The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
Love and Death Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Thursday, 19 March 2009

To acquire a DVD copy of my favorite movie, Death Takes a Holiday (1934), I had to buy the 1998 remake, Meet Joe Black: The Ultimate Edition. I ordered a used copy, figuring that whereas the DVD of the new film, which stars Brad Pitt, might well be scratched from frequent use, the bonus disc, with the Fredric March original, would probably be flawless. Mr. Pitt’s young fans don’t like old black-and-white movies—one reason why the older film isn’t out on DVD by itself.

Watching one and then the other hints at how views of death have changed in less than a century.

Death Takes a Holiday, adapted from Alberto Casella’s 1924 play, La Morta in Vacanza, is the story of Death’s decision to take a few days off. When we first meet him, Death is a shadowy, faceless figure come to the estate of Duke Lambert (Guy Standing), not to take the duke’s soul but to seek knowledge: “There is something about me that men fear,” Death says, “and that makes them cling to their existence. I must find out what it is.” So he assumes the human form of one Prince Sirki, recently deceased.

Death falls in love — with the duke’s prospective daughter-in-law, Grazia (Evelyn Venable) — and while he sojourns as Prince Sirki, nothing dies. The guns of war jam and accident victims are unhurt. A jilted lover jumps off the Eifel Tower, gets up, and walks away. Probably off to a café for a glass of eau-de-vie!

Serio-fantasy is the name usually given as the film’s genre, but you might better call it Catholic realism. In its title-sequence/prologue the various characters, Lambert’s wealthy friends, are in an Italian village buying armloads of flowers. The duke’s son, Corrado, played by square-jawed Kent Taylor (who’s first name became the last name of Superman’s alter ego — the “Clark” of Clark Kent coming from Clark Gable), goes looking for Grazia and finds her in church. She has finished praying the rosary and is making the sign of the cross. And there are other Catholic signs too. The duke’s mansion is called Villa Felicità; his servant is named Fedele: the words in Italian meaning respectively happinesss (or contentment) and faithful. At one of the duke’s galas, a cardinal attends in full regalia. This is the milieu in which Grazia and Sirki meet.

Grazia is self-possessed yet discontented in this world, very much a woman in search of a religious vocation. Her yearning unsettles friends and family. “There’s something miraculous in the air,” she explains. “Like an old story you can’t quite believe.” Except she does believe it, even though, when Death first touches her, she faints.

As Death/Prince Sirki, Fredric March shows why he was one of old Hollywood’s most intriguing movie stars. In the remake, Brad Pitt’s Death (also secreted in a body, this one called Joe Black) seems like the starchild of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 suddenly grown up but blinking with fawn-like astonishment at his new world. He doesn’t even know how to tie a necktie.

Mr. March, on the other hand, has his utterly confident Sirki (always in black tie) radiate both civility and menace. Joe Black is a brooding, uncultured — albeit blond and attractive — wild boy who has stumbled uninvited among the sophisticated set, whereas Sirki is every inch a prince — debonair and bold — attractive, yes, but awe-inspiring too.

Grazia and Sirki dance. Corrado intervenes; he senses her wish to renounce this world. In their last earthly moments, Sirki tells her: “I am a great power, and I am humble before you.” Her faith has conquered Death, and Sirki offers Grazia an unimaginable journey.

Joe Black seems rather more inclined to offer his Susan (Claire Forlani) a weekend trip to Motel 6, their union being not merely spiritual. When they have a happy ending, it’s only because Death has vacated and stuffed back the original soul into the body of “Joe Black.” Susan seems okay with this, since, unlike Grazia, she’s not necessarily looking for commitment.

No cardinal attends the big party for her father (Anthony Hopkins); no priests either and certainly no prayers.

Sirki calls himself a “familiar friend,” but in the world of Joe Black death is an odd stranger, if not an alien enemy. Folks these days expect long lives and are scandalized by early death. To many people, it seems positively ghoulish that Victorians photographed their dead children and kept the pictures as treasured mementos. But until this century, death touched humanity at every age, and survivors were sustained by faith — not so much by the dance and trance of pleasure.

Death, personified, isn’t a Christian of course. He’s a force of nature, like waves breaking on a winter beach or the wind that whips the waves and fills the sails that blows ships to port.

This is why Catholics do not fear him; our fears are eschatological.

Brad Miner is the author of five books, including The Compleat Gentleman, a new edition of which will be published on April 22 by Richard Vigilante Books.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (1)Add Comment
0
...
written by debby, March 19, 2009
Hi Brad, you might want to check out On Borrowed Time, old B&W with Lionel Barrymore. Mr. Brink, Death, has been confined, with unpleasant results. You might like it, good family movie. My kids have seen it many a time.
I hope I can locate Death Takes a Holiday. our family loves old movies, Cary Grant is a regular Friday night guest! Some of them invoke thought long after they are over. Rarely does that occur today, altho did love Bucket List.
And you are right, Death is our Sister, so No Fear

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 

Other Articles By This Author

CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner