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Americana Satanica

William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) is a perfect movie for the tail end of the Great Depression. It’s about Jabez Stone (James Craig), an unlucky New Hampshire farmer, who strikes a Faustian bargain in order to stave off foreclosure. The movie is set in 1840, but the dilemma was just as familiar a century later. With its message of family values and collective action, it’s just as topical and vaguely socialist as Frank Capra classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. But it’s also a smart blend of fantasy and horror, featuring still-impressive special effects and a diabolical, Oscar-nominated Walter Huston in the first of the title roles.

The other title role – the non-diabolical one – is played by Edward Arnold, who’s better-known for playing Wall Street fat cats (and sometimes fascists) in the afore-mentioned Capra political dramas. Webster initially acts as a folksy mentor figure for Jabez, but as his lucre expands, he casts aside Webster’s lessons and his mother’s piety, embracing the besotted “good life” with his new maid Belle, who comes from “over the mountain.” But when time comes to literally give the devil, aka Mr. Scratch, his due, Webster is back with all his orating power to reclaim Jabez’s soul.

Superficially, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a well-crafted assemblage of cornball Americana. The film’s dialogue is obsessed with national identity, rugged individualism, and the values of the common man. It equates bourgeois luxury, like the mansion that Jabez moves into, with selfishness, foreignness, and, well, Satan. Belle, after all, is played with seductive decadence by Simone Simon, the femme fatale of Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, flourishing that sexy French accent as she tempts Jabez away from his wife and son. And Jabez’s Bible-thumping mother is Jane Darwell, who represented “the people” as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

So when it’s plugged into the film’s early American framework, this casting is practically allegorical. Darwell is gratitude and hard work; Simone is excess and dirty fun. So the film was extremely timely, as much of an American national myth as anything John Ford was making at the time (The Grapes of Wrath included). But it was also stylistically advanced enough that it hasn’t lost any of its demonic charm. The film’s lighting and focus are manipulated to produce some very eerie visual effects.

The Devil and Daniel Webster shares its composer (Bernard Herrmann), editor (Robert Wise), and studio (RKO) with Citizen Kane, and it shows. Kane‘s richly stylized opening sequence makes Xanadu feel like a haunted house; similarly, the collision of Herrmann’s echoing score with Dieterle’s fantastic visions makes the devil’s presence surprisingly believable. But Huston’s cackling, maniacal performance sure doesn’t hurt.

Huston just steals the show with his unabashedly evil performance. (The same goes for Simon, to some extent.) During a frenzied dance, he fiddles wildly; when Ma Stone approaches during a conference with Jabez, he dashes off with bountiful energy. (Keep in mind that Huston was in his mid-fifties at the time.) He gnaws on carrots like a hellbound Bugs Bunny, and eagerly shares in some rum while debating with Daniel Webster. Huston’s Mr. Scratch isn’t grim or power-obsessed. Even when he loses the case, he doesn’t let it get him down. He heads out, steals Ma Stone’s pie, and turns his soul-searching gaze on the audience itself.

Mr. Scratch is the world’s most experienced salesman. He’s the kind of guy you could imagine selling your soul to; he makes being damned look like a damn good time. Even when Craig’s brooding and indecision get a little repetitive, when Arnold’s laid-back speechifying get a little too self-righteous, Huston is there to give the film momentum. If he got fed up and cartwheeled off-screen, it would hardly be surprising.

And now, as a final treat, here’s a none-too-subtle visual joke I noticed. Since this was 1941, they couldn’t show sexual intercourse onscreen. But through the magic of editing, they could imply so much more. In one scene, Jabez Stone embraces his wife…

Then we fade to black, and cut to:

Jabez “plowing the fields.” I think you can infer what that means. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I make my exit.

