Death Takes a Holiday was a classic film made in 1934 before it was remade in 1971 as a TV movie. The original starred Fredric March and Evelyn Veneble, based on an Italian play of the same title by Alberto Casella. Our TV Movie of the Week Blogathon selection is the 1971 version, the ABC Movie of the Week also titled Death Takes a Holiday. It features an excellent cast starring Yvette Mimieux as Peggy Chapman, Monte Markham as “David Smith,” Melvyn Douglas as Judge Earl Chapman, and Myrna Loy as his wife Selena Chapman As in the classic film, death makes his usual reaping visit, and ends up falling in love with his victim. And who could blame him?
As the movie opens, Yvette Mimieux walks alone along the beach, a vision of beauty. The solo guitar score of Laurindo Almeida moves from peaceful sunny chords to darker airs as she swims underwater amidst kelp beds, where we finally see her still and lifeless body.
Yet in the next scene she is back on the beach, saved by a “David Smith.” After they introduce each other she kisses him, he surprised, she says, “I always kiss men that save my life.” She invites him to stay the weekend at her house, since his boat wrecked on her family’s island.
Over the course of a couple of days he learns about her family and its members. He talks with mother Selena about how she copes with the long-ago loss of her young daughter. He falls more deeply in love with Peggy, curious about her fascination with death. She explains her family’s history of misfortune. In pointing to a tree that is like a totem to her, she said that the ancient tribes believed that for every glorious victory there was a terrible defeat. She relates how during her ski-jumps she thinks about cheating death each time she reaches bottom.
The Judge her father is curious about David, and presses him about his background and family, sensing a growing closeness between his daughter and him. David avoids the subject. The Judge goes further and asks his attorney for research on him. The attorney tries to tell him some real news, that no one has died in 12 hours. And Peggy has a suitor that is also at the family retreat, growing increasingly jealous of David. He makes bold and tells David to leave, which has no effect
And now there is more news. In the depth of the Viet Nam war, through typhoons, building fires. and on the country’s highways, around the world it seems, there have been no reported deaths in 24 hours. But amidst this news, remote on their island for a family retreat, It is now time for more family games, which include inflatable sport boat races between the brothers. As the judge, David and Selma watch from a beach lifeguard tower, they panic when one of the brothers falls off and his boat heads straight towards two of the children. But David reassures them, “They will be safe.” When the boat veers off at last, Judge Earl says, “I remember you now. You were there at my last three strokes.” And yes, death almost took him, but not quite. And so David asks him what keeps him hanging on so tenaciously to life. And Earl answers him, “Everything that matters to me, everything I love is here…I love people, what they can achieve, how they touch each other’s lives, what they can give one another…”
When Earl finds out Death is here for his daughter and not him, he begs him to take him instead. He is old and he suffers, despite what he has said about how he clings to life, his daughter has everything to live for. Death admits he has fallen in love with her, but he is powerless to change things. And later when Earl and Selena talk about what has happened, and Peggy joins in to find out that Earl has asked for David to take him instead, she leaves, saying she loves him and is ready to leave with him. Selena admonishes Earl that Peggy should love who she wants – even Death, and how should they judge who would be the happiest. (spoiler alert)
And while Peggy is walking among the trees she finds out that her own totem tree is about to be felled, caused by prior storm damage. Then she decides to jump off a cliff. But David runs and stops her in time, and tells her ecstatically that he has decided to stay on earth with her. She is happy he loves her but tells him he can’t stay because too many people will keep on living. She has decided to go with him, if they can go together, which he agrees to, and so ends the movie.
The movie was beautifully filmed. The principal actors made this magical realism movie believable and moving. It has no great dramatic moments but leads directly to the point of the story. Its use of the great actors of the classic era: Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas add depth, while prompting questions of why Yvette Mimieux didn’t became a bigger star, and even a bigger career for Monte Markham. It is certainly worth watching, better than many current movies seen on TV today, premium TV included. It was also remade in 1998 as Meet Joe Black, starring Brad Pitt as Death visiting Anthony Hopkins and his daughter played by Claire Forlani.
This post is part of The Movie of the Week Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Film and TV Café.