“Just think of millennia multiplied by eons compounded by time without end, I’ve been around that long…”
In 1934, Paramount presented the film Death Takes a Holiday based on the 1929 Broadway production which had been adapted from the Italian play “La Morte in vacanza” by Alberto Casella. Originally, the play was to have been filmed in 1930 with William Powell starring. The film focused on two key characters — a rich nobleman and Death, the embodiment of the agent of life’s end. The latter decides that he wishes to understand why humans cling to life and takes on human form, spending some time under the former’s roof, in order to do so.
Forty-four years later, director Martin Brest saw this film for the first time and became intrigued by the premise. While he pursued other projects over the following 15 to 20 years, he gradually managed to have a script developed with which he felt comfortable. After completing Scent of a Woman in 1992, Brest then turned to filming the script. The completed film, entitled Meet Joe Black, was released in 1998.
Universal first released Meet Joe Black on DVD in early spring 1999. It has now returned to the film with its release of a two-disc Ultimate Edition which presents the original transfer of the film, but also now includes the complete original Death Takes a Holiday.
Meet Joe Black — Bill Parrish is a successful businessman and has all the wealth and power that one could ask for. Parrish is beginning to question his mortality, though, and then receives a visit from a mysterious stranger who reveals himself to be Death. In exchange for extra time on Earth, Parrish agrees to be a guide for Death who has taken on human form in the person of one Joe Black. An attempted takeover of Bill’s company and a growing love between Joe Black and Bill’s daughter, Susan, come to a head on the night of an extravagant party held in celebration of Parrish’s 65th birthday.
Death Takes a Holiday — Death decides to take on human form and spend some time among humans in order to understand why they fear him. He chooses Duke Lambert to reveal himself to and proceeds to act as the Duke’s houseguest for three days in the form of Prince Sirki. During this time, despite accidents and natural upheavals, no one dies anywhere on Earth. While spending time with the Duke and his family, the Prince falls in love with Grazia, the daughter of one of the Duke’s friends. This raises the issue of whether Death should depart at the end of his three days on Earth with his new-found love or without, given that her time to die has not yet come. Grazia’s own feelings, however, add a surprising element to the situation’s resolution.
When I first heard about Universal’s Ultimate Edition of Meet Joe Black, I was immediately interested because of the inclusion of Death Takes a Holiday — a film I saw many years ago and of which I had fond memories. Upon viewing the film on this new DVD, I was not disappointed. I was not prepared, however, for how greatly I enjoyed Meet Joe Black — having not seen it at the time of its theatrical release, and only having read what seemed to be fairly negative reviews of it at the time. Meet Joe Black is a thoughtful, elegant exploration of the concept of death that lingers in the mind long after the film is over. It is obviously somewhat a labour of love for its director. Having both versions together for comparison is a pleasure for there are clear differences between the two in regard to how the story is set, how it unfolds, and how it is resolved.
Both films depend upon the premise that death is not just an event, but that there is an entity called “Death” that orchestrates the event and has authority over its timing and manner. If one accepts this, it is not so difficult to imagine that such an entity might become curious about how humans approach death and why life is so important to them. Taking on human form and passing some time on Earth amongst humans seems like an obvious way to find out and so it transpires in both Death Takes a Holiday and Meet Joe Black. From this premise, however, the films diverge.
Death Takes a Holiday is a shorter, more contained story in both time and space. Death Takes a Holiday’s Death, in its earthly guise as Prince Sirki, is the sort of person one might expect — one with an aura of power and knowledgeable of human activities and ways, if a little stiff and slow to respond almost as though that person had not exercised such reactions in a long time. If Prince Sirki is death in human form as we might expect him, Death Takes a Holiday‘s brief running time allows for his real earthly companions to be scarcely more than stereotypes. Certainly, we gain little appreciation for Duke Lambert’s feelings about being Death’s earthly contact or for the mental struggle that Grazia must be undergoing. Interestingly, for a 1930s film, the ending is not the typical, expected, happy one.
Meet Joe Black‘s Death in the form of Joe Black is somewhat problematic. He does not possess the expected aura of power and seems almost childlike in his lack of knowledge of the simplest of human habits. Would an entity that has observed humankind for millennia be so unaware, even if its temporary human form felt strange? The real problem, though, is lack of consistency. Just as you begin to come to terms with the sort of innocent, untutored person that Death is being portrayed as, suddenly he has the ability to converse in the native tongue of a dying West Indian woman that he encounters in a hospital. (I guess fifteen to twenty years of script preparation aren’t quite enough to get everything right!) You might think that these problems with Meet Joe Black‘s portrayal of Death doom the film, but that is not at all the case. The film’s lengthy running time allows not only for eventual viewer acceptance of Joe Black despite the inconsistencies, but also in-depth development of the other main characters, chiefly Bill Parrish and his daughter Susan. Bill Parrish runs the gamut of reactions from incredulity to bemusement to acceptance and he eventually embraces the idea of his death once he realizes that Susan may survive. The film’s ending, interestingly for a 1990s film, is a happy one.
