Mystical, thought-provoking, occasionally witty, and a bit weird, Death Takes a Holiday parlays a fascinating premise into a strangely compelling and spiritual film. If you’ve met – and liked – Joe Black, you should get to know the 1934 character who inspired him.
Theatrical Release Date: March 30, 1934
Blu-ray Release Date: July 23, 2019
Directed by: Mitchell Leisen
Starring: Fredric March, Evelyn Venable, Guy Standing, Gail Patrick, Henry Travers
Blu-ray Special Features: Audio commentary, trailer
Whether we admit it or not, we all fear death to some degree. It’s creepy, mysterious, largely unpredictable, and oh so final. Most of us don’t dwell on death; it’s too depressing and futile. Unless we’re suicidal or terminally ill, we can’t control when or how it will come, so we distance ourselves from it, foolishly convinced that the farther we keep death from our thoughts, the less chance it will have of catching up and overtaking us. Yet what if Death took a human form and walked among us, became our friend, or even romanced us? Would we fall under its spell and embrace it or recoil in horror and repel it?
Death Takes a Holiday astutely examines such existential, metaphysical questions, but in a clever, elegant, and ethereal manner. Directed with grace and style by Mitchell Leisen and co-written by one of America’s greatest playwrights, Pulitzer Prize-winner Maxwell Anderson, the film is an affecting fantasy that mixes mysticism with light comedy, romance, philosophy, and serious drama. It doesn’t provide any answers (how could it?), but certainly piques interest about the nature of death while trying to allay the anxiety and dread surrounding it. Though none of us would ever deign to call death a friend, once you see this well-made film, you might not consider it such a frightening foe after all.
After dogging a group of revelers over the course of an evening but failing to land a fatal blow, Death (Fredric March) presents itself in the form of a black apparition to Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), the patriarch of an aristocratic family. Loneliness, confusion, and bitterness spur this rash move, as Death, who feels misunderstood and misrepresented, poses a burning question to his nervous host. Why, it wonders, do men fear death when death provides rest and a relief from pain and suffering? The issue has baffled Death for an eternity, but now it believes it knows how to find the answer.
Death thinks a vacation, a break from its Grim Reaper role, might produce the enlightenment it craves, and it asks Duke Lambert permission to be a guest in his home for three days. Death would take the form of a man, so it could glean at least a little understanding of the human condition. The masquerade would be a lark, a game, and Death promises no harm would come to the duke or his family as long as its true identity is never revealed. The Duke reluctantly agrees, and within minutes Death becomes the gallant and dashing Prince Sirki, who instantly enchants Lambert’s family and the guests at his country estate.
As the prince embraces life and all of its seductive pleasures, he revitalizes everyone around him. He especially charms the single ladies, who all regard him as a lucrative catch. In addition, an array of miracles occurring with alarming frequency around the world dumbfound his admiring throng. A man jumps off the top of the Eiffel Tower and suffers no injuries; a ship explodes at sea and a school burns to the ground and no one is killed; a horrific horse racing accident and fiery race car crash yield no casualties. Death is indeed on holiday and the world is a better place because of it.
Prince Sirki enjoys hobnobbing with the rich and privileged, but disapproves of their aimlessness, lack of purpose, and willingness to idly fritter away their precious existence. Their wars seem pointless to him and he deems their interests trivial. Yet the longer blood courses through the prince’s veins, the more his human soul takes root and demands fulfillment. Bound by his three-day commitment, the prince races to experience all that life has to offer – most notably, love – before his limited time on Earth runs out.
Just as we cling to life, so does the prince, and just like us, he tries to stave off his inevitable return to the spiritual world. On his final night, he connects with Grazia (Evelyn Venable), a restless, intensely religious, rather strange young woman who sees in Prince Sirki something she’s never seen in any other man. Their mutual attraction buoys the prince, but threatens Grazia’s relationship with Lambert’s son, Corrado (Kent Taylor). As the clock ticks, questions linger. How can this impossible romance that must bridge the physical and spiritual worlds flourish? More importantly, will it lead to tragedy?
If the plot sounds a tad familiar, it’s because Death Takes a Holiday served as the inspiration for the 1998 film Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. That movie, which runs almost three hours, more than doubles the 79-minute running time of Death Takes a Holiday, which is far simpler and more direct. Its highly literate and philosophical Maxwell Anderson/Gladys Lehman script (adapted from an Italian play by Alberto Casella that was inspired by his horrific experiences in World War I) packs plenty of provocative ideas into its framework, transforming the clever premise into a deep, meaningful film. Moments of whimsy and bits of comedy deftly lighten the tone and help make death an approachable, non-threatening presence.
Surprisingly, Death Takes a Holiday was only Leisen’s second directorial effort, and it cemented his reputation. He would remain exclusively at Paramount for the next 17 years and helm such slick and memorable films as Easy Living, Midnight, Remember the Night, Arise, My Love, Hold Back the Dawn, Lady in the Dark, and To Each His Own. Leisen was especially good with actors, and he wrings excellent work from the always marvelous March as well as the lovely, luminous Venable, who projects a purity and fragility that seem utterly natural. Though she never attained major stardom (Grazia would be her most famous and enduring role), Venable is always a striking presence, and thankfully, this film keeps her from becoming a forgotten star.
Death isn’t a particularly cheery subject, but Death Takes a Holiday is an invigorating film filled with hope and insight. It might not provide a deeper understanding of the hereafter, but it makes the idea of embarking on the next phase of our spiritual journey a little less daunting and scary. As Prince Sirki says to one of the movie’s older characters, “Has it ever occurred to you that death may be simpler than life and infinitely more kind?” If only it is so.
Movies from the early 1930s don’t always translate well to high definition, but Kino has done an excellent job with Death Takes a Holiday. Presented in the film’s original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks amazingly good, with terrific contrast and clarity, deep black levels, and crisp whites all combining to create a beautifully balanced, vibrant, and detailed image. Grain is evident, which is typical of the period, but it never overpowers the picture, which remains fluid and film-like throughout. Nicely varied grays, sharp close-ups, and fine shadow delineation also enhance the visual experience. The source material does exhibit some wear – faint scratches and a bit of speckling are evident – but the overall quality of the print is superior. Any clean-up that’s been done has been judicious, and that’s good news, because the integrity of this 85-year-old antique has been gloriously preserved.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track sounds better than most early 1930s soundtracks. Some surface noise is present when the music score kicks in, but no pops or crackle disrupt the mood. Fidelity is limited, but effects are potent, and all the dialogue is easy to understand.
The only disc supplements are an audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger and the movie’s original theatrical trailer.