Monday, January 19, 2015

On Borrowed Time (1939)

Sometimes a film comes into your life at the exact moment you need it. And other times it's inconvenient or painful. My grandfather passed away Friday night. When I woke up Saturday morning I turned on the TV to watch TCM. Classic film as emotional therapy has always been a way for me to cope with what life throws at me, both good and bad. What I didn’t expect to see on TCM is exactly what appeared: a movie about a dying grandfather. It was the last 30 minutes of the movie and I wasn’t sure if I should watch it. In fact, I was pretty sure watching it was a bad idea. I watched it nonetheless and found a new set of tears streaming down my face. It helped me work through some more of my emotions and appreciate the meaning of “family”. After watching the ending, I went to Watch TCM to watch the whole thing. And I'm very glad I did.

On Borrowed Time (1939) stars Lionel Barrymore as Gramps (Julian Northrup). He's a lovable old curmudgeon who is taking care of his newly orphaned grandson Pud (Bobs Watson). What he doesn't know is that Mr. Brink (Cedric Hardwicke) is coming for the Northrup family. First he took Gramps' son and his daughter-in-law and Gramps is next on his list. Mr. Brink's name is a play on the term "brink of death". He's the personification of death and only people who are close to death or whose time to die has come can see him and hear him. You might ask, what's the difference? Some folks who are very ill can see Mr. Brink even though it's not their time to go. An example is given very early on when a coughing man stops to give Mr. Brink a ride in his car. He thought Mr. Brink was waving to him. This encounter is the personification of a near-death experience.

Mr. Brink's arrival is incredibly inconvenient for Gramps who is in the middle of sorting out things for his grandson Pud. Pud and Gramps are as thick as thieves. Despite the age difference, they both have youthful spirits and find much in common. Pud idolizes Gramps and his devotion to Gramps and Gramps' undying love for his grandson heightens the emotional drama of the story.  Things become even more painful when Aunt Demetria (Eily Malyon) threatens to take Pud away from invalid Gramps and Mr. Brink threatens to take Gramps away from them all.

Gramps recently made a magical wish that comes true: anyone who climbs up Gramps' apple tree won't be able to come down until he gives them permission to do so. This scenario adds a bit of magical realism to the story and a way for Gramps' to fend off death. He tricks Mr. Brink into climbing the tree. Anyone who touches the tree will die instantly however as long as Mr. Brink is stuck there he can't come for Gramps. This gives Gramps an opportunity to spend more time with Pud and to settle some issues.

Bobs Watson and Lionel Barrymore in a promotional photo for On Borrowed Time (1939)

A death always shakes up family dynamics. The true nature of certain family members comes to light and their actions betray underlying motivations. The best example of this is Aunt Demetria as played by Eily Malyon. She's Pud's aunt and the Northrup's in-law. Her motivations for taking Pud away from Gramps are selfish and dishonest. It's clear she's after her brother-in-law's inheritance. Gramps couldn't care less about money and only wants to protect young Pud. Demetria and Gramps are polar opposite and she serves to highlight Gramps' good character and genuine motivations.

Lionel Barrymore's performance is the best part of this film. Barrymore was quite ill at the time and confined to his wheelchair. Yet his physical hindrances did not affect his performance. Barrymore is simply charming and the Gramps character is the grandfather we all wish we could have.

Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Barrymore and Bobs Watson in On Borrowed Time (1939)

Spoiler alert

In the end, Gramps can only keep death away for so long. Dr. Evans (Henry Travers) becomes the voice of reason and convinces Gramps that death is necessary for life to go on. It takes Gramps quite a while to convince others that he death is really stuck up in his apple tree. They think he's crazy and plan to take him away to the loony bin and put Pud into the care of Aunt Demetria. The film suffers at this point. Three-quarters of the way in, the plot line loses steam and doesn't pick up until events escalate in the last 20 minutes or so.

What's the solution to keep Pud and Gramps together forever? To have them both die. Mr. Brink tricks Pud into climbing the fence that protects the now poisonous apple tree. Pud suffers a fall and a near-death experience. He's paralyzed and in a lot of pain. Gramps takes Pud out to the tree and asks Mr. Brink to bring both of them to heaven. We see both Gramps and Pud come out of their paralysis and walk with Mr. Brink. A double was used for some of the shots of Gramps walking since Barrymore couldn't in real life. In one side shot of Barrymore, he seems to be walking but he's really just standing, propped up by something hidden his jacket with a moving background simulating motion.

