Death Takes a Holiday opens with a scene of riotous joy. In some unnamed European country (later revealed to be Italy), jolly peasants sing, dance, drink, and generally make merry, confetti and streamers flying everywhere. A group of more conventional upper-class Europeans also enjoy the fun, but only in passing, as they’re about to head off for the country villa of one of their number. One among them seems a bit apart, however—she was praying in a church while the others were enjoying the festivities, has a way of staring off in the distance rather than focusing on the people around her, and is the only one who can see a black shadow behind them on the road. Pay attention to this hint, because it will be important later.
The road to the estate is narrow and winding, leading to a near miss and then a collision with horse and cart driven by yet another peasant straight from Central Casting (Otto Hoffman). Rather miraculously, he’s unhurt (of course, no one had heard of concussion protocols in those days), as is his “Celeste”—who turns out to be the horse. A little money takes care of the property damages, and the group continues on their way to the country estate, bothered only for a moment about why they couldn’t see the peasant and his cart until they were almost on top of him.
Of course, it’s all the shadow’s fault, because Death is also visiting the villa this weekend. The story of Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday, drawn from a 1928 Italian play by Alberto Casella, and later recycled in Martin Brest’s 1998 Meet Joe Black, is that Death, curious to understand why people fear him, has decided to spend some time among the living, in the guise of the very suave Prince Sirki (Fredric March). He’ll only experience upper-class life, of course, while staying with his pal Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), but that doesn’t seem to bother him—in fact, he’s delighted to make the acquaintance of the Duke’s other guests, who include Baron Cesarea (Henry Travers), Princess Maria (Kathleen Howard, the Duke’s son Corrado (Kent Taylor), Alda (Katherine Alexander), Rhoda (Gail Patrick), Stephanie (Helen Westley), and Grazia (Evelyn Venable). The Duke will make proposals to two ladies before the final credits roll; their differing responses, once he reveals his true identity, constitute the main philosophical thrust of the story.
Death Takes A Holiday, originally released in 1934, is a pre-Code film, but there’s nothing particularly salacious about it. Instead, it’s a good example of a movie from the early sound era, when directors were still working out how to have actors move apparently naturally while also accommodating the demands of the sound equipment. The acting is more melodramatic than you typically see in films today, but it’s not a problem if you simply take the film as a product of its time. The cinematography by Charles Lang is quite good, the costume design by Travis Banton and Edith Head is a predictable pleasure, and there’s some nice special effects work by Gordon Jennings.
The real visual treats in Death Takes a Holiday, however, come from the art decoration by Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté. The interiors of the villa where most of the story takes place are pure works of mad genius, particularly the living room, which seems to be designed around a classical folly erected indoors, rather than in the back yard where such things belong. Seriously, people are lounging about on sofas, smoking cigarettes and looking very glamorous, while surrounded by marble lions and Greek columns as well as the inevitable gilded piano, wall tapestries, ornate carved fireplace, and tasseled curtains. There’s just too much of everything in this living room, but as Mae West once informed us, too much of a good thing can be wonderful. | Sarah Boslaugh
Death Takes a Holiday is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The main extra is an audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger. The disc also includes the trailers for eight films.