What Happens When…Death Takes a Holiday (1934)

You know when you watch a film and can’t get it out of your head? It lingers. It causes you to ponder. You’re not quite sure what to make of the whole thing. I’d categorize Death Takes a Holiday in that vicinity. A Pre-code allegorical fantasy drama with touches of horror, humor, and romance, this film really is a bundle to unpack. Definitely not for light viewing, but in my opinion is not to be missed.

When Death takes a holiday…

He crashes a party at a luxurious Italian villa

The film is based on a 1924 Italian play, La Morte en Vacanza by Alberto Casella, which was adapted into English for Broadway in 1929. One can definitely feel its roots coming through as much of the action takes place in one spot – the magnificent set for the Duke’s villa, reminiscent of a fairy tale castle. The villa is shot so well and fills the eye that you quickly forget our story’s confinement.

Much of the film’s beauty and gloss is due to director Mitchell Leisen’s talented eye. Leisen (Remember the Night) was known in Hollywood for his superior aesthetic sensibilities. Before making his directorial debut just a year prior to Death Takes a Holiday, Leisen had been a costume designer, art director, and associate director for Cecil B. DeMille, among others. Leisen credited DeMille with teaching him everything about making movies. He never forgot the veteran filmmaker’s advice: “The camera has no ears. If you want to say it, get it on the screen.” Although Leisen was a visual expert, he brought wit, intelligence, and sensitivity to his scripts. In Death Takes a Holiday he proves his mettle by handling the complex subject matter with the delicate, elegant touch that became his trademark.

He appears in the dashing form of Frederic March

Frederic March plays Death, the nemesis of all mankind. As such, he is lonely and wonders why men fear him. He decides to take human form for three days and find out for himself what this living stuff is all about. He becomes a guest of an aristocratic party of friends, disguising himself as a prince. But with only three days in the flesh will he accomplish his quest…Will he discover for himself what makes men cling to life and what makes life worth living?

Frederic March is excellent as the personification and character of Death. While at times his performance does lean toward the theatrical side, it didn’t take me out of the film. I thought it added to the larger than life nature of his character. However, he also imbues the role with gentle sensitivity. Particularly towards the end of the film his delivery of the lines are poignantly and beautifully spoken. March did not have an easy task playing a dual role – one in which he must keep his identity hidden while (not so subtly) probing into life matters.

For example, when meeting a man who is inclined to racing his car he utters with irony, “Why haven’t we met before?”

March’s Prince Sirki is both wise and searching, witty and awkward, ominous and romantic. A truly multi-layered performance.

He sets his cap for the Blue Fairy

Evelyn Venable plays Grazia, the introspective young woman who catches Prince Sirki’s eye. Venable’s most famous role was that of the voice and model for the Blue Fairy in Disney’s Pinnochio (1940). Here she embodies that same character – sweet, innocent, good natured, albeit conflicted and unsatisfied with her present circumstances.

He shows off his ghostliness from time to time

This atmospheric, moody tale has visuals to match its otherworldly nature. Charles Lang Jr.’s cinematography is absolutely beautiful with deep shadows and a soft, dream like quality. The special effects were carefully done in camera and are quite impressive. There’s no doubt as to why Lang went on to film The Uninvited (1944) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) the following decade.

He causes quite a stir among the other guests

The supporting cast includes some familiar faces, Henry Travers, Helen Westley, Gail Patrick, Sir Guy Standing, Catherine Alexander, Kent Taylor, and G. P. Huntley, Jr. While Standing has the most to do, I enjoyed Travers’s performance the most. As the kind advisor to Prince Sirki (I’m seeing a pattern…) he captured my heart.

He imparts food for thought

According to Charles Tranberg, author of Frederic March – A Consummate Actor, Death Takes a Holiday was a huge success both commercially and critically and was Paramount’s second-highest grossing film for 1934. I find that surprising for a film which is highly philosophical in nature, but for a world recovering from World War I it must have struck a deep chord. After the film’s release, the studio received thousands of letters from fans declaring their view of death had changed because of this film.

Death Takes a Holiday will inspire discussion and contemplation on life and death – topics that are often uncomfortable to think about; but in Leisen’s film, romanticism overshadows morbidity, resulting in a shocking ending that leaves it up to the viewer to decide what to make of this haunting tale.

This post is my contribution to The Frederic March Blogathon hosted by The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society in honor of the great Frederic March who was born August 31st, 1897! Thank you for letting me participate! Click here to see all the entries celebrating Mr. March.