The city of Ur, now located in Iraq, is considered one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Its name has become synonymous, therefore, with the first recorded instance of something. And so, in that spirit, I give you Grazia, the Ur-Goth.
Grazia, played by Evelyn Venable, is the heroine of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday. And she is in love with death. I don’t mean in any abstract way, either: she is literally in love with Death, personified by Frederic March.
The film is based on a play titled La Morte in Vacanza by Alberto Casella; the English-language translation by Walter Ferris is still occasionally performed by community-theater troupes (probably because the rights are pretty cheap). The spirit of Death takes a long weekend off from his job to chill (heh) among us mortals and find out why everyone fears him. Grazia is already half in love with Death as an abstract concept; when she meets him in the flesh, she falls the rest of the way. At the end she elects to join him in eternity and ease his loneliness, which is different from dying (although exactly how is left a bit vague).
Modern folk will recognize this basic story from two contemporary works: the song (Don’t Fear) The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult, and the film remake Meet Joe Black, in which dreamy Brad Pitt replaces actual actor Frederic March. The remake is also, at three hours, over twice as long as the eighty-minute original. Whether that translates into twice as good I’ll leave to individual tastes.
I love this film, stage-bound and hokey though it might be. I find March’s portrayal of Death, both in his traditional Grim Reaper form and his mortal disguise Prince Sirki, to be touching, humorous and just a bit rauncy in the way pre-Production Code films could be. He plays Death divorced from any specific religious connotation, describing himself as “a sort of vagabond of space. I am the point of contact between time and eternity.” Later, as Sirki, he takes offense when Death is referred to as “the Old Man.” And he’s hysterically discomforted in the subtle but, to a modern audience, obvious scene where he experiences sexual arousal for the first time.
Grazia is no slouch in the poetic-dialogue department herself. She tells Sirki, “When I’m with you, I see depths in your eyes that are like the worlds I visit in sleep. And beneath your words is a sound I’ve heard in dreams. When you leave me, the light goes from the sky. You’re like the mystery that’s just beyond sight and sound. Always just beyond my reach. Something that draws and… frightens.” Yes, this is overblown and melodramatic, but Grazia is no poser pretending to court the Reaper. She sees what’s inside him for what it really is, and still longs to join him. Take that, typical Hot Topic customer.
And I can’t tell you how annoyed I am that the only way to find Death Takes a Holiday on DVD is to buy the special edition of Meet Joe Black, which includes the original film as a bonus. Note to filmmakers: unless you’re absolutely dead-on sure that you’ve made a better version, do not include the original on your DVD. It only makes you look sadder than you already do for doing a remake in the first place.