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Death Takes a Holiday (1934)

Love is greater than illusion, and as strong as death!

Prince Sirki/Death (Frederic March)

The origin of Death Takes a Holiday as a stage play are apparent in the 1934 film version. It’s talky, but the words don’t just consume time that could be used for action. They’re contemplative and meaningful. I probably didn’t catch the significance of them all, but at only 79 minutes, I’d gladly watch the movie again to try.


Based on the 1923 Italian play, La morte in vacanza (The Death on Holiday), the 1934 film isn’t its only adaptation. In fact, I have clear memories of Monte Markham walking on the beach in a 1971 TV-movie version. And, at more than twice the original film’s running time, Meet Joe Black (1998) is a bloated version of the story starring Brad Pitt.


There was also a 1954 episode of Kraft Television Theatre based on the play, starring Joseph Wiseman as Death, a 1958 episode of Matinee Theatre starring Gene Raymond, and an off-Broadway/off West End musical that ran in 2011 and 2017 respectively. What is it about the story that’s so compelling?


In the 1934 film, at least, it’s the very concept of a literal figure called “Death” that takes a vacation from his regular duties to spend three days on Earth. He wants to know why people fear him and cling so tightly to their corporeal lives. He makes a deal with Duke Lambert (Guy Standing) to spend this time with him and his guests at the Duke’s villa.

Can you conceive how lonely I am – when there is nothing that doesn’t shrink from me?

If that seems a little esoteric, while he’s on Earth, he falls in love. His human form as Prince Sirki (Frederic March) is immediately drawn to Grazia (Evelyn Venable), who also has a dark side to her, looking for more purpose in her existence. Before she can marry Corrado (Kent Taylor)…

There’s a kind of happiness I want to find first if I can. There’s something out there that I must find first… something that I must understand.

So, yes, Death Takes a Holiday is a meditation on the meaning of life itself. While the ending is not ambiguous, it does leave us thinking. Spoiler alert! Grazia’s ultimate decision evokes Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), not quite satisfied with his life as it is and eager to explore other realms.


The horrific aspect of the story is exemplified in various headlines, because, if Death is not working, people aren’t dying. They’re surviving terrible accidents such as jumping off the Eiffel Tower, then getting up off the ground to walk away from it. This is a small contribution to the movie’s intent; however, one about which I like to imagine the implications.


During my research, nearly every reference to Death Takes a Holiday emphasizes that it’s “pre-Code.” I’m not sure what’s included then that couldn’t be during the Code, unless it’s this request that Prince Sirki makes of Grazia:

Let me hold you and feel that last ecstasy so I’ll know I’ve lived.

We briefly see him begin to climb on top of her, then later, he mentions “laying” with her. Taken literally, I guess that is a little shocking for early movie audiences. It’s important to the overall impact, though. When Prince Sirki determines it’s love that keeps people clinging to life, he needs to feel the physical expression of it for at least one time.


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