Our regular look into the world of older movies brings us to a 1934 classic: here’s Death Takes A Holiday.
Last week in my old movies spot, I spoke about some of the greatest films from 1934 and for this week’s column, I’d like to focus on one that I love above all of them.
Yes, I’m looking at Death Takes A Holiday.
The title, while a bit clunky, does exactly what it says it’s going to do. The film does indeed revolve around the Grim Reaper absconding from his duties for a few days. And while the movie contains a few hilarities surrounding this fact, the story turns into a deeper and more poetic exploration on death and those who are drawn towards it.
So silly title aside, this movie is an exquisite exploration of life and what lies beyond the veil.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen, and based on an Italian play called La Morte In Vacanza, Death Takes A Holiday revolves around our titular protagonist who’s spent eternity wondering why people are afraid of him. After nearly killing a group of wealthy young people, Death approaches the patriarch of one of the families, Duke Lambert, and tells him, “Hey, I would like to pretend to be a wealthy count in order to experience humanity for the briefest moment and, if you don’t, then well, hey – I’m death.”
From there, Death then pretends to be Prince Sirki and experiences the joys of being human, before eventually falling in love with the young and beautiful Grazia.
I would be lying if I said that there weren’t any daft moments in Death Takes A Holiday, not least because, thanks to his little vacation, no one in the world is dying. There’s also an interesting Italian accent adopted by lead actor Fredric March while he plays Sirki, which takes a little adjustment.
That’s not to say March’s performance isn’t terrific. It takes an assured actor to balance the poetic nature of Death with the innocence of a somewhat new life and experiencing things for the first time. Yet March does this with aplomb. He tackles an role with gravitas, exploring the delights life has to offer while also falling desperately in love with Grazia.
Yet as brilliant as March is in this role – and he really is – the actor is outshone by Evelyn Venable as Grazia.
There have been a number of Gothic girls who have toyed with the allure of death, yet Grazia may be one of the first on screen.
Even before Death graces the family with his presence, Grazia teems with morbidity and is drawn to the darker heart of the world. When she finally meets Death, she is instantly drawn to him – seeing the shadow more so than the man.
Venable, who’d later go on to voice the Blue Fairy in Disney’s Pinocchio, is terrific as this dreamlike, profound character with an utterly captivating persona and voice.
Death Takes A Holiday has sublime special effects, including the illusion of Death as he appears before Duke Lambert. He appears translucent and almost smoke-like in appearance.
While Leisen’s tale can be silly, and on paper, it shouldn’t work, Death Takes A Holiday is a masterful movie. It certainly strikes true in the hearts of those who are curious about what awaits us once we’ve shuffled off this coil. It’s a romantic and exquisite movie, that packs a lot into its 79 minute running time. It also provided the inspiration for a loose Hollywood remake, 1998’s Meet Joe Black. Starring Brad Pitt, that particular feature infamously took three hours to tell the same story.
One last note on Death Takes A Holiday, though: the tagline for the theatrical release is absolutely incredible: No one can die – while he makes love! Imagine that.
It’s a remarkable tagline for a truly remarkable film.