Vibe of the Month – March 2019: William Dieterle

The Vibe of Month series takes the mood inherent to each month of the year – derived from holidays, events, folklore, astrology, and pop culture sources – and connects it to my personal experience for that month via film, fashion, and art. It was started as a way to explore how each season affects our memories, lived experience, and the way we consume art and entertainment.

I love doing this series, but it can be a challenge to not only figure out what I’m feeling but to connect it to a pop culture interest that fits. This year has been especially difficult. At first I thought that maybe I was just losing interest, but then I realized I could blame Mercury retrograde.

I’m sure you’re aware of what Mercury retrograde is whether you’re into astrology or not since it’s become very trendy. I’ve been reading about it so much that I’m always convinced something is going to happen during it. Mercury retrograde isn’t just a time where communications may go wrong – you miss a clause in a contract before you sign it, you send an email to the wrong person, your phone starts acting up or breaks down altogether – but it also gives you and opportunity to look over things twice, including current life decisions.

That coupled with the fact that all of my horoscopes this month (I mean all of them, I check a lot of sources) were about something BIG happening with my career, I started to think that maybe this was it. Maybe some old creative writing project would suddenly come back to life and I would get an offer from…somewhere. My horoscope was half-right in that I definitely had more work this month, but it wasn’t anywhere close to that big, special something I thought had been laid out for me. But to be honest, I took on all these small projects because I thought they were what my horoscopes were telling me about. So I worked double-time for weeks straight and just wound up frustrated that this money chasing took me away from the work that I wanted to do – essays I’ve been drafting, this column. What a way to make quick buck.

Before you say anything, I definitely know that I’m taking all of this way too seriously. As I struggled against my better judgement and made decisions I thought were going to turn the wheel for this big special something to happen to my career, I was left frustrated and stuck. This is what happens when you try and force something quickly instead of doing the work that needs to be done. And that long-winded, roundabout intro is what gets me to my actual vibe of the month for March 2019: director William Dieterle and his 1941 film The Devil and Daniel Webster.

He was originally and actor and always wore white gloves on set as a director in case he needed to jump in and have clean hands for a shot.

Dieterle was a German director who moved to Hollywood in 1930 and while he worked with a lot of stars, he doesn’t have the same name recognition as some of his contemporaries. I haven’t had the chance to watch his other films, but the The Devil and Daniel Webster has always stuck with me and feels especially relevant.

It was originally titled All That Money Can Buy, which has more flare but now sounds too close to All the Money in the World (2017) and that movie just annoys me on principle. Anyway, The Devil and Daniel Webster is based on a short story of the same name and is a Faustian tale of a man selling his soul to the devil.

This story is set in 1840s New Hampshire and a farmer, Jabez Stone, is in bad situation – the local moneylender is about to foreclose his farm. In a moment of desperation, he says that he’d sell his soul to the devil for two cents. The devil appears (of course) and offers him gold and 7 years luck and prosperity in exchange for his soul. Stone takes the deal and signs a contract, assuming he can just outwit the devil in the end. Taking the gold, he pays off his debts, buys for tools and equipment for his farm and showers his wife Mary with new gifts. His farm and wealth flourish and he and Mary have a son.

Of course, this all comes at a price. The devil sends a sinister but beautiful new maid to look after Mary and the baby – but she’s really there to tempt Jabez and cause a rift between him and his wife, obviously.

And for his part, Jabez turns into the corrupt miserable asshole you think he does, but starts to regret it all when the devil comes to collect the soul he’s owed. Jabez enlists the help of local politician Daniel Webster – who’s based on a real person – to help him out of his contract. Webster argues their case before a jury of some of the worst figures in American history to try to save Jabez’s soul.

I know this film may sound dry, but it actually has a lot of humour and the political commentary in the film is way more liberal than you would anticipate from a movie from 1941. It’s a little gem of a morality tale that shows how corrupting money and power can be, especially when you’re looking for a quick fix. It uses a lot of fairy tale tropes, which I love, and the special effects are clever and feel modern. It’s also beautifully shot and has a definite film noir feeling to it with the use of light and shadows to set the tone and convey a sense of dread.

Mary know what’s up.

The reason that he’s my vibe of the month though is because Dieterle was also really into astrology. Apparently, he started shooting The Devil and Daniel Webster a few days earlier than scheduled because his horoscope said he should. Clearly, I really identify with that.

I haven’t been able to read more about this quirk of his, but I’m going to assume that he did it better than me and actually used his horoscope to bring more flexibility and intention to his work. I, however, sat back and waited and made snap decisions because I thought making more money would make me feel like a writer.

Even the morals in the film argue against this type of thinking – of looking for the shortest solution to a problem instead of taking the long, hard road to where you want to be. I never though writing was going to be easy, but I also can’t assume a freelance gig is going to lead to the career I want when I’m not seriously and actively working on the projects I love because they’re not giving me the cold hard cash I feel would make me look more successful.

This isn’t the first time I’ve allowed astrology to cloud my focus and it probably won’t be the last. I’m never going to stop reading my horoscope and learning more about my birth chart because I love it and it has made me work through some feelings I’ve been burying. But maybe this March Mercury retrograde was to remind me, again, to take a step back and look at the wider picture instead of using it to verify by latest get-rich-quick delusion.

Actually, you know what? My vibe for March definitely should have been Kylie Jenner with all my like, realizing stuff. My bad!

Image source: Google Images