a guy, considering. He's only asking that Stone uphold his end of their bargain, and when he loses the case he takes it in stride.
  • As Long as There Is Evil: Scratch gives a pretty good tirade about it when Webster questions his claim of being an American.
    Webster: Mr. Stone is an American citizen, and no American citizen may be forced into the service of a foreign prince.
    Mr. Scratch: Foreign? And who calls me a foreigner?
    Webster: Well, I never heard the dev— of you claiming American citizenship.
    Mr. Scratch: 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.
  • Butt-Monkey: Jabez Stone, at the beginning of the story.
  • Deal with the Devil: Mr. Stone makes a deal with the devil in exchange for seven years of prosperity.
  • The Devil Is a Loser: He takes it pretty well.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: The Devil has left New Hampshire for good.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: "He was a great lawyer, Dan'l Webster, but we know who's the King of Lawyers, as the Good Book tells us, and it seemed as if, for the first time, Dan'l Webster had met his match."
  • Exact Words: Webster insisted on a fair trial for his American client. A jury of his client's peers, after all. So he gets a Jury of the Damned.
    Mr. Scratch: Americans, all.
  • Hanging Judge: Justice Hathorne. This may also count as Truth in Television as Hathorne was the judge who presided over the Salem Witch Trials and never regretted it. However, he is an American judge, which is what Daniel Webster demanded.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Yes, Daniel Webster was a great statesman. No, he did not possess a pair of horses that could outrun the wind, a ram that could butt through an iron door, or the ability to sink a river into the ground with his oratory.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Not all of the jury of the damned were really that evil in reality. In particular, Thomas Morton was only evil in the sense of being an enemy of Puritans and was an early proponent of treating Native Americans decently. Lampshaded when, in Webster's final speech, the author turns the perspective around and lets the reader see their more-admirable qualities — though they're still, you know, damned.
  • In the Style of: It's written in a sort of tall tale style which fits the literature written at the period that it's set, and also shows the influences of American Lovecraft Country stories, specifically "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving.
  • Jury of the Damned: The Trope Maker. Webster demands a trial, ceding the selection of judge and jury to the Devil, on the sole condition that they be American. The Devil naturally calls upon (only American!) damned souls to fill the jury roster, as well as a famous Hanging Judge.
  • Kangaroo Court: Subverted. The judge and jury are supposed to be one, but their verdict goes the other way thanks to Daniel Webster's speaking skills.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Miser Stephens' contract expires hours before Jabez's.
  • Louis Cypher: The Devil appears to Jabez Stone using the name "Mr. Scratch", a reference to the nickname "Old Scratch" for the Devil.
  • Our Souls Are Different: Miser Stephens' soul appears as a moth-like creature. Scratch informs us that most of the souls he gets look like moths. He does suggest, however, that the souls of greater or more virtuous men are "bigger".
  • Patriotic Fervor: One of the main themes.
  • Satan: Right there in the title.
  • Setting Update: It was adapted into a movie called Shortcut to Happiness in 2007, set in modern day Manhattan.
  • Shout-Out: Not only does the Superman novel Miracle Monday make reference to the events of TDADW, the basic premise (Superman beating the Devil's agent with just his righteousness) is inspired by it.
    Weber: While the official reports disclose no case where this defendant has appeared as defendant there is an unofficial account of a trial in New Hampshire where this defendant filed an action of mortgage foreclosure as plaintiff. The defendant in that action was represented by the preeminent advocate of that day, and raised the defense that the plaintiff was a foreign prince with no standing to sue in an American Court. This defense was overcome by overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Whether or not this would raise an estoppel in the present case we are unable to determine at this time.
  • Take That!: The story's last line is one against Vermont and Massachusetts.
  • Trial of the Mystical Jury: The above Jury of the Damned.

