Even the most morbid and horrid personification of death must take a holiday from time to time. Attempting to better understand the common man’s disdain for his work, Death Takes a Holiday is exactly what the title would suggest. Mitchell Leisen directs this picture in a time where cast and crew members were still coming to terms with the ever-changing Hollywood landscape. Every idea a fresh one, but with ample room to fill in the few blanks with predictable, safe storytelling, this evocative premise is unfortunately fumbled from time to time with brief interludes of romance, understanding and out-of-place messaging.
Death Takes a Holiday spends much of its opening time laying the foundation. Most of it goes to waste, with a succession of repetitive dialogue musing on a limited setlist of topics. The uncertainty of taking the plunge into marriage and the near-death experience of these leading characters are at the forefront of their minds, and sudden twists of panic and fear take hold to try and shake some life into Leisen’s work. His cluttered setting and scenery make for a faux appearance of an interesting life, but the shallow nature of it all appears broadly. All well and good if it were to play into the theme of the film, but Leisen and his cast don’t quite manage such a connection.
In contrast, though, the effects and lighting are superb. The first meeting with Death, here played by Fredric March, is marvellous. His wavering, oddly peaceful voice would work better with simpler dialogue, a bit wordy for such an imposing spirit. March does offer a solid performance, intensely driven in his goal of understanding the hatred he receives from a family of dislikeable individuals. Nothing from the script really convinces me that these characters are worth pity. Their overarching display of ill manners and tragic behaviour congeals into individuals who don’t learn anything from their circumstances.
Death Takes a Holiday is an engaging and unique premise, but its writing and characters feel flat and underwhelming. They offer little in the way of narrative progress, a real hindrance at times considering the vast array of avenues this story could head down. Instead, Leisen and his accompanying crew make for a rather underwhelming time, one that doesn’t spark much interest from its nicely choreographed moments of explicitly strong imagery to its overlying tones. They’re not adapted well enough, though, and it becomes the clear downfall of the film. Watching these characters stagger around, musing on why they dislike Death whilst in the presence of him, is a sadly banal affair.