Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
directed by Mitchell Leisen, starring Fredric March, Evelyn Venable
(Note: This is my entry for the March in March Blogathon, hosted by Jill at Sittin' on a Backyard Fence)
Our film begins on a moonlit night, as a group of reckless, laughing aristocrats race their cars down a winding mountain road. They are on their way to the villa of Duke Lambert (Sir Guy Standing). But as they round the corner, they realize that a dark shadow is following them. And not metaphorically. Trying to escape, they end up crashing into a flower seller's cart and as the petals rain down on them, they realize to their shock that everyone is alive and unharmed.
The guests reach the Duke's villa and go to bed. But then the Duke is awakened by that same mysterious shadow that chased the car. And when the shadow draws near, the Duke realizes that he is talking to the Angel of Death himself (Fredric March). Death tells the Duke how tired he is of being misunderstood and feared. So, in order to find out why men fear him so, he has decided to take human form for three days. He instructs the Duke to present him as Prince Sirki and not to tell the other guests what he really is.
And so, Death's holiday begins. He quickly charms and intrigues the Duke's guests, most especially the three young women, Rhoda (Gail Patrick), Alda (Katharine Alexander), and Grazia (Evelyn Venable). Rhoda and Alda, two sophisticated women of the world, vie for his attention but it's the sensitive, dreamy Grazia who seems most in sympathy with him. However, Grazia is already engaged to the Duke's son Corrado (Kent Taylor). Under the advice of Baron Cesarea (Henry Travers), Death tries his hand at gambling and pleasure-seeking, all without figuring out what life really means. He becomes convinced that love must be the answer to his question. If a woman could love him as he really was, look upon his true face without fear, then he will have what he wants. But is there such a woman? And if there is, does Death have the right to take her?
Well, if you are going to make a movie that posits that the meaning of life can be found by spending three days in the homes of fabulously glamorous aristocrats, Paramount would be the studio to do it. But pithy remarks aside, Death Takes a Holiday is one of the most unusual of that studio's glossy romances. Taken from a 1924 Italian play, the film is a modern-day fairy tale that examines what happens when the Reaper is tempted to put away his scythe. It's little surprise that the play was attractive to a post-World War I audience, still grappling with the question of how to pick up their lives again, with the specter hanging over them. The 1934 film is a little more distanced from this context, but it's still present and gives a lot more weight to the characters and their musings on the Great Beyond. There's an urgency behind all that glitzy partying.
While the film does toy with the fantastic possibilities of Death's vacation (people mysteriously pick themselves up after falling off building, flowers bloom in autumn, armies can no longer battle), it's more interested in how Death learns to interact with people. He is there as a student, finding out why these puny humans cling to life so desperately. The fact that it's taken Death all of earthly existence to finally get around to answering this question does suggest our fatal angel is a little slow on the uptake, but no matter. It's a fable after all.
Director Mitchell Leisen has been steadily climbing his way up the auteur ladder these past few decades and Death Takes a Holiday makes a strong case for his talents. Leisen has a visual facility that can veer from lushly romantic to whimsical and strange with ease. The film's opening, with the racing cars, the pursuing shadow, and the falling flowers is a fantastic moment and sets the film's tone perfectly. The way Leisen uses that moving shadow (a surprisingly good visual effect for that time), letting it move in and out of the light, is brilliantly unsettling. And the way he films the set-piece of the villa gives it a grandeur and mystery straight out of Midsummer Night's Dream. Anything can happen here.
Leisen's direction is interesting enough to make me wish he had jettisoned some of the play's more redundant speeches and concentrated even more on the visuals. Compare Death Takes a Holiday to Jean Cocteau's Orphée and it shows clearly how the image of a man stepping through a mirror can say much more than five speeches on the meaning of life and death. But that's a fault of the original script, not Leisen, and it's his talents, both with visuals and with actors, that carry this film.
Death Takes a Holiday rests on the shoulders of Fredric March, who must convey Death, both as a concept, and as a sympathetic hero. The film's creators must have taken a close look at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when casting March, because his role here draws on the same elements: the combination of dark, inhuman menace and painful longing. In his first appearance, Death is shown only as a floating black specter; March does a lot here with just his voice and it's surprisingly brilliant. Instead of the deep, booming tones you might expect for the Angel of Death, March sounds surprisingly light and cordial as he explains to Duke Lambert why he want to be human. When he suddenly reminds us of his inhumanity ("What could terror mean to me, who have nothing to fear?"), he's all the more unsettling.
