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I have watched this movie many times over the years and I continue to love
it, even more than the remake `Meet Joe Black' with Brad Pitt and Anthony
Hopkins (On it's own a great movie with wonderful actors).
However, In this original movie, `Death Takes A Holiday' the title role is played by the incredibly talented Fredric March, as he portrays an intensely charismatic Death/Prince Sirki. Here you will find an innocent, charming stranger who is learning from his host and the guests surrounding him yet is also imparting his own knowledge and wisdom.
The path Death has taken is a journey in which all of us partake. What makes us human? What brings us joy and happiness in this lifetime? All that Death has ever seen of our world is fear as he greets those who enter his world. So, he enters our world to see and feel what more there is to our existence. In fact, we could learn a great deal from the character Death, for he reminds us of that which we take for granted in this life, and is denied to him as Death.
`Death Takes A Holiday' may seem dark and forbidding but it is filled with hope that is encouraging; and love which should follow us past this life and into the next.
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.
Adapted from a play by Alberto Casella, Death Takes a Holiday is a more
charming film that one might imagine. Death, using the name Prince Sirki,
comes to earth in human form to learn a thing or two about life and human
nature. He gets more than he bargained for. This is one of the first
directorial jobs Mitchell Leisen had at Paramount, and he makes the most of
it. He manages to make the film at various moments gloomy and romantic,
lighthearted and very serious. At no time is the movie depressing, and the
ending surprisingly uplifting.
Fredric March makes a handsome, almost soulful Prince Sirki, and delivers a fine performance. I only wish that he had used the same restraint in his later, flashier character-acting roles. Offering strong support are Evelyn Venable, Guy Standing and Henry Travers (later to play an angel of mercy in It's a Wonderful Life). There's a lot of good luck on the side of this film. Paramount was the right studio to make it. They tended to bring a light touch to nearly everything they did in those days, and it is most appreciated here. I highly recommend this movie to pessimistic know-it-alls who think they have everything figured out.
First of all, the director of this film, Mitchell Leisen is one of the most
underrated talents of 30's and 40's. He's acquired something of a bad
reputation because of pretty vicious remarks made about him by Preston
Sturges and Billy Wilder when talking about the films he directed from
scripts in the days before they were allowed to direct their *own* scripts.
However, he doesn't deserve the derision. He's made some fluff films, for
sure, but he's a consistently entertaining filmmaker who, more often than
not, really delivers.
Anyway, Death Takes a Holiday is sort of his "art film" and it has a lot of great things in it. Fredric March's performance as Death is wonderful, the atmosphere is thick, the humor works, the scene setting is smart and romantic, and the opening titles are fun and weird, immediately presenting the film as something that's going to be a little unusual.
The problem with the film lies in Fredric March's romance with Evelyn Venable. The idea of Death falling in love with a human is great, but it's just not convincing here, mostly due to Venabale turning in a wooden performance that almost suggests she might be hypnotized. Also, the dialogue between them, particularly in the closing scene, is melodramatic and pseudo poetic beyond belief. You almost want to laugh at it.
It's a shame this most important aspect of the movie was handled so badly because just about everything else in film is great, particularly the interaction between Fredric March and just about everyone else in film who isn't Evelyn Venable. All of the good stuff just bursts with intruiging ideas.
And for that I would recommend the film to all potential viewers. The film is not without it's problems, but the good stuff is just good enough for me to say that the proverbial glass is definitely half full.
I saw this film as a teenager and became an immediate Fredric March fan. I can't even imagine someone like Brad Pitt playing this haunting, romantic character. If you want to own this movie on DVD, though, the two-disc set of Meet Joe Black does contain a beautiful transfer of the original 1934 classic on the second disc in the set.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There is a subject that might be brought into the sphere of a masters
degree thesis: how the destruction and death of World War I created a
wave of theatrical and cinematic creativity dealing with life after
death, and that death is not an ending but a beginning. This trend
mirrored the rise of spiritualism (as pushed and advocated by Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Oliver Lodge, and others) as a way of healing
the real emotional losses felt by millions of people around the world
after 1914 - 1918. It produced some works of stage and screen such as
the anti-war FIFTY MILLION GHOSTS (attacking armaments king Basil
Zaharoff - young Orson Welles appeared on stage in it), the play and
film OUTWARD BOUND by Sutton Vane, and (probably best of all) Albert
Casella's classic DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. It's still produced
occasionally, and even made it to a television version (in 1971) and a
recent remake (MEET JOE BLACK).
Supposedly, as the "Lusitania" was going to the bottom of the Irish Sea, producer Charles Frohman said to his friends standing with him on deck, "Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life?" or words to that effect. Frohman (who did drown in the disaster) was quoting the words of his close friend and business associate James Barrie from PETER PAN. In a sense, Casella's story follows this particular point of view. Death (Fredric March) has come to the palazzo of Duke Lambert (Sir Guy Standing) and is intent on taking his daughter Grazia (Evelyn Venable), but instead makes a deal. He has heard a great deal about the human emotion of love, and has never experienced it. Instead, the only experience with human beings he has had was fear. So, he will not take any of Lambert's guests, family, or friends on this visit, if Lambert will allow him to stay as "Prince Sirki", a recently deceased nobleman whose form is available. Lambert agrees.
The film actually (like the play) is quite probing, into the nature of death, love, and life itself. We see the various people who are in the palazzo, some of whom have lives of pleasure or adventure, and March constantly finds small flaws in these things that the humans overlook. When he meets one who races at high speed, he asks (straightforwardly, but with a heavy ironic undertone), "Why haven't we met before?" Henry Travers in a supporting role is a lover of fine food and drink - and obviously he too may soon meet March again under different circumstances.
