The Devil and Daniel Webster
A cinematic retelling of a classic piece of American folklore that has rarely been seen in the original form since its initial release in 1941, director William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster gets the usual loving treatment from The Criterion Collection, albeit with a few disappointing, but unavoidable, flaws. Presented in 1.33:1 full frame, the image is remarkably clean given its age, with few signs of wear or speckling. Though the image itself is crisp and sharp, there is a distracting flickering that is, unfortunately, present throughout the film. While this flaw may prove somewhat distracting to some viewers, most will likely find it only a minor annoyance to an otherwise well-presented film. Unfortunately, the sound, as presented here, is also somewhat distracting, though likely unavoidable given the elements with which Criterion had to work. An underlying hiss is present throughout the film, with slightly muddled dialogue and an unevenly mixed musical score proving a minor annoyance in an otherwise enjoyable film. It really should be noted that the film is still extremely enjoyable if one is able to lower their expectations from modern standards of sound and image, and given the film's varied history, it's a pleasure simply to see it completely uncut and in the form Dieterle had originally intended. As is par for the course with Criterion, an abundance of generous and entertaining extras have also been included on this release. A commentary track featuring film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith is remarkably detailed, featuring minute information on everything from the unconventional methods used to calm a restless sow to revealing information about the innovative methods composer Herrmann used to give the Devil's rendition of "Pop Goes the Weasel" a truly otherworldly feel. Eder and Smith really know their stuff, and their commentary track is a virtually bottomless wealth of information concerning the film. Comparisons between The Devil and Daniel Webster and Here Is a Man (the alternate title for the preview version of the film) offer an interesting look at a few techniques that would ultimately prove ineffective, and a reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's original short story The Devil and Daniel Webster by actor Alec Baldwin proves to be an enjoyable listen. Also included are the original, Columbia Workshop radio performances of both The Devil and Daniel Webster and Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent (with both featuring the music of Herrmann). Though the sound on both of these presentations leaves quite a bit to be desired (it actually sounds as if someone is crinkling foil during Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent), they nevertheless contain a remarkably warm, nostalgic feel that make them entirely listenable. An interactive essay by Christopher Husted on the music of The Devil and Daniel Webster is as innovative as it is fascinating and a gallery of behind-the-scene photos and promotional material are likewise well presented and of very high quality. Rounding things out are some informative liner notes featuring both The Author Is Pleased, an original New York Times essay by Benet himself, and a fascinating article by Tom Piazza, appropriately entitled The Devil Gets the Best Lines.