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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #14, a 'Hidden Classic': Death Takes a Holiday, 1934

Bad News: Due to a confluence of events I am now officially one week behind in my film-watching and blog updates for this series. I hope I can make up the difference to end the year on goal!

Good News: I'm thrilled to be submitting this post as part of the Classic Movie Blog Association's Spring Blogathon on 'Hidden Classics'. Click on the image below to access everyone's choices of films that you may not have heard of but definitely should watch.

My 'hidden classic' is: Death Takes a Holiday, from 1934.

Director: Mitchell Leisen
Writers: Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman, adapted from the play by Alberto Casella
Cinematographer: Charles Lang
Visual Effects (not minor here): Gordon Jennings

Produced by: Emanuel Cohen and E. Lloyd Sheldon for Paramount Pictures
Starring: Fredric March, Evelyn Venable, Guy Standing, Katherine Alexander, Henry Travers, Gail Patrick, Kent Taylor, Kathleen Howard

Why I chose it
Once again, I reached out to a film friend for some recommendations of 1934 films I hadn't seen; this one was on her list and then it won my Twitter poll ( the other options: Lady By Choice, Crime Without Passion, and Cleopatra).

'No-spoiler' plot overview
A small group of wealthy, fun-loving families plans to enjoy some time together in an Italian villa, but challenges ensue when they are visited for three days by mysterious Prince Sirki, who seems to know little of common courtesies. Unknown to all but Duke Lambert, the owner of the villa, Prince Sirki is the earthly disguise for none other than the Grim Reaper, or Death himself, who has decided to take a few days off from whisking mortals to the afterlife. His objective? To better understand why humans fear him. He lives it up with fun and games, and enjoys the attentions of several women in the party. He's particularly enthralled with young Grazia, who is engaged to Corrado, son of the Duke. He's a quick learner and realizes love is the transcendent driver of the human experience.

Production Background 

  • This film was director Leisen's second feature; his first was Cradle Song, also starring Evelyn Venable and putting her ethereal beauty to good use. (I saw Cradle Song at the Capitolfest Film Festival a few years back). 
  • The play was translated into English by Walter Ferris, and this was the version adapted for the film. Ferris, for his part, went on to become a screenwriter himself. 
  • According to an account by Leisen, the film succeeded for Paramount, and he received mail from fans saying they no longer feared death!
  • A remake called Meet Joe Black was released 53 years later starring Brad Pitt. I'd feel better about death, too, if I knew it took the shape of a handsome leading man!

Some other notable film-related events in 1934*:

  • The pre-Code Era comes to an end: An amendment to the Production Code established the Production Code Administration (PCA), which required all films to acquire a certificate of approval before release or face a penalty of $25,000. The members of the MPPDA agreed not to release or distribute any film that didn't carry the seal. The MPPDA appointed Joseph Breen as the director of the PCA to enforce the Production Code. The era of "separate beds" was inaugurated.
  • The Catholic Church formed the Legion of Decency to boycott any film that didn't use the Production Code as a guideline.
  • Louis de Rochemont began the documentary newsreel film series, The March of Time.
  • The Thin Man was the first installment of a popular series of six MGM films casting a sophisticated, glamorous, pleasure-seeking, and urbane husband-wife detective team (William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles). The story was taken from Dashiell Hammett's 1934 detective novel of the same name. Eventually, Powell and Loy appeared in 14 feature films together (from 1934 to 1947).
  • Famed child star Shirley Temple made her feature film debut in 1934, producing several films that year for Fox and Paramount. In 1935, Shirley won the Juvenile Academy Award for her film work encompassing 1934, and became the first female to receive a "special" Oscar.

My Random Observations

  • Some movies blow you away when you first see them; others that leave you flat on first viewing come to life on the second. I'm glad I watched this twice as it fell in the latter of those two categories. At first, the film seemed a bit too mannered for me. But once you accept some of the conceits that are built into the script, and realize those conceits are part of the point, the film really comes to life. The characters are all well-drawn, even if the film doesn't reach 90 minutes, which is a delight in itself. I particularly enjoyed Guy Standing as the nervous Duke, who must keep the dreadful secret about his mysterious houseguest. 
  • I smiled when I counted the various fairy tales and legends that seemed to find their way into this script; in particular, it seemed a mash-up of Cinderella, The Flying Dutchman, and Jekyll and Hyde (the latter aided by the presence of Fredric March, who had portrayed Stephenson's protagonist(s) two years earlier).
  • Fredric March sure looked good at this stage in his career. That said, the accent he adopted here, made to sound 'foreign' no doubt, reminded me of Dracula. It didn't help that he had dark make-up around his eyes that hinted at his supernatural origin.
  • Evelyn Venable had some amazing gowns in this film (yay, Edith Head & Travis Banton). And despite her beauty and attire, she totally convinced as the spiritual young woman not interested in the pleasures of earthly life. Maybe that is because she already had them (!).
  • I love when Gail Patrick appears in a film - she is a willowy beauty from the early Hollywood days who had enough of a haughty air to prevent her from *ever* getting a lead role in a film and was always relegated to the part of romantic rival (Love Crazy), nasty sister (My Man Godfrey), or the like. She played these roles to perfection, and I suppose was grateful to have a long, fruitful career in Hollywood nonetheless. After her acting career, she got into producing, and was apparently named 'Los Angeles Woman of the Year' twice!
Screenshots

Just one of several times that Grazia (Venable) gives Corrado
(Taylor) a weary look when he presses her to marry him, again.