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Women as animals: Kahlo and Cat People

The Little Deer by Frida Kahlo

This is a painting by Frida Kahlo from 1946 that I encountered in a book the other day. I think it’s very pretty and it raises a lot of interesting thoughts in my head. I guess the first few are thoughts like, Why is she a deer? as well as the inference that this is about herself being a victim. I love how she’s standing up straight, with a neutral expression on her face, bleeding. And how dead and ominous the forest and background look. I don’t have much insightful analysis to do here, but I wanted to incorporate this into a blog because this painting just struck me, as much as of Kahlo’s work has. Struck me in an unusual way, maybe in the part of me that feels sympathy, or the part that distinguishes between human beings and animals. The book I was reading mentioned that she paints herself as a male deer, with antlers and testicles. I don’t know too much about her biographically, but I wonder if she saw herself as some kind of gender outlaw. 9 arrows, piercing her flesh. Lost in the woods with a branch under her hooves. And that mesmerizing unibrow, always the most memorable element of Kahlo’s appearance. Who would shoot that many arrows into a deer like that, anyway? Maybe it’s a riff on St. Sebastian.

The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna

According to Wikipedia, St. Sebastian has received the cultural status over the centuries of a gay/religious icon. Taking Kahlo’s own bisexuality into account, maybe this is significant. I don’t really know. All I know is, I saw this picture in a book and it struck me. A woman’s face – and not just any woman – on a deer pierced with arrows and bleeding. It’s a very eerie, even upsetting painting. She looks like she’s in pain but not begging for pity.

Aside from looking at random paintings, I haven’t been up to much intellectually speaking or otherwise. Classes are at end and we’re in that twilight season between scholastic pursuits and running off to be united with my distant lover. But here’s something worth discussing.

The film is Cat People (1942), the first work of producer & master of horror Val Lewton. I realized today that it’s probably one of my favorite movies and one of the best horror movies ever made. Once you’ve watched it, it has a grip on you (kind of like that painting above). And it’s probably no coincidence the two works I’m discussing today involve treading the line between human and beast. It’s fertile ground; it has been since the days of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and before that. But that’s a broad topic and I won’t go into it now. Cat People attains a sort of pulp horror perfection. It’s a cheap movie – in fact, that’s part of the point – that plays with lights and shadows, bouncing through the water of a public pool at night, or along a desolate street where a woman walks alone, and turns it into pure fear.

Much of this is courtesy of Nicholas Musuraca, a cinematographer whose work went back and forth between horror (The Ghost Ship and the brilliant The Seventh Victim, other Lewton productions) and film noir (Cat People director Jacques Tourneur’s other masterpiece Out of the Past and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night); this flexibility on Musuraca’s part, I think, demonstrates the kinship between the noirs of the early ’40s and Lewton’s style of moody urban horror. Cat People could very well be a film noir. Except its femme fatale, big surprise, turns into a cat and mauls people. A few months ago, I wrote a review of the film for this issue of the Carl, and summarized the plot like so: “boy meets girl. Girl is afraid she’ll turn into a giant cat. Boy cheats on girl with other girl. Girl turns into giant cat (or does she?).” It’s a simple premise emerging from vague dreams of dark and foggy Serbia, whence the cursed heroine Irena emigrates. (Serbia here is as good as Transylvania or Latveria or fill in your random eastern European country.) And we start out with a beautiful picture of American heterosexual normalcy until, well, Irena’s secret inbred something starts to catch up with her. We’ve got the classic scene where a feline stranger in a Serbian restaraunt addresses Irena’s as “sister” and disappears. The film is so rich with quasi-Freudian psychosexual confusion, more than enough to match the haziness of the lighting.

I’m going to bed now (it is 4 am, after all), but I highly recommend you watch Cat People. I want to see it over and over again. It’s a subtle, fascinating, seriously scary movie and I love it. The monster is the most sympathetic character, played by the cute, vulnerable French actress Simone Simon (who played another kind of femme fatale in Renoir’s La Bête Humaine [1938]), lost and alone, beholden to the chaotic emotions and powers brewing inside her. If you’re interested, Cat People is currently on YouTube here (though the fuckers won’t let me embed). Watch and be drawn into the strange and frightening nightmare which Lewton, Tourneur, and Musuraca create, as it gradually enfolds Irena and carries her off.

And pleasant nightmares to you, too.

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