The 1941 film contains examples of:

  • Badass Boast: Daniel Webster is full of these.
  • Blood Oath: Scratch demands this from Stone to seal their deal, assuring him that a little pain is nothing to a lucky man like him.
  • Brats with Slingshots: Jabez's spoiled brat Daniel has a slingshot, and he lies about it to his mother.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Miser Stephens leaves the bar when Scratch enters.
  • Cigar Chomper: Old Scratch is never seen without a cigar in hand and Jabez himself becomes one after gaining his riches. Daniel Webster is also shown lighting up a cigar as well.
  • Creative Closing Credits: Opening credits. The credits start with a list labeled "In Front of the Camera" featuring all the actors, then a list labeled "Behind the Camera" featuring all the crew (ending with Dieterle), then a note at the bottom saying "All collaborated on this picture."
  • Couldn't Find a Lighter: The farmer from Massachusetts lights a taper from Jabez's fire to light his pipe, before Ma Stone scolds him for smoking on the sabbath. Later, while listening to Mary's story, Daniel Webster uses the candle on the table to light his cigar.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Scratch, of course, but he's (usually) open about who he is. Most people only think Belle is Jabez's mistress; no one suspects her true nature even when she's every bit as demonic as Scratch himself.
  • Dramatic Thunder: A clap of thunder accompanies Jabez signing the contract for his Deal with the Devil.
  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: After taunting Jabez Stone for attempting to break their contract, Scratch flees from the approaching Ma Stone; taking a bunch of Stone's carrots with him.
  • Evil Is Petty: In addition to bargaining for peoples' souls, Scratch enjoys random acts of vandalism and is a consummate kleptomaniac.
  • Extreme Doormat: Mary has watched Jabez change from an honest-but-loveable schmuck to a rich asshole who's screwing his (hell-sent) maid Belle and letting his son roam free. Her reaction? "It must be all my fault, I know it!"
  • Faux Affably Evil: The movie Scratch is far more in this camp than he is Affably Evil.
  • Filching Food for Fun: At the end of the film, Scratch extracts a final act of petty vengeance by stealing Daniel Webster's peach pie and eating it.
  • The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You: Before the credits roll, Scratch looks through the screen, selecting the viewer as his next target.
  • Friendly Enemy: Scratch and Webster behave more like chummy old rivals rather than hated enemies and even share a drink together before the trial. Subverted at the end where Webster angrily kicks Scratch out after he wins the trial and saves Jabez's soul.
  • Graceful Loser: Scratch mostly takes his defeat in stride, though he isn't above nabbing a pie on his way out.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Edward Arnold and Walter Huston as Daniel Webster and Scratch in the trial for Jabez Stone’s soul.
  • Horrible Judge of Character: Spoken of Belle by Mary, immediately before she bangs Jabez no less:
    Mary: "What a sweet and kind girl..."
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Jabez Stone embraces corruption fairly quickly, especially after Belle enters his life. Averted in the original story, unusually enough.
  • The Mistress: For 1941, Belle is a surprisingly overt example of this, riding around on horseback with Jabez in a fancy dress, while woebegone Mary works at home.
  • New Job as the Plot Demands: Scratch seems capable of appearing anywhere at any time in any occupation — all without raising a single eyebrow.
  • Obviously Evil: Scratch usually makes no secret of his identity, but Belle is clearly up to no good.
  • Ominous Fog: When Scratch makes his entrance in Jabez's barn, he appears coming out of a cloud of fog. When Scratch's demonic sidekick Belle Dee appears later in the film, she's bending over in front of the fireplace, where a large cauldron is boiling over and making similar Ominous Fog inside.
  • Slasher Smile: Scratch has an appropriately demonic grin that matches his Faux Affably Evil nature.
  • Sleeping Single: Interestingly, however, we still see Mary give Jabez a come-hither look, followed by Jabez embracing her on her single bed.
  • The Snack Is More Interesting: When Jabez first attempts to break his contract by attacking the tree, Scratch seems more interested in eating Jabez's carrot.
  • Spoiled Brat: Young Daniel, Jabez's son. His poor role models are mostly to blame.
  • Title Drop: When in the film a miserable Jabez Stone complains to Scratch, "You promised me prosperity, happiness, love, money, friendship!" Scratch ripostes, "Just a minute, Neighbor Stone. I promised you 'money,' and 'All That Money Can Buy.'" The last phrase was used as an alternative title to the film in certain markets, and even at the Academy Awards.
  • The Vamp: Belle Dee. What else could Satan's lovely henchwoman be?
  • Window Pain: The boy Jabez scares away for fishing in his pond returns and takes vengeance by throwing a rock through Jabez's window.

Alternative Title(s): The Devil And Daniel Webster