Directed by Mitchell Leisen. 1934.

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“Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves and immortality” – Emily Dickinson 

If Death took a holiday, the guns would go silent in Iraq, the slaughter on our nation’s highways would cease, and the news media would be compelled to cover positive events in the humanities, arts, and sciences. Unfortunately, Death has not had a vacation in recorded history, but Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 fantasy, Death Takes a Holiday, allows us to consider the possibility. Co-written by Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman and based on the play "La Morte in Vacanza" by Alberto Casella, Death Takes a Holiday stars Frederic March as the Grim Reaper who takes on human form in an attempt to discover why men fear him so much. Why he has waited 5,000 years to satisfy this curiosity is not explained. 

After a brief tryout as a shadowy figure who scares the daylights out of those that cross his path, Death shows up at, of all places, an upscale party at an Italian villa, posing as the mysterious Prince Sirki. Only one person knows who he really is, the host Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), and he is sworn to secrecy. Sirki proceeds to fascinate the guests. Given to bursts of wit and poetry, he can just as quickly turn sullen and threatening, and some soon find out that it is better not to look too deeply into his eyes. During the three days in which the Prince is at the villa, however, people all over the world miraculously escape death and potential suicides are doomed to frustration. 

To see what’s behind all the conversation about love, the suave but naïve Prince Sirki falls for the irresistible Grazia (Evelyn Venable), the daughter of one of Duke’s friends. Grazia knows who Death is but does not fear him, much to the chagrin of her fiancé, Corrado (Kent Taylor) who has developed a strong disdain for Prince Charming. More sinister than Brad Pitt in the 1998 remake Meet Joe Black, March turns in a very convincing performance as the creepy yet strangely appealing guest. Although the ending is melodramatic, the emotions are very real and the suggestion that Death may in reality be a friend disguised as a foe is quite touching. 


Howard Schumann
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