Perhaps the last great filmmaker of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” yet to be fully recognized, William Dieterle was a master stylist with an intensely personal style. He hit Hollywood in 1931 and immediately turned out the brilliant — and far too little known — The Last Flight, and followed it up with Her Majesty, Love, a comedy remembered today only as W.C. Fields’ first feature film.
His flair for the artistic caused him to be brought in to handle the cinematic side of Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and made him house director for prestige star Paul Muni (sometimes Mr. Paul Muni). This gave Dieterle the clout to snag the RKO productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and their very artistic (just read the credits!) The Devil and Daniel Webster. The latter, which is often considered Dieterle’s best film, was perfectly suited to the quirky, mystical side of Dieterle with its story of a farmer (James Craig) who sells his soul to the devil (Walter Huston) for seven years of good luck, and later recants, securing the services of Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to argue his case against Satan.
It’s pure American fantasy, with a slight amount of history thrown in, and perfectly realized by Dieterle and his cast, not to mention the Stephen Vincent Benet-Dan Totheroh screenplay, the Joseph August photography and Bernard Herrmann score. Is it really Dieterle’s best? Maybe not. I lean toward Portrait of Jennie or The Last Flight, but it’s certainly a great film — and a great starting point for an introduction to one of the movies’ finest unsung auteurs.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Devil and Daniel Webster on Sunday, Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot at left.)]