Blu-ray Review: All That Money Can Buy

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: William Dieterle | CAST: Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, Jane Darwell, Simone Simon, Gene Lockhart, John Qualen, H.B. Warner, Anne Shirley, James Craig 
RELEASE DATE: 3/12/24 | PRICE: Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES:  Audio commentary by film historian Bruce Eder and Steven C. Smith, Bernard Herrmann biographer; new restoration demonstration; reading by actor Alec Baldwin of the short story by Stephen Vincent Benét; episode of the Criterion Channel series “Observations on Film Art” about the film’s editing; comparison of the differences between the preview version of the film and the film’s 1943 rerelease; two Columbia Workshop radio adaptations of Benét’s short stories about Webster
NR | 106 min. | Fantasy | 1:37 | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Adult fantasy films were few and far between in the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. There were, of course, the Universal monster cycle, stray sci-fi/fantasy films (King Kong), and prestige items like Warner’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), co-directed by William Dieterle. But fantasy in that era was relegated mostly to children’s films like Babes in Toyland and The Wizard of Oz.

All That Money Can Buy (1941), more commonly known as The Devil and Daniel Webster, is a film that children can watch and enjoy but they would be lost as to the adult plot elements — like a fast-moving scene where our hero is at a barn dance lusting over the “devil girl” character, Belle. Most certainly the various political and historical references, and the speeches about morality and patriotism, will alternately confuse and bore younger viewers.

The plot, based on a story by Stephen Vincent Benét, revolves around a New Hampshire farmer (James Craig) who is tricked by “Scratch” (the Devil, played by a wonderfully enthusiastic Walter Huston) into trading his soul for wealth. He later regrets that trade and has to appeal to forthright statesman Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to help him out of the contract.

Director William Dieterle came from a background in German Expressionist theater — his mentor was the legendary Max Reinhardt, with whom he eventually codirected the gorgeous-looking Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Dieterle used Expressionist lighting design and experiments in other areas (including set design and) editing to craft perfect nightmare images — made lighter by the fact that Huston constantly has a twinkle in his eye as he devours the shadow-filled sets.

Although he utilized Expressionist techniques in his other films (like the cult romance Portrait of Jennie), here he used a brilliantly jarring one, as quickly-inserted photographic negative images of Huston appear early on, prior to the Devil introducing himself to the farmer. This technique was, of course, used in Murnau’s Nosferatu. (Dieterle clearly was inspired by the German master, as he had a supporting role in Murnau’s Faust in 1926.)

Money brings to mind the most critically lauded RKO film, Citizen Kane, which came out one month earlier in 1941. Welles and Gregg Toland experimented with different perspectives, lighting patterns, and editing techniques in that film. Two key collaborators on Kane worked on Money: editor Robert Wise and composer Bernard Herrmann. The latter’s evocative score — which included Herrmann using the sound of real fluttering telephone lines as a stringed instrument — won him his only Oscar for Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture.

While Craig and Anne Shirley are pleasant as the farmer and his wife, and Edward Arnold is suitably noble as Webster, the film is a lot more interesting and kinetic when the evil characters are present. Simon is best known for her role in the original Cat People (1942), but her shorter turn here as Belle, the nanny and maid who soon becomes the farmer’s mistress, is equally enigmatic and alluring. She provides sexuality in an otherwise sterile, homespun setting.

Huston provides the film’s best-remembered moments with a performance that is both delightfully indulgent and endearingly villainous. He goes over the top with his characterization, becoming so compulsively watchable that the film slows down considerably when he isn’t onscreen.

Scratch is also a decidedly modern devil when he is called upon to explain himself in the trial sequence at the end. Money is an indelibly patriotic film, but when Scratch faces Webster in the trial Benét and his coscripter Dan Totheroh saw fit to have Scratch note that he is in the fabric of America — “when the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo I stood on the deck.” Money was shot and released before America’s entry into WWII; one has to assume that that piece of dialogue would not have been in the film if it had been released after Dec. 7, 1941.

In addition to two vintage episodes of The Columbia Workshop from 1937 and ’38 that presented radio adaptations of Benét’s stories about Daniel Webster, there are two audio features in the package that originated on earlier releases of the film on disc: a 1991 audio commentary (updated in 2003) by film historian Bruce Eder and Bernard Hermann biographer Steven C. Smith; and, from 2003, Alec Baldwin (who directed and costarred with Anthony Hopkins in an ill-fated 2007 remake of Money called Shortcut to Happiness) reading the original Benét story.

Also included is a 2018 episode of the Criterion Channel series “Observations on Film Art” that explores basic film editing principles, analyzing various scenes from Money as illustrations. The odd thing about this supplement is that the host, film scholar Jeff Smith, only explains the “normal” edits in the film and not the “shock” moments, like the inserted photographic negative shots.

A newly made featurette compares the different versions of the film, from its preview version (titled Here is a Man) to its reincarnation as The Devil and Daniel Webster. Another newly made featurette runs through the history of the film, from the publication of the short story in the Saturday Evening Post in 1936 through this new restoration by UCLA.

There are various juicy bits of trivia about the film contained herein. These include the fact that it didn’t just have two or three names, but six — A Certain Mr. Scratch, Flesh and Gold, Here Is a Man, Daniel and the Devil, and the two other, more famous titles.

It is also noted that a distributor who acquired the film in 1952 chopped it down to 85 mins, and it wasn’t until the 1991 Criterion laser disc that the full version of the film was seen again. Then in 2021, a UCLA researcher found that a German film archive sent a nitrate dupe negative of the full feature to the Library of Congress in the early 2000s. Thus, this particular version of the film, which is the most complete.

Buy or Rent All That Money Can Buy

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”