There comes a time when a movie is so right that it transcends time and place to become a classic. A movie that is more than mere entertainment (although entertaining still). A movie that makes you aware of our shared history. Fortunately, dear readers, I have found just such a movie, and its name is The Devil & Daniel Webster.
The plot is simple enough: a farmer makes a deal with the devil to keep his land. The devil, as always, drives a hard bargain that looks easy on the surface. The farmer doesn’t stand a chance. Or does he?
Jabez Stone, New Hampshire farmer, works hard on his land day after day. He’s a good man. When we first meet Jabez and his young wife Mary (yeah, like that Mary), they’re on their way to church. A pig’s broken leg keeps them from going, but it doesn’t get their spirits down. No, the weight that is slowly crushing noble Jabez is something far more odious and far more common than a hurt pig. It is debt.
You see, Jabez, like many farmers, doesn’t have a lot of loose cash laying about. When times get hard, the money lenders still need their piece. Jabez must use some of his precious grain to pay off part of his debt.
Jabez, a good man, knows immediately who old Scratch really is. The devil comes bearing a gift, of sorts. Jabez gets seven years’ good luck, and after seven years the devil gets Jabez’s soul. “It isn’t something you can see or something you can touch,” coos Scratch. Not seeing much of a choice in the matter, Jabez happily signs over his soul.
In exchange for Jabez’s soul, that little trifle, Scratch pulls loose a floorboard in Jabez’s barn, revealing a pile of gold coins. “It just takes a little luck to find it,” says Scratch. From this point on, Jabez’s life veers sharply from what might have been.
We are introduced to Daniel Webster, a good politician. With the oratory skills of Obama, Webster stands up for the little guy, for the hard-working, God-fearing all-American.Unlike Jabez and many, many politicians, Webster will not succumb to Scratch’s deal. Webster works for the people he represents, and in return the poor farmers of New Hampshire are grateful. There are even rumors Webster may one day be president.
Jabez and Webster meet in town, and they will have an occasion to meet again.
Simone Simon plays Belle, a girl sent by old Mr. Scratch to keep an eye on Jabez. (Side note: Simone Simon was in the wonderful horror movie Cat People. She also starred in a movie I can’t believe I haven’t seen yet, called Girl’s Dormitory.)
After a meteoric rise in which Jabez builds a house, alienates all his friends, and all but kicks Mary to the ditch in favor of Belle, Scratch comes to collect what is his.
But it won’t be easy for Scratch to take Jabez’s soul. Daniel Webster is in town, and he proposes a trial for Jabez. Unfortunately, Scratch gets to pick the judge and jury. A jury of the damned! Things look bleak, and Webster’s oratory skills are put to the ultimate test. But like any good politician (no link found), Webster is unafraid to stand up for even the smallest of his constituents.
You’ll have to watch The Devil & Daniel Webster for the stirring conclusion.
Like all good art, this comes with a warning. Mr. Scratch is always searching for a new souls to add to his collection. He may appear to you in the guise of a friendly passer-by, offering a deal so unbelievable you find yourself willing to give anything, even your soul. Be wary! Be on the lookout! And never, ever sign a contract with your own blood. It’s just bad business.