But it is Venable who is the key to March's humanization. She is not impressed by the wonders of life and the world her friends push. She seeks something more meaningful. A beautiful woman, she is pursued in the film (by Carrado - Kent Taylor), but finds his heavy sensual love not what she wants. It is only with March, also seeking an answer, that she finds the match to herself.
March too is pursued, by the social climbing Gail Patrick and Helen Westley, and both are quickly shown the valuelessness of "titles" and status. March willingly shows them (briefly) his real self, and they flee him in terror.
Both March and Veneble are incomplete: he by the seeming void in his eternal duty of ending life and being feared for it, she by her realizing what the book of ECCLESIASTES said two thousand years ago that is still true: "Vanity of Vanities...all is vanity!". The one exception is true love, and both find that in each other that goal is met. So at the end Grazia willingly goes with Sirki, because there is no fear for both when together - for together they can face the universe and eternity.
Based on an Italian play that performed on Broadway in 1929, the 1934
DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY would be the inspiration for the 1998 Brad Pitt
film MEET JOE BLACK--but whereas MEET JOE BLACK proved a highly literal
interpretation of the theme, DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY is unexpectedly
lyric in tone.
The story is a fantasy. Death has grown weary of the fear he inspires in human beings, and in an effort to understand the tenacity to which they cling to life he decides to take a three day "holiday." He accordingly presents himself at the house of an Italian nobleman as "Prince Sirki," and soon discovers that human beings pass their lives in games, none of them of any great importance or interest. But there is one "game" he has yet to play: love.
Like many films of the early 1930s, the script is a bit talky and the cinematography a bit static; with the exception of Evelyn Venable (as Grazia) and Henry Travers (as Baron Cesarea) the cast, including the usually subtle Frederic March, tend to play in a somewhat theatrical manner. Even so, the overall tone of the film is unexpectedly touching, lyrical, and strangely lovely. It is also, on occasion, gently humorous. And before Death resumes his true identity and returns to the business of mortality, we receive unexpected food for thought.
The film is not widely available on either DVD or VHS, nor is it frequently televised. That is unfortunate, for fans of 1930s cinema will find it darkly charming. Worth seeking out!
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
"Death Takes a Holiday" was based on a play, and it's interesting that
another playwright was called upon to adapt it for the screen. The
original piece by Alberto Casella feels almost Pirandellian, in that it
elevates every day things into a philosophical realm. Maxwell
Anderson's respect for the original text shows in his elegant treatment
of the material. The film is greatly enhanced by Mitchell Leisen's
The people behind this 1934 film gathered an interesting cast to play Mr. Casella's characters. The idea of making death a human being was a novel idea. When the Grim Reaper becomes real in the person of Prince Sirki, it opened the possibilities for how he looked at life from this new perspective.
The idea of bringing Prince Sirki into the Duke Lambert's palatial home was the right setting, for it gives the movie an elegance that only in that context could be achieved. It's clear that Prince Sirki falls for the beautiful Grazia instantly. Grazia is almost engaged to Corrado, the Duke's son.
It's a joy to see these aristocrats at play when they encounter the figure of the prince. Only the Duke knows about him and is always by the prince's side in order to help him grasp the earthly nuances that supposedly, Sirki knows nothing about.
The ensemble performances Mr. Leisen achieved from his cast shows on the finished product we see. Fredric March makes an elegant presence as Sirki. The beautiful Evelyn Venable is perfect as Grazia. Guy Standing makes the most of his Duke Lambert. Henry Travers, Kent Taylor, Gail Patrick and Katherine Alexancer are seen in minor parts.
How can anyone compare this elegant production with the recent remake of this film? It is a puzzle to this observer, at best.
Despite some stilted dialogue and acting, this is an exquisitely opulent fantasy about the meaning of life which seamlessly mixes elements of comedy, romance and horror and emerges as an unjustly neglected minor classic - so much so that dear old Universal has deemed it fit to only give it a DVD release by proxy, unceremoniously slapping it onto their "Ultimate Edition" DVD of its overblown and unnecessary remake, MEET JOE BLACK (1998). Fredric March is superb in the lead and only confirms his position as one of Hollywood's finest, most versatile and consistent character actors (despite being blessed with matinée idol looks); March himself considers this to be one of his favorite roles. This was only Mitchell Leisen's second film as director, and his production designer past is still much in evidence, but he would go on to make several accomplished films - particularly EASY LIVING (1937), MIDNIGHT (1939), ARISE, MY LOVE (1940) and KITTY (1945) - before his career gradually petered out in the late 40s. A strikingly similar film to DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY which I also would love to watch is Harold S. Bucquet's ON BORROWED TIME (1939) with Sir Cedric Hardwicke playing Death and Lionel Barrymore as his unwilling "client" - but it never seems to get shown on TV in my neck of the woods!
Many contemporary viewers will find the dialogue here hard going, for the film shows its stage origins; the heightened rhetoric and often extended speeches that have the characters speaking at, rather than to one another, create a rather wooden effect on the screen. This film could not have come from any studio other than Paramount during the 1930s: the only studio that produced what might be called today art films, including this one. From Mae West, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers; to the Lubitsch musicals with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald and his European-like sophisticated romantic comedies; to an occasional deMille spectacular; Paramount provided the most diversified output of the early studio era. Yet,with the exception of the occasional action costume drama, most Paramount films seem to have been made on a relatively low budget, with only one or two sets, including this film. However, since set design was always done with some elegance, economy is not as noticeable as with the Warner films. (Where a devotee has seen the same apartment set so often that s/he feels right at home).I notice that most IMDB reviewers give positive comments. Perhaps I was just not ready for this one last night (I recall having enjoyed it more years ago); but for me the components never jelled so as to provide a consistent development of plot or characterizations.
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