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July 19, 2019

Death Takes a Holiday


Mitchell Leisen - 1934
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

I have a vague memory that takes place in the early Sixties. Reading the listings of movies shown on television, I came across the title, Death Takes a Holiday. I'm a bit puzzled by what this means. My mother gave be a brief explanation. The movie was shown at a time when I wasn't able to watch it. And somehow this film that has piqued my curiosity never seems to have reappeared either on television or at any of the many venues in New York City showing older films in the early Seventies. I can't really explain why I didn't bother getting getting the DVD when it was a bonus included with Martin Brest's remake, Meet Joe Black, a film I actually liked quite a bit. (Disclosure - I was acquainted with Martin Brest at NYU and made a student movie with him.)

Mitchell Leisen's second directorial effort is now a standalone blu-ray. In reviewing Leisen's filmography, the suits at Paramount were quite patient with Leisen as his early films generally got good reviews, but were financially uneven. Leisen would hit his stride about two years and several films later once he teams up with charismatic actors like Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland, Don Ameche and his most frequent star, Fred MacMurray, combined at best with screenplays by Preston Sturges or the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Death Takes a Holiday originally was a an Italian play, later performed in an English language version on Broadway. Leisen's graceful traveling camera cannot totally transcend the portentous dialogue.

Most of the film takes place in a large villa, in the Paramount studio version of Italy, marginally less elaborate than the exotic locations of fellow studio directors Josef von Sternberg and Ernst Lubitsch. Death is first seen as a blobby shadow following several aristocratic celebrants speeding on a mountain pass in their elongated roadsters. Making an appearance late at night, Death shows up again at the villa in the form of a tall man draped in black cloth, partially transparent. He reveals to the villa's owner, Duke Lambert, his identity, plus his request to appear in human form as a guest for three days. Death wants to know why he is feared. Suspension of disbelief is required here. Not because I have a problem with Death appearing in the form of Fredric March, Brad Pitt, or the chess playing Bengt Ekerot, but because I figure that Death has been around long enough to have a clue or two about human behavior. Death reappears as the Duke's friend, Prince Sirki, complete with monocle and an East European accent, to learn about life from the leisure class, where men wear tuxedos and the women wear tiaras.

During the three days, people miraculously survive ship sinkings, school burnings, getting trampled by horses, and other disasters. Death questions the futility of existence, which is pretty easy to do when your with people who do nothing but race boats, play ping pong, or visit exclusive casinos. Death is attracted to Grazia, first scene praying at a church, meeting her would-be fiance, Corrado, son of the duke.

Fredric March plays Death as an alien being whose speaking and mannerisms become less stilted and more fluid over the course of the three days. Evelyn Venable, was Paramount's ingenue at the time, seen here as Grazia. Venable has a passing resemblance to Olivia De Havilland, but she lacked that sparkle needed for more more than brief stardom, and I got the sense, especially in Venable's close-ups that Mitchell Leisen was looking for De Havilland, but may not have known it at the time.

There is one nice shot of March and Venable sitting together by a fountain pool, seen upside down in reflection. The camera tilts up to the two sitting together, Death has only an hour left as a guest in the villa and wants to spend that last hour with Grazia. Death Takes a Holiday was produced before the Production Code took effect, but what happens in that last hour is never shown, nor stated.

Where the code was challenged all involve actress Gail Patrick, uttering an inaudible "damn", trying to seduce Prince Sirki by informing him of her flexibility regarding the need to get married, and sharing a bed with another female guest.

Leisen got start working for Cecil B. DeMille, and the interior of the villa looks like a DeMille set moved indoors, with huge classical statues in the hallways and oversized Renaissance paintings on the walls. There is a traveling shot, with the camera moving backwards as the guests enter the villa, walking through that very long entry way.

Kat Ellinger's commentary offers some information on the production of Death Takes a Holiday, but I was hoping for something on how much of the screenplay was the work of the two credited writers, Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman. I'm guessing that most of the declamatory scenes were by Anderson. Ellinger takes time to discuss the theatrical origins of Death Takes a Holiday, as well as reviewing the careers of several of the stars and production team.

There may be a little bit of irony that when I finally get to see Death Takes a Holiday, it's a time when I've been dealing with my own mortality. No fear of dying, but if Death comes to meet me in human form, I'm hoping she resembles Tiffany Haddish.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 19, 2019 08:33 AM