In this story, death is seen as the reliever of pain. Mr. Brink is feared because he separates people from their loved ones. However, he's also seen as merciful, only after death though, because he relieves their physical and emotional pain and reunites them with lost loved ones. It's a tricky topic to cover. For those of us, like myself, who don't believe in an afterlife, the thought of death is especially grim. Why take Pud with Gramps? No matter what Gramps did in life, it was inevitable that Pud and Gramps would be separated. By dying together and going off to heaven, they'll be together for ever. This is a rather satisfying ending even though Pud is so young and hasn't experienced life yet. However, the accident he has qualifies the ending because we know if he had lived on it would have been a life filled with pain, suffering and lost opportunities.

Spoiler ends

On Borrowed Time was based on a novel and successful Broadway play by the same name. The opening credits refers to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The Pardoner's Tale, a story about the battle with death, is most likely the inspiration for the story.

Even with the main theme of death, the film is filled with funny and heart-warming moments. Gramps has some great lines, my favorite one is:

 "Well, I'll be dipped in gravy."

The film has a wonderful supporting cast including Beulah Bondi as Nellie (Granny), Una Merkel as Marcia Giles (the local girl they hire to help around the house), Nat Pendleton (Mr. Grimes, a representative from the state insane asylum) and Henry Travers, of It's a Wonderful Life fame, as Dr. Evans. However, none of these actors are given roles sufficient enough for their talents. For example, the normally spunky Una Merkel plays a quiet and meek character. She has one glorious moment in the film when she stands up for Gramps, however her talents are mostly wasted in the film. Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Brink and Eily Malyon as Aunt Demetria are the only characters who have significant screen time, interesting story lines and several moments to shine.

On Borrowed Time is truly a Barrymore-Watson vehicle. You can tell there is a great bond between the Pud and Gramps characters. The more curmudgeonly Barrymore's representation of Gramps is, the more we know much Pud means to him because the child is truly his soft spot. Also, Bobs Watson, a child actor known for effectively turning on the water works, was meant for the role of Pud. He has all the enthusiasm and emotion necessary for such a role.

Beulah Bondi, Eily Maylon, Lionel Barrymore and Bobs Watson in On Borrowed Time (1939)

I really enjoyed watching On Borrowed Time. It was difficult at first because of what had happened in my life. My relationship with my grandfather wasn't as close or endearing as the one Gramps and Pud have with each other but it was still very painful to lose him.

The film reminded me of two similar stories: Make Way For Tomorrow and Punky Brewster. In Make Way for Tomorrow, an aging couple is forced apart because of family dynamics and in Punky Brewster, Punky is abandoned by her parents and taken in by an elderly man, Henry Warnimont. Both stories meant a lot to me. Punky Brewster was an important part of my childhood. Make Way For Tomorrow traumatized me. I've always thought one of the greatest injustices in life is when two people who love each other are kept apart; whether it be a familial love like Gramps and Pud, or a platonic love or a romantic love. All of these stories remind me of that injustice and the importance of valuing relationships.

On Borrowed Time is a new treasure for me and I'm so glad I gave it a chance. It's a delightful film which imparts to viewers the importance of family, to treasure your loved ones and the time you have on earth.

I watched On Borrowed Time on TCM and Watch TCM. It's also available on DVD-MOD through Warner Archive.


  1. Condolences on the lost of your grandfather; and thanks for a thoughtful and well-written review. I agree that sometimes a film comes into your life at the moment you need it.

    1. Thank you for your condolences and kind words Jacqueline.

  2. Very true, movies are comforting, therapeutic (as was writing this post I'm sure) and help you get in touch with and often better understand your feelings. Condolences on your loss and thank you for sharing how this movie "found" you and what you found by watching it

    1. Thank you Kristina. It was very therapeutic writing this post.

  3. I'll have to check this one out!!! I was torn between reading the spoiler or not, but I decided to wait and see how it ends I think (I'll probably end up coming back to the post and reading it anyway...) Just like Kristina said, I'm so happy this movie found you. The world has a funny way with timing. I'm thinking about you and can't wait to give you a real hug next month!

    1. Erin - Please come back and tell me what you think once you've seen the movie. I'm glad you skipped the spoiler. And I can't wait for that hug next month!

  4. Thanks for the post , will add to watch list


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