To close out a week in which my writing efforts have been alternating between Bernard Herrmann and LORD OF THE RINGS concert coverage, let’s celebrate with Herrmann’s Oscar.
The innocuously-titled ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (aka THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER) is based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” about a poor New Hampshire farmer, Jabez Stone (James Craig), who sells his soul to the devil, “Mr. Scratch” (a devilishly good Walter Huston), for seven years of good luck and “all that money can buy.” When it comes time for payment, Stone calls on the powers of legendary orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to get him out of his contract.
Today the film is known by Benet’s more famous title, but distributors in the South in 1941 were reluctant to put the word “Devil” on a marquee. Still, audiences weren’t quite sure what to make of it and the picture failed at the box office. Over the years the film was shaved by five minutes here, five minutes there until the original 107-minute running time was cut to 85 minutes.
The Criterion Collection’s DVD finally restored the film to its original length and, believe me, it makes a big difference. Director William Dieterle’s unique vision, cinematographer Joseph August’s use of light and shadows, and Herrmann’s inventive score are beautifully showcased in the restored print.
Fans of the composer’s work will note a much more playful Herrmann in this film. Inspired by the compositions of Charles Ives, Herrmann weaves American folk melodies with experimental electronic effects.
For Scratch’s first appearance in the barn, sound editor James G. Stewart went to San Fernando in the middle of the night to record humming telephone wires. Herrmann then painted the overtones of the musical note C on the film negative. When the film was run through the projector, a “phantom fundamental” (a sustained tone) was heard which, to the human ear, comes through as nothing more than a subliminal sound. The effect is subtle and eerie.
Herrmann was involved in the project from the start and believed the orchestration was as important as the music itself. For the harvest dance, Herrmann “had to have a fiddle reel that no one else could play. So I had an idea. I simply imposed a series of tracks on top of each other. We had a violinist who played a version of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ then he played another version, another one, another one, and another one. Then these were all combined to make one violin playing the most impossible things that no one violinist could play.”
Folk themes such as “The Devil’s Dream” and “Lady McLeod’s Reel” are used to devilish effect over the main titles and during the sleigh ride. Another folksong, “Springfield Mountain,” accompanies a beautiful montage of sowing seeds and waving fields of crops and later underscores the noble words of Webster as he defends Stone against Mr. Scratch. Herrmann reportedly charged Aaron Copland with plagiarism when he used the folk tune in Lincoln Portrait. However, according to Copland’s biographer, Howard Pollack, the two versions differ considerably, not least in the fact that Herrmann rewrote the tune in a minor mode.
Herrmann’s favorite cue is “The Miser’s Waltz” which accompanies Miser Stevens’ (John Qualen) dance to the death. Another unusual cue is heard as Stone pursues his wife on horseback. Going against the traditional Hollywood grain, the sound effects were cut out to let the percussion and brass propel the scene.
When award season came around, Herrmann was up against himself for his first two films: the classic CITIZEN KANE and this film. Owing to the controversy surrounding KANE, the Academy basically snubbed Welles’s film. Herrmann was awarded for the much more palatable (to a general audience), yet no less inventive, ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY.
In 1942, Herrmann arranged the score into a twenty-minute, five-movement suite under the title of The Devil and Daniel Webster. The suite went on to become one of the composer’s most popular concert works. On recordings it is often paired with Welles Raises Kane, a suite of themes from CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
If you only know Herrmann from CITIZEN KANE or his justifiably famous Hitchcock scores, ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY/THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER is a wonderful look at a true film score pioneer bursting onto the Hollywood scene.