The Devil and Daniel Webster appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While much of Webster looked very positive, too many problems developed for it to muster a mark above average.
Sharpness fared well. Only a smidgen of softness crept through on rare occasions. For the most part, the movie looked nicely distinct and well defined. No issues related to jaggies or shimmering appeared, but some light edge enhancement showed up periodically throughout the film.
Black levels seemed fine. The movie presented generally positive contrast and created a nicely defined silvery image. Low-light shots were clean and appropriately detailed. Shadows appeared concise and accurate.
Most forms of print flaws failed to appear during Webster. I noticed a few small specks and the occasional blotch, but most of those kinds of defects remained happily absent. Unfortunately, an odd kind of dancing shadows appeared throughout the entire film. These flickered across the screen constantly and became a distraction. Quite a few examples of thin vertical lines also came up during the film, and a few scenes displayed frame jumps and a bobbing image. For example, the latter flaw appeared at around the 33-minute mark. The strengths of Webster were enough to overcome the various problems, but I still couldn’t give it a grade above a “C” due to the pervasiveness of the other concerns.
Similar consistent issues affected the monaural soundtrack of The Devil and Daniel Webster. The prime offender came from persistent hiss throughout the film. The levels of hiss varied but usually seemed pretty loud and distracting. Speech was intelligible and lacked edginess, but the lines sounded fairly sibilant at times. Effects didn’t suffer from any distortion but they were thin and trebly. The music showed tones much along the same lines, though some parts of the score came across as surprisingly robust. Louder musical elements seemed quite deep and full-bodied; in particular, drums presented firm and tight bass response. That positive kept the track from falling below “C”-level, but overall, the mix sounded rather harsh and noisy, even for a film from 1941.
The Criterion release of The Devil and Daniel Webster includes a nice roster of supplements. We open with an audio commentary from film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith. This offers an edited affair. Eder dominates as he provides a running, moderately screen-specific track. Smith only pops up in the middle for one extended section in which he gives us good biographical notes about Herrmann as well as information about the composer’s work on Webster.
Other than that fairly short interlude, this is Eder’s track, and he mostly makes it compelling. Actually, it starts well, as Eder runs through many compelling subjects. He gets into the origins of the piece and compares the movie to the short story on which it was based. He also discusses the flick’s many alternate titles, its shortened version and the scenes restored to this edition, production challenges and biographical notes for cast and crew. Most of the time, Eder makes this a very informative and interesting track, but unfortunately, sporadic empty spots mar it, especially during the last third of the flick. These never become overwhelming or excessive, but they turn an otherwise great commentary into merely a very good one.
More audio features show up next. The Devil and Daniel Webster features a reading of the Stephen Vincent Benet short story that inspired the movie. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, this lets us hear the full original work. Baldwin always does a good job as a voice actor, and he brings “Webster” to life nicely in this entertaining piece.
Within The Columbia Workshop we get two period radio dramas based on Benet’s work. The radio show adapted both Devil as well as Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent. This rendition of “Devil” takes a few liberties with the original tale and doesn’t seem as effective as Baldwin’s reading. Since we don’t hear it elsewhere, “Serpent” is fun to get, even if the actor who plays Webster does a terrible job.
Next we get the Here Is a Man Comparison. According to the program’s text, Webster wasn’t originally previewed on July 12, 1941, as Here is a Man, but it was altered somewhat and eventually released under the title All That Money Can Buy. (That’s the same film as Webster - it just got retitled again.) The four-minute and 37-second compilation presents scenes from Webster and then shows corresponding shots from Man. Overall, the two appear identical except for the new title and quick inserts of Mr. Scratch in a few scene where problems befall Stone.
An interactive text appears via The Devil In Context. Written by Christopher Husted, the official representative of the Herrmann estate, “Context” tells us how the composer ended up on the project and provides information about all of the movie’s themes and tunes. It also presents some production stills. Husted gives us a tight and informative little text.
The Gallery shows 12 stills. Most are shots from the set, and the last few provide original poster art for All That Money Can Buy. Finally, the DVD’s booklet includes a 1941 essay from Benet about his work plus comments from author Tom Piazza in appreciation of the film.
At its best, The Devil and Daniel Webster provides an entertaining fable. However, it takes way too long to get to its point and suffers from poor acting by the actor who spends the most time on screen. Picture and sound appear fairly average for their era, but the set includes some nice supplements highlighted by a somewhat erratic but generally solid audio commentary. Webster works well enough to merit a viewing, but it seems inconsistent overall.