Meet Joe Black benefits from Anthony Hopkins’s typical, fine performance as Bill Parrish and Claire Forlani is marvelous as Susan. Marcia Gay Holden and Jeffrey Tambor provide effective support as Parrish’s other daughter and son-in-law respectively. Balanced against these must be Brad Pitt’s rather wooden performance as Joe Black. Admittedly the script dictates this to some extent, but Brad Pitt is pretty wooden at the best of times and this script just plays to that weakness. That the film is able to succeed so well despite the central character’s mediocre portrayal is a testament to the rest of the cast and the pacing that Director Martin Brest has imposed upon the film. A wonderful score by Thomas Newman contributes substantially as well.
Fredric March’s dominant performance as Prince Sirki anchors Death Takes a Holiday. He’s dashing and commanding with an undertone of menace. Yet there’s just that occasional hesitation in his actions that one would expect of someone that’s a little rusty when it comes to falling automatically into the day-to-day motions of the earthly idle rich. On the other hand, the supporting cast has little opportunity to shine. The characters are all stock types from the somewhat bluff household head Duke Lambert played by Guy Standing, to American adventuress Rhoda Fenton (Gail Patrick), to the retired Baron Cesarea (Henry Travers, of all people). Evelyn Venable is fine as Grazia although only the film’s last few scenes offer her a real opportunity to be other than a standard damsel in distress. Death Takes a Holiday was an early directorial effort for Mitchell Leisen (in fact, his first commercial success) and he would go on to be recognized as one of the real pros and a studio workhorse for Paramount during the Hollywood Golden Era. His brisk yet unobtrusive handling of the film is a good example of why he is recognized in this way.
As one might guess, the two films on the Meet Joe Black Ultimate Edition are distinctly different in terms of their image quality on DVD. Meet Joe Black is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. It appears to be the same transfer that was used for the previous DVD version — that is to say, crisp and clean with very good colour fidelity and excellent contrast. Shadow detail is quite good. There are a few instances where edge enhancement is noticeable, but they are not a major concern. Both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS sound tracks are presented. Only the former was reviewed. The sound is exceptional, doing full justice to Newman’s engaging music. Surround effects are subtly enveloping as one might expect for the dialogue-driven film. Death Takes a Holiday, on the other hand, shows its age. The black and white film (presented full frame at its original ratio of 1.37:1) is quite watchable with fairly good contrast if a little soft-looking overall, but certainly no restoration efforts are apparent. The image exhibits numerous scratches and speckles and even what appears to be some evidence of negative decomposition in a couple of scenes. The sound track is in pretty rough shape. The dialogue is certainly understandable, but age-related hiss is quite noticeable throughout.
Disc One contains the film Meet Joe Black along with a set of production notes and cast and filmmaker bios. It also contains some significant DVD-ROM content. The most fascinating inclusion is a complete script and scene comparison feature that allows you to read the actual completed script on the right side of the screen as you view the movie on the left. This provides for much fascinating comparison between reading the flat printed words on the page and how they are ultimately brought to life by the actors. Also included in the DVD-ROM material is a slightly longer version of the production notes and additional cast and filmmaker biographical information.
Disc Two contains the film Death Takes a Holiday along with a short featurette on the production of Meet Joe Black which mainly consists of interviews with cast and filmmakers. There is also a nice seven-minute photo montage from Meet Joe Black set to the film’s music. The original theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.
Although I’m very happy with the suite of material that Universal has assembled for this Ultimate Edition, I should point out that two features that one might normally expect with this sort of package are not included. There is no director commentary nor is there an in-depth making-of documentary. The latter is reasonably compensated for by the short production featurette and other production notes, but the lack of a commentary is a little puzzling. Space considerations resulting from the inclusion of both the DD5.1 and DTS sound tracks may of course have squeezed it out, but for what is obviously a film very close to the director’s heart, to not have his thoughts in the form of a commentary is disappointing.
While I realize Universal treats Death Takes a Holiday solely as a supplement to Meet Joe Black, I would like to have seen some effort made to provide some supplementary material for that film as well. Mitchell Leisen’s career is well-documented elsewhere and information on Death Takes a Holiday and its cast is available and could easily have been utilized.
Universal’s Meet Joe Black Ultimate Edition is a package that is greater than the sum of its parts. Both Meet Joe Black and Death Takes a Holiday are fine films in their own right and I would recommend either were they available separately. Having them both together allows for ease of comparison and provides for plenty of discussion due to the different but interesting way in which each portrays the same central idea. The transfer of MJB is excellent in both image and sound. Death Takes a Holiday is much rougher looking and sounding, as one might expect from a film nearly 70 years old that has not undergone any restoration. Nevertheless, it is certainly a workable presentation and I’m grateful to have it available on DVD. The package lacks a couple of the standard supplements (detailed documentary, audio commentary) that one normally expects with such editions, but more than makes up for it with the imaginative twinning of the two films and the full script-to-scene comparison of Meet Joe Black that is available as a DVD-ROM feature. Highly recommended.