A retelling of the Faust legend, set in 1840s rural New Hampshire, it was directed by German-born actor-director William Dieterle who (under his original name, Wilhelm Dieterle) played a featured role in F. W. Murnau's epic silent version of Faust in 1926.
In 1840 New Hampshire, Jabez Stone (James Craig), a poor kindhearted farmer is broke and plagued by bad luck, and, with the local money-lender, Miser Stevens, about to foreclose on his farm, he has reached the limit of his endurance. After a series of mishaps, he impulsively declares that he would sell his soul to the Devil for two cents, and moments later the Devil appears, calling himself "Mr. Scratch" (Walter Huston). He appears to offer Jabez a bargain: sell his soul in return for seven years of good luck and prosperity. Scratch tempts Jabez by magically revealing a hoard of Hessian gold coins, which appears from under the barn floor, and, unable to resist the lure of the gold, Jabez signs the contract. He begins his new life with hope, paying off his debts, buying new tools and supplies, and new clothes for his wife and mother. While the women are shopping, Jabez meets and becomes friends with famous New Hampshire Congressman and orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), a friend of his wife's family, and a widely loved figure who champions the cause of the poor farmers - although we learn that Webster himself is being tempted by Mr. Scratch to sell his soul, in return for fulfilling his ambition to become President.
As time passes, Jabez's increasing wealth begins to change him. When only his crops are spared from a freak hailstorm, he ensnares his desperate neighbors with onerous financial contracts, and he slowly alienates his devoted wife Mary (Anne Shirley) and his pious mother (Jane Darwell). Later, as the townspeople celebrate the harvest in Jabez's barn, Mary gives birth to their first child, whom they name Daniel in honor of Mr. Webster, but minutes later, Jabez discovers that the local girl they had hired as a maid has vanished. In her place, he finds the beautiful and sinister Belle (Simone Simon) who has been sent by Mr. Scratch. She bewitches Jabez, driving a wedge between him and Mary. Soon, Jabez has stopped going to church and, after his family leaves, he secretly hosts gambling parties at his home. As Daniel grows, he too falls under Belle's malign influence, and she turns him into a spoiled, disobedient brat.
In a few more years, Jabez is one of the richest men in the country: he lives like a lord, and has built a lavish new mansion (which his mother refuses to live in). He throws a huge ball, but it ends in disaster: after a nightmarish dance between Belle and Miser Stephens, Jabez finds Stephens dead on the floor. He too had signed a pact with Mr. Scratch and his time was up. Realizing all his guests have fled, Jabez turns on Mary, blaming her for all his troubles, and he throws her out. Now desperate and realizing his own time is almost up, he tries to erase the deadline Mr. Scratch has burned into the tree outside the barn, but Scratch appears and again tempts Jabez, offering to extend his deal in return for the soul of his son. Horrified, Jabez flees and chases after Mary. He begs her forgiveness and pleads with Webster to help him find some way out of his bargain with the Devil. Webster agrees to take his case. Mr. Scratch again offers an extension in exchange for Jabez's son, but Jabez turns him down. He then begs Webster to leave before it is too late, but Webster refuses to go, boasting that he has never left a jug or a case half-finished.
When Mr. Scratch shows up to claim his due, Webster has to wager his own soul before his fiendish opponent will agree to a trial by jury. Mr. Scratch chooses the jury members from among the most notoriously evil men of American history (including Benedict Arnold) with John Hathorne (one of the magistrates of the Salem witch trials) as the judge. When Webster protests, Mr. Scratch points out that they were "Americans all". With his own soul now at risk, Webster proceeds to defend Jabez Stone, who is accused of breaching contract.
He begins by stating that he envies the jury because, as Americans, they were present at the birth of a nation, part of a heritage they were born to share. Unfortunately, they were fooled like Jabez Stone, trapped in their desire to rebel against their fate, but what would they give to be given another chance? Webster explains that it is the eternal right of everyone, including the jury, to raise their fists against their fates, but when that happens, one finds oneself at a crossroads. They took the wrong turn, just as Stone did, but he has found out in time, and this night he is there to save his soul. Daniel asks the jury to give Stone another chance to walk upon the earth, for what would they give to see those things they remember? They were all men once, breathing clean American air, which was free and blew across the earth they loved.
Webster starts to expound on the virtue of simple and good things – "... the freshness of a fine morning ... the taste of food when you're hungry ... the new day that's every day when you're a child ... " – and how, without the soul, those things are sickened. He reminds the jury that Mr. Scratch had told them that the soul meant nothing, and they believed him and lost their freedom. Next, Webster discourses on 'freedom' as not just a big word: "It is the morning, the bread, and the risen sun ... ", it was the reason for making the voyage to come to America. Mistakes were made, but out of things wrong and right a new thing has come: a free man with a freedom that includes his own soul. Yet how can the jury be on the side of the oppressor, when Stone is a brother, a fellow American? Webster then implores the jury to let Stone keep his soul, which, after all, does not belong to him alone, but to his family and country. "Don't let the country go to the devil," thunders Daniel Webster. "Free Stone."
After a few moments, Hathorne asks the jury for their verdict and, in response, the foreman tears up the contract, releasing Jabez from his deal. Webster then kicks Mr Scratch out, but, as he is ejected, the fiend promises that Webster will never fulfill his ambition to become President of the United States. Scratch sits alone in the final scene, resignedly thumbing through a notebook. He puts it away and then breaks the fourth wall, moving his gaze until he stops and looks straight ahead, giving the effect of singling out the viewer; Scratch then points directly at the viewer and smiles evilly as the film fades out.Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster
Walter Huston as Mr. Scratch
James Craig as Jabez Stone
Anne Shirley as Mary Stone
Jane Darwell as Ma Stone
Simone Simon as Belle
Gene Lockhart as Squire Slossum
John Qualen as Miser Stevens
H. B. Warner as Justice John Hathorne
Alec Craig as Eli Higgins
George Cleveland as Cy Bibber
Lindy Wade as Daniel Stone
Sonny Bupp as Martin Van Aldrich (uncredited)
Jeff Corey as Tom Sharp (uncredited)
In the original story, Webster regrets Benedict Arnold's absence; in the film, Arnold is present and Webster objects, citing him as a traitor and therefore not a true American, but his objection is dismissed by the judge and Asa The Black Monk is made up for the film along with John Smeet who appears in a deleted scene. The writers also cut out Scratch's other predictions involving Webster's last speech and his sons deaths in the American Civil War.
The original release was 107 minutes long. It was a critical, but not a box-office, success, recording a loss of $53,000 on its initial run. It was subsequently re-released under the title The Devil and Daniel Webster with nearly half an hour cut, reducing the film to 85 minutes. The cuts were crudely done. The film was restored to its full length in the 1990s and has been issued in that form on home video. However, the title has remained The Devil and Daniel Webster. The restored portions on the video had been taken from inferior prints of the movie, but the quality has been notably improved on the DVD release. A preview print titled Here Is a Man was found in the estate of the director and served as the basis for the film's restoration and DVD release.
Bernard Herrmann won the Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture and Walter Huston was nominated for Academy Award for Best Actor.
In addition to his original music score, Herrmann also incorporated several traditional folk tunes including, "Devil's Dream", "Springfield Mountain", and a diabolical version of "Pop Goes The Weasel" played on the fiddle by Mr. Scratch.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
2008: AFI's 10 Top 10:
Nominated Fantasy Film