Saturday, August 15, 2015

Classic Film Spotlight — On Borrowed Time (1939)

by Jack Seabrook, Christine Scoleri and John Scoleri

John: When considering a classic film to cover,  On Borrowed Time was my first choice, and one that I hoped I could convince my fellow bare•boners to join in on. Based on the 1937 dramatic adaptation by Paul Osborn of Lawrence E. Watkins's novel, it's the first time I encountered the direct personification of death in cinema. I had read about Prince Sirki (from Death Takes a Holiday) in Famous Monsters of Filmland, but the only films I had seen where I thought of a character even close to representing death (not Mr. Death himself) was Anthony James's chauffeur in Dan Curtis's Burnt Offerings.

Christine: I have seen quite a few early 1930s movies with Lionel Barrymore, but I had never heard of this film, so this was a delightful discovery for me. According to the 1939 NY Times movie review of this film, "the Hays code required the toning down of the salty dialogue that was at once the most comically shocking and endearing virtue of crotchety old Julian Northrup and his stalwart mimic, little Pud." The NYT review was hard on Lionel Barrymore for being too Lionel Barrymore, which is interesting considering he often played grumpy, yet lovable old men, and seems well suited to the part.

Jack: On Borrowed Time is a charming fantasy that was released in the all-time greatest movie year of 1939. As the film opens, we see a young Hans Conreid driving down the road and offering to pick up a well-dressed stranger. Conreid has a bad cough but the stranger declines the offer, saying he has something else to do. It's hard to believe Hans Conreid was ever this young—he was born in 1917 and this is one of his earliest film credits.

John: First time viewers might miss Cedric Hardwicke's great line after Conreid says he thought he had been flagged down by the mysterious stranger, "Not yet..."

Jack: The stranger does accept a ride from an unfortunate couple that comes along soon after. The driver is Truman Bradley, who would later host Science Fiction Theatre on TV in the 1950s. 

Jack: The car crashes and the man and woman are found dead, but there is no sign of the stranger. It's fairly obvious that he is Mr. Death, played by the great Cedric Hardwicke.

John: One of the things I love about this film is how Hardwicke plays the role. He is understated and creepy in his early appearances.

Christine: Several sources claim this was his favorite role. He does seem to be enjoying himself. He is not a frightening character, and seems very calm and gentle throughout the film. 

Jack: We then switch gears to the main story, which concerns Julian Northrup, his wife Nellie, and their grandson Pud. Gramps and Nellie are a colorful old pair who either remind us of what our own grandparents were like or of what we wish they were like. Pud is the child of the couple killed in the car crash and he's now an orphan, but he will be raised by his grandparents. The relationship between the boy and his grandfather is delightful and is the highlight of the film.

Christine: I agree. These two worked well together.

John: What I always found interesting was how little his parents' death seemed to affect Pud. You truly get the sense that the death of his grandfather would have had a much more pronounced impact on him.

Jack: Yet there is a serpent in Eden in the person of Pud's Aunt Demetria, who has designs on Pud's inheritance and wants to adopt the boy. Her greedy, uptight personality stands in stark contrast to the freewheeling Gramps. Eily Malyon, born in 1879, plays Demetria very broadly, almost like Mrs. Gulch from The Wizard of Oz, released the same year. Gramps teaches Pud the word "pismire" to describe Demetria and Pud sings a song to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic every time his aunt walks in: "Aunt Demetria is a pismire . . ."

John: The Gulch comparison is right on the money, and one I had felt from my first viewing, long before I realized the film was released a month earlier than Oz! Demetria is great fun to watch as she discovers that her newly deceased brother in law left a hefty sum (fifty thousand dollars in 1939 money!) to Pud and begins her scheming to get her hands on it.

Christine: She was effective at making herself an unsympathetic character from the very beginning when she becomes emotional over the news of her sister's death, and quickly demonstrates that she's really crying over missing out on the trip to California her sister had planned for her, rather than the actual loss of her sister. 

Jack: It's not long before age catches up to Nellie, as Mr. Brink (Mr. Death's name in the film) pays a visit and she passes away in a lovely scene. Franz Waxman's score is particularly good here as he uses bits of old songs to create a mood of a time from long ago. Beulah Bondi plays Nellie and it's astounding to note that she was born in 1889 and was ten years younger than the actress who played Pud's aunt!