In fact, I'd have to say that it's March's vocal performance I was struck with the most; he has the ability to switch from imperious to humorous to distant to pleading. Few actors of 1934 could sound so convincing as they argue just why they want to lead a beautiful young woman to her grave. Nobody is as lonely as Death after all. March's physical mannerisms are stiffer and less interesting (I'm going to go on record here that unless you're Erich von Stroheim, a monocle never does an actor any favors) and having to tear through many weighty, philosophical speeches is a stumbling block even for his abilities. But it's still a tribute to March that he manages to make Death a person without turning him into a human being.
As Death takes on the mysteries of life, he asks Henry Travers for a little advice. "I came here looking for a game worth playing," he tells him, "but what you do with yourselves still seems so very futile and empty." "There are only three games," Travers tells him. "Love, money, and war." Is it any surprise to a Hollywood audience that Death decides to find meaning in love? (Although a movie in which Death discovers the meaning of life through winning the stock market or blowing people to bits sounds pretty entertaining as well.) In the quest for that love and in true fairy tale fashion, he tests each of the three young women of the house in turn. It makes the romance feel more distanced and abstract than we might want it to be but it also gives the film a nicely creepy tone. What exactly does it mean for a young woman to fall in love with Death?
Evelyn Venable, whose sweet, regular features look like they came straight out of a Victorian postcard, is best remembered as the voice of The Blue Fairy in Pinocchio. Here, as the love interest Grazia, she's quite convincing as an innocent, dreamy girl who seems to be yearning after something bigger than what life can bring her. She uses that beautiful, fluting voice of hers (a little like Eliza Doolittle, post-education) to great effect in her scenes with March, giving Grazia an out-of-the ordinary quality that makes his interest and her fate believable. Her character's attraction to Death can be taken as a sign that love can cross all boundaries. Or it can be seen, disturbingly, as a metaphor for a beautiful, sensitive girl being slowly drawn to suicide. The film leaves it open to be interpreted either way, but the suggestion of tragedy to the Grazia character gives the film a fascinating new element (not surprisingly, the modern remake made her a much more straightforward love interest).
The film's compressed storyline (only 79 minutes and much of it told through abstract speeches) means that most of the other characters fail to resonate strongly. This is a pity because it's quite a talented cast, including Henry Travers as a loveable mentor, Gail Patrick as a sharp, funny romantic prospect (her battle with Katharine Alexander for March's attention is one of the film's comic high points), and Sir Guy Standing as the world's most harried host. It's really a missed opportunity since if Death is going to spend his precious three days in one place with the same group of people, we want these people to be truly memorable and exciting.
A while back, in my New Year's meme, I asked people to name a classic film that deserved a remake (Judging by most people's response to the question, I might as well have asked if Pearl Harbor was this generation's Casablanca). I make no secret of the fact that I support remakes, when they're done with a spirit of affection and creativity. And Death Takes a Holiday is just the kind of classic I was thinking of when I asked that question. It's an irresistible premise, a modern-day fairy tale that can be taken in whatever comedic, fantastic, or romantic direction its director wants. Here, under Mitchell Leisen's direction, it becomes a fascinating, uneasy blend of stage comedy and dark fantasy, a classic with just enough flaws to warrant reinterpretation. No wonder Martin Brest would lavish three hours on the Brad Pitt remake, Meet Joe Black. And no wonder the original play has been retooled into a musical; the rambling, philosophical characters were halfway to bursting into song already.
So far however, no remake has really come around to knock the original out of first place. The Brest film is more conventionally romantic, the musical is more openly comedic, but the original film remains the most daring and beguiling of the three. Helped in no small part by the commanding performance of Fredric March, it's a movie that lingers in the memory. Right down to a conclusion that is either comforting or horrifying, depending on your point of view. By all means, go check it out.
"I wish that we may never meet when you are less beautiful and I must be less kind."
For me, the moment which best encapsulates the film is the love scene between Death and Alda. Alda is a smart, attractive woman and her Cheshire Cat grin speaks for a pretty satisfactory life. But the mystery of this handsome, foreign prince has completely overwhelmed her and she goes to him and offers love. Death warns her that she would turn away from him if she knew what he really was. "Try me?" Alda offers. (In spite of her limited screen time, Katharine Alexander manages to convey a sense of real intelligence and yearning in Alda that makes you want her to succeed). "Look into my eyes," Death snaps at her, holding her close. "I will you to know what I am!" March's features darken and blur into something sinister. The love slowly drains from Alda's face and her voice rises in utter terror. "No, no, I want to live!" she screams, running away from him to throw herself into a friend's arms. Alda can't explain what has happened to her but something in her, some instinct of survival, has revolted. With the best intentions in the world, she's still only human. The film never quite answers the question of whether Alda's fear or Grazia's willing surrender is the right response to Death. But we can make up our own minds about that.
Final Six Words:
Glittering, troubled tale of fantastic redemption
Final image credited to Old Hollywood Tumblr