Cruising down a twisty road at night - the light on Venable
vs. the shadows on her friends was striking.

What kind of villa is this? Gothic-Greek-shabby-chic?

The shadowy figure of Death approaches at Midnight.

Duke Lambert tries to keep it together in a conversation with Death.

The guests are stunned to see the arrival of Prince Sirki...

...a vision in white, looking like Fredric March.

Gail Patrick's and Katharine Alexanders' characters are 
forced into a rivalry trying to be the first to get the attention
of the handsome Prince.

The Prince grins as his holiday has the effect of keeping 
people from the death that would have been inevitable had
he been on the job.

Cesaria (Travers) lectures the Prince on life and love.

Now this is scary -- when provoked, the Prince shows his dark side.

The Prince looks on after giving Alda (Alexander) the scare of
her life.

The Prince and Grazia have a dance before midnight.

Where to Watch
I watched the film on Archive.org here, but it is also available on DVD. 

Further Reading
A bit of production history and discussion of the special effects are shared in TCM's film article here.

I love reading snarky contemporaneous reviews, and this one by Helen Brown Norden for Vanity Fair fits the bill (you will have to scroll down the page a bit to find it). She made an observation that I also did above: "Fredric March plays Death as if he thought he might possibly be Dracula; and he intones all his words with an awesome, old-Shakespearian-actor solemnity." 

Don't forget to check out all the posts highlighting 'hidden classics' here, and have fun!

13 comments:

  1. I may be one of the few who has already seen Death Takes a Holiday. I remember it from one of those afternoons watching movies on TV when I should have been doing homework. It sounds like it's time for me to see it again!

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    1. Hi Marianne - I expected that in this esteemed group there would be some who have seen this :-) I do think it is the kind of movie that would distract a young one from their homework (may also induce nightmares, too!) Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. Well this sure sounds so much better than Meet Joe Black! This is one of those diamonds that I have somehow neglected - who am I kidding - there are so many films left to see! Thanks for a beautiful post about an intriguing film. Well done!

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    1. Thank you. I am so with you on the "who am I kidding - there are so many movies left to see" sentiment. Countless discoveries await. I will admit to not having seen Meet Joe Black. I may quickly forward through some scenes to see how it compares with this one, but doubt I'll take time away from classic movie watching for that one. Thanks for reading, Marsha!

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  3. A great selection for the Hidden Classics Blogathon. This story is a mythical classic. It was also remade as a TV movie with the same title in 1971, with Monte Markham playing Death, who falls in love with the beautiful Yvette Mimeux. Melvyn Douglas and Myrna Loy co-starred in that excellent production.

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    1. Thanks, Christian. I had seen a reference to that TV movie - I will have to check it out at your recommendation. The cast sounds excellent.

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  4. This is a film that used to be shown on TV from time to time, which is where I have seen it. But it has been years. I was aware Meet Joe Black was a remake, although they don't sound so similar after reading your description. It occurs that there are many films, good films, that once aired on television regularly that have since fallen into obscurity. They were considered classics then and deserve to be now. Death Takes a Holiday is one of those films. A fine choice for the Hidden Classics blogathon.

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    1. Interesting. I very rarely watched old films on TV, but I do know they were aired on some channels, like NYC's "Million Dollar Movie." I believe many pre-Codes were aired starting in the 50s, but with no DVD or DVR technology, if you missed it, you missed it!

      And I do suspect this one is very different from Meet Joe Black, perhaps in the way Heaven Can Wait is different from Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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  5. There was a penchant in the 1970s for network television to remake classic films and Death Takes a Holiday was a movie of the week with Monte Makham and Yvette Mimieux. Shortly after seeing it the original with March showed up on the local late show. I have seen neither since that long ago time. I hope to see it now with your thoughts and information to guide me.

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    1. Interesting. I'm not sure if I should be glad I missed those remakes during the 1970s. . It probably would have been fun to see the remake and the original in close proximity, though. I do hope you get to see this one. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

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  6. Wow, this film sounds fantastic! And Fredirc march channeling his inner Dracula, who bwould have thought about it? Thanks for prersenting it to me and for letting us know that it's available on Archive.org!
    Cheers!

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    1. Thanks for reading! This would make a great 'late night' film on a weekend when you're looking for something different. And Archive.org is my 'go-to' location if I can't find an easier streaming option. Cheers to you!

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  7. I finally got to see this a few years ago -- I quite like Meet Joe Black, and had long wanted to see the original. I have to say I much prefer Frederic March about ten years older, but he was quite striking here. I liked this, but not enough to seek it out again.

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