John: You just blew my mind, Jack. I never would have pegged her as younger, and it doesn't seem like they resorted to using old age make-up for Bondi. She gives a great performance as the 'adult' raising two kids (Gramps and Pud).

Christine: I'm not convinced that Granny died from old age. True, she was clutching her chest and complaining about gas (women's heart attack symptom) quite a bit, but I suspect that the pills Aunt Demmy gave to Nellie to help her with her gas may have hastened her demise. Gramps cautions her to be careful about taking them. Even the dog whimpers and follows as Demetria leads her up the stairs. Notice how she hovers over Granny's bedside, sitting up at attention when Granny says she feels funny. She also fails to tell Gramps that Nellie is asking for him. Of course, any real evidence that Aunt Demmy would murder Granny to simplify her adoption claim to Pud, would have never made it past the Code, so it's only for dark minded people to look at the clues and consider the possibility. 

Jack: Gramps is depressed after Nellie dies but he soon rallies, aware that his strength of character is all that stands between Pud and Aunt Demetria. Barrymore was born in 1878 and was 51 years old when this movie was released; a combination of a broken hip and arthritis kept him in a wheelchair despite his rather young age.

Jack: The most famous part of the film occurs around this point, when Gramps makes a wish that anyone who climbs the big apple tree in the front yard will be stuck up there until he grants permission for them to come down. When Mr. Brink comes for Gramps, Gramps tricks him into climbing up to get an apple, leaving Death up a tree and everyone alive indefinitely.

John: While this is the critical bit the plot hinges on, I never did quite understand where Pud came up with the notion that doing a good deed meant you could have any wish granted. Not to mention the fact that Gramps's good deed was merely writing a $50 check to the preacher who presided over the funeral of Pud's parents...

Christine: Refer to opening titles, John. "Because faith still performs miracles and a good deed does find its just reward." Considering that Gramps avidly avoids church and shuns religion is what makes his donation to a preacher a good deed.

Jack: Cedric Hardwicke is a sheer delight stuck in the tree; he tolerates the situation because, for him, time is meaningless and he knows he'll be back to work eventually.

Christine: When Gramps tells Pud that he thinks others can't hear Mr. Brink because they're too busy, Mr. Brink denies this and states he has neither the authority or inclination to explain why, possibly alluding to the fact that he will be taking them both very soon, since the only ones who can see or hear him are on his appointment list. It also lets us know that he responds to a higher authority.

Jack: The general lack of people dying starts to be noticed, especially by Dr. Evans, played by Henry Travers, whom we all know best as Clarence the angel from It's a Wonderful Life. Travers, Barrymore and Bondi all appeared in both On Borrowed Time and Capra's 1946 Christmas classic.

Christine:  I was quite surprised that Gramps got away with shooting Mr. Grimes in the gut just to prove his point that nobody could die with Mr. Brink stuck in the tree. How did this get past the Hays Code? Did you catch the part when Evans asks about the death rate at the hospital and the doctor tells him they had a few patients "hanging on the Brink?" 

John: Another fine performance comes from Una Merkel, who plays Marcia, a housekeeper loved by Nellie and Gramps (and distrusted by Demetria, due to her scandalous kissing of her fiancee in public).

Christine: Una Merkel had appeared in over fifty films by this time. In the 30s, she was often cast in comedic roles as the best friend of the leading lady, and was known for her spirited wise-cracks. This is a much more subdued role for her, but she is easily loved in any part she plays. 


Jack: After Nellie dies, she seems like the perfect solution to the problem of where to put Pud, since she is being courted by a nice young man.

John: While initially dismissing Northrop's claims, Dr. Evans soon observes that people who should be dying are not. He tests his theory with several mice and a fishing pole (much to the disgust of Mr. Brink) and finds out that death most certainly awaits anyone who touches the apple tree. One of my favorite scenes is when, despite now knowing the truth, Evans lies to get Gramps committed in the hopes he'll choose to release Death from the tree. As the group sits outside the tree, Gramps (the only one other than Pud who can hear Mr. Brink) makes up a conversation to lead Demetria into thinking that once he comes down from the tree, death will be coming for her, too. And Marcia gets in on the act, saying she heard Mr. Brink say the same. Needless to say, she scurries off in fear, never to be seen again.

