Friday, January 16, 2015

On Borrowed Time

I don't think I've ever done a full-length post on the film On Borrowed Time before. It shows up on TCM tomorrow morning at 8:45 AM, and is more than worth a watch if you haven't seen it before.

On Borrowed Time is one of those movies where the one-sentence synopsis really does the movie justice: an old man traps Death in a tree. That old man, "Gramps" Northrup, is played by Lionel Barrymore, is living with his wife (Beulah Bondi), and their orphaned grandson Pud (Bobs Watson), with a little help from housekeeper Marchia (Una Merkel). Pud was orphaned when his parents picked up a hitchhiker, one Mr. Brink (Cedric Hardwicke). They of course didn't know that Mr. Brink was actually the personification of death; indeed, about the only person who has any idea of it at first is Gramps.

Gramps doesn't want to die, and who can blame him? He's got people he loves, and people who love him, especially that grandson Pud. Besides, there are other considerations. Chief among those is Pud's aunt Demetria Riffle (Elly Malyon). She thinks that Gramps is unable to take care of Pud, and to an extent she's got a point. After all, what is Brink doing here if not to claim Gramps? Gramps also realizes that Demetria wants Pud's inheritance of $50,000 more than she wants Pud. Sure that doesn't sound like much, but in 1939 it would have been equivalent to several years' income, and who wouldn't want that much free money.

So Gramps lures Brink into an apple tree on the family's property and prevents him from getting down. You'd think that the personification of Death would be a little smarter than that. Sure, he could be tricked into the tree, but since there's no way Gramps can watch the tree 24/7, Death is going to figure out a way out of the tree. Apparently Death can't do that however, so as long as he's up there, nobody's dying, which obviously does start causing problems. Consider all those people who would have otherwise untreatable diseases. Simply trapping Death in a tree doesn't cure them, it only prolongs their life with an otherwise terminal illness. Imagine having to take care of a dementia patient for all eternity.

You can probably guess that the Production Code is going to require Gramps to let Brink out of the tree, but how can they achieve that in a way that will satisfy the audiences of 1939? That's why you have to watch the movie.

Lionel Barrymore is quite good as always, playing the crotchety old guy. In real life, he was finally confined to that wheelchair by the time he made this movie, but shows that you can act even from a wheelchair. MGM was also able to draw on all those great character actors in their stable: I haven't mentioned Henry Travers as the doctor or Grant Mitchell as the lawyer yet. The story is sentimental at times, and perhaps even a bit sappy, but for the most part it's well done. Watch that tree carefully; you might recognize it when you start watching other MGM films done on the backlot.

On Borrowed Time has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.

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