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Death decides to take a holiday from his usual business to see what it is like to be a mortal. Posing as Prince Sirki, he spends 3 days with Duke Lambert and his guests at his dukal estate. Several of the women are attracted to the mysterious prince, but shy away from him when they sense his true nature. But Grazia, the beautiful young woman whom the Duke thought was to marry his son, loves him even when she knows who he is. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
"Lux Radio Theater" broadcast a 60 minute radio adaptation of the movie on March 22, 1937 with Fredric March reprising his film role. See more »
In one of the opening scenes, Grazia is praying in a Catholic Church. She makes the Sign of the Cross and is meditating when Corrado joins her. When leaving, she fails to genuflect and make another Sign of the Cross, something they both would have done in real life. See more »
I bound myself to life, and with it, to the little rules by which it is lived. And now I must bow to it. What a monstrous comedy!
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Adapted by Walter Ferris, Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman from Alberto Cassella's 1929 play La Morte in Vacanze, Death Takes a Holiday features Fredric March as the titular Grim Reaper. Death becomes curious about why he is so feared. He wants to understand humankind better. So through some unspecified means he becomes corporeal for a three-day period, beginning and ending at midnight. He chooses to take the form of a Prince Sirki, recently deceased, and takes his holiday at the palatial Italian villa of Duke Lambert (Guy Standing). Will he discover what makes humans tick in only three days? This is a highly successful, unusual film. It has strong touches of horror, even though it's more of an art-house drama cum romance flick. It's also frequently philosophical, and director Mitchell Leisen easily sustains dramatic tension for close to 90-minutes despite the fact that this was only his second feature, and a very "talky" one at that, which takes place primarily in a single setting (the play only had one set, but the film adds a couple other scenes).
Of course March's performance is crucial to making the film work. He has the difficult task of playing both a personification of a menacing supernatural force and a chimerical human trying to "act natural" and slightly failing. That March plays the role so impeccably is made all the more fascinating in light of the fact that he was filming All of Me (1934) at the same time. He borrowed a woman's bicycle (his wife Florence Elridge's) to enable him to quickly travel from one set to the other on the Paramount studio lot. March has said that Death/Prince Sirki was one of his favorite roles, and he willingly reprised it both on radio for Lux Radio Theater in March of 1937 and on stage, in a production by Baltimore City College in May of 1938.
As impressive as March is, he is initially upstaged by the fantastic special effects. We first see Death as simply a shadow. Later, March appears in more traditional Grim Reaper garb, which is eerily transparent and surprisingly modern in design. Leisen demanded that the transparency effect be achieved in-camera rather than a later manipulation during the film processing stage. So Gordon Jennings employed the same technique that made The Invisible Man (1933) invisible. Parts of the set were recreated in black velvet. These were reflected in a partially transparent mirror, which was then superimposed over March (you can see a related effect "live" in the ballroom scene of Walt Disney World's The Haunted Mansion ride). March's elaborate cloaks were composed of layers of chiffon in dark hues from gray to black. Jennings also installed tiny lights under March's "hood" to light up his skull make-up.
The rest of the cast is excellent, too, if maybe a bit too sprawling for the film's length. But there needs to be a larger number of characters, as a hinge of the film is that three different women fall in love with Prince Sirki during his brief visit, one of them eventually being discouraged by his bizarre behavior, the other by being able to see his "true self". Sirki ends up falling in love with Grazia (Evelyn Venable, in her second role after 1933's Cradle Song), who is supposedly the fiancée of Corrado (Kent Taylor), but with him, she is oddly aloof. Despite the romance between Death/Sirki and Grazia, March and Venable never kiss in the film, as Venable's father had a clause written into her contract forbidding it.
Leisen creates a thick, almost creepy atmosphere for much of the film (although it's strongest when Duke Lambert first encounters Death), which gives it much of its horror overtones. For me, the romance aspect has a slight (appropriate) morbidity because of this, and it's questionable whether the film should even be considered a romance. The set design is also fantastic--the villa is breathtaking; it's too bad Leisen couldn't show it off more.
The constant tension invoked by Death/Sirki always being on the brink of "blowing his cover" keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat more often than one might expect. But Death Takes a Holiday is most fascinating when it waxes philosophical. Because death is on holiday, numerous accidents occur that people just walk away from (this was an intriguing and logical aspect that was absent from the 1998 remake, Meet Joe Black). This makes the newspapers, and Death finds it particularly ironic that humans seem to almost lament that war is not working correctly. He promises to the unwitting that humankind will soon again be able to blow each other up. Baron Cesarea (Henry Travers, who also played Dr. Cranley in The Invisible Man) offers that there are three "games" in life--money, war and love, and Death/Sirki ends up agreeing. Love finally gives him the answer of why humankind fears him so, and finally shows why life is not futile or simply a frittering away of time while people wait for him to arrive in his natural guise. The ending of the film was quite controversial, and suggests that love can even surmount death; it almost seems to say that possessing love, death might not be such a bad thing after all.
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