Christine: This was a great scene. The comedy in this film is well played and helps keep the mood light.

Jack: The movie takes a strange turn, however, that is especially hard for us to understand today. Toward the end, Mr. Brink tricks Pud into climbing up to see him in the tree. Instead of dying, however, Pud falls and is paralyzed.

John: While by this point in the film we have come to appreciate Mr. Brink as having a sense of humor, and really just someone doing his job, you can't help but think of his trying to lure young Pud to his death as a pretty evil trick.

Christine: Mr. Brink explains to Julian that he didn't mean to hurt Pud. He only meant to take him, and it was his only hope of getting down. Remember that Pud was able to see and hear Mr. Brink, and was most likely destined to go with him, once Julian let him down anyway.

Jack: Gramps realizes that the jig is up and he'll have to let Mr. Brink down out of the tree, ensuring his own death and that of young Pud. I think that the death of children was more of a part of people's experience in the old days, because watching this film today my natural instinct was that it would have been better to have Pud survive and thrive as the ward of Una Merkel and her beau.

Christine: The movie seems to be set up for us to expect and hope for this outcome, and I think it didn't happen because this film seems to be about making peace with death, including the death of children, which is especially difficult to accept. Lionel Barrymore lost both his daughters in infancy and never had any other children, which leads me to wonder if this was an especially difficult scene for him, or one that helped him process his own grief. 

Jack: Down climbs Mr. Brink, and he, Gramps and Pud march happily off toward Heaven!

Jack: It's a strange ending, and probably the hardest thing to take in the whole film. But it works in an old-fashioned way.

Christine: I was so taken by the movie magic, I believed Lionel Barrymore was actually able to get up and walk, but that's most likely a double walking along with Pud in the picture above, and you'll notice in the following scene pictured below, he seems to be rolling along.  

John: And so we discover that Mr. Brink isn't so bad after all. The last thing we hear is Nellie's voice calling out to her husband and, oddly enough, there's no indication that Pud's reuniting with his deceased parents is an important part of the coming family reunion.

Jack: On Borrowed Time is a beautiful film with a terrific performance by Lionel Barrymore. It's not my favorite film of his (that honor goes to It's a Wonderful Life), but it's a delight to watch and the current print from the Warner Archive fixes any issues with picture and sound quality that had existed in prints that were circulating in recent decades.

John: I first encountered it on TV years ago, was thrilled when it found its way to LaserDisc, and while the Warner Archive DVD is just a port of that release, it beats a VHS transfer. Who knows--perhaps someday we'll see a high-def remaster find its way to Blu Ray!  

Christine: I like all the films I've seen with Lionel Barrymore, but this may be my new favorite, and worthy of repeated viewings. 

As an added bonus, you can listen to a Lux Radio Theater version of On Borrowed Time featuring Lionel Barrymore, with Vincent Price as Mr. Brink! And while it doesn't include Lionel Barrymore, here's another radio show version with Boris Karloff as Mr. Brink!


Silver Screenings said...

This sounds wonderful. The way you described the scene of Pud's death made me a little emotional – I can only imagine how great Barrymore would be in this scene. Thanks for the introduction to this film!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for visiting our blog!

Peter Enfantino said...

You three have me convinced! I'll put this in my basket. Thanks for a great post.

And welcome two new writers to bare bones, Christine and John :>

Crystal said...

Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I've only just got around to reading the entries now, and I must say that yours was highly worth the wait. I love this movie, and always jump at the chance to watch it.

I've just announced a new blogathon, that I would like to invite you to participate in. The link is below with more details

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Crystal! I enjoyed some of the other blogathon entries as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack. I can't seem to find a better way to contact you, but I'm wanting to let you know that I'm hosting another blogathon next year and would like to invite you to participate. The link is below with more details

Anonymous said...

Hi Jack. I also sent you an email, but I also thought I'd let you know here. I've just announced my Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, and the moment I'm going through last years roster of participants to let them know it's on again this year. Anyway I'm wondering if you would like to participate? The link is below with more details.