On Borrowed Time

On Borrowed Time is a 1939 film about the role death plays in life, and how humanity cannot live without it. It is adapted from Paul Osborn's 1938 Broadway hit play. The play, based on a novel by Lawrence Edward Watkin, has been revived twice on Broadway since its original run. Harold S. Bucquet — whose 1937 short film, Torture Money, won an Academy Award — directed. The story is a retelling of a Greek fable in which Death is tricked into climbing a pear tree which had been blessed by Saint Polycarp to trap anyone who was trying to steal an old woman's pears.[1][2] The opening credits attribute the tale to Geoffrey Chaucer. “Mr. Chaucer liked the tale and believed it—and so do we. If perchance you don't believe it, we respectfully insist that we and Mr. Chaucer must be right. Because faith still performs miracles and a good deed does find its just reward.” According to TCM.com,[3] this probably refers to Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale.

On Borrowed Time
VHS cover
Directed byHarold S. Bucquet
Produced bySidney Franklin
Written byAlice D. G. Miller
Frank O'Neill
Based onOn Borrowed Time
1937 novel
by Lawrence Edward Watkin
1938 play by Paul Osborn
StarringLionel Barrymore
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Beulah Bondi
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyJoseph Ruttenberg
Edited byGeorge Boemler
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • July 6, 1939 (1939-07-06) (United States)
Running time
99 minutes
CountryUnited States

Set in small-town America, the film stars Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Barrymore plays crotchety Julian Northrup ("Gramps"), who smokes a smelly pipe, cherishes a smelly dog, prefers fishing to churchgoing, and occasionally takes a nip of “tonic” and indulges in mild profanity. He is a wheelchair user (Barrymore had broken his hip twice and was now using a wheelchair, though he continued to act). Gramps and his wife, Nellie, played by Bondi, are raising their orphaned grandson, Pud, who adores his grandfather and mimics everything he does. Hardwicke plays Mr. Brink, the elegant and aloof personification of death.


Mr. Brink takes Pud's (Bobs Watson) parents in an auto wreck. Gramps gives generously to the minister who delivered the eulogy, and Pud tells Gramps that because he has done a good deed, he can make a wish. Boys are constantly stealing Gramps' apples. He and Pud chase the latest perpetrator away; he wishes that anyone who climbs up the tree will have to stay there until he permits them to climb down. Later, Pud inadvertently tests the wish, letting go of a branch only when Gramps says he can.

Pud's blue-nosed busybody Aunt Demetria (Eily Malyon), known to Gramps and Pud as a “pismire” (“the meanest ant there is”), has designs on Pud and his inheritance. Her condoling drives the boy to tears and Gramps to a near-fatal heart attack. While Pud fetches a glass of water, Mr. Brink comes for Gramps: It is time to go “where the woodbine twineth,” the words Gramps used to tell Pud about death. Gramps refuses: Pud needs him. Mr. Brink vanishes when Miss Nellie calls. Pud returns and asks who the stranger was.

Miss Nellie feels her age and worries about Gramps' influence on Pud. They quarrel, and Mr. Brink takes her peacefully, just before Gramps comes in to apologize. He is inconsolable until their housekeeper, Marcia (Una Merkel), tells him Miss Nellie's last words: “Always see that Julian has his pipe.” Reinvigorated, Gramps sees a lawyer about picking a future guardian for Pud, only to learn that Demetria is going to court to adopt the boy now.

When Mr. Brink returns for Gramps, the old man knows who it is and, to Pud's delight, tricks Mr. Brink into fetching an apple. While stuck in the tree, he cannot take Gramps—or anyone else. The only way anything can die is by touching the tree—as does their beloved dog, Betty. Gramps has a fence put up around the deadly tree.

Demetria plots to have Gramps committed to a psychiatric hospital when he claims that Death, now invisible, is trapped in his apple tree. Only Pud and Gramps can hear him. Gramps proves his story by holding a gun on his friend, Dr. Evans (Henry Travers), and the orderly (Nat Pendleton), who has come to take him to the asylum. Gramps demands that the doctor kill a fly. He can't. Gramps shoots Grimes, who wakes up in the hospital hungry instead of dead. Elsewhere in the hospital, three patients are “on the brink, but they're holding their own.”

Dr. Evans becomes a believer, but he tries to convince Gramps to let Death down so suffering people can find release. Gramps refuses, so the doctor arranges for the local sheriff to commit him. Pud is to be delivered to Demetria. Gramps realizes that sooner or later he will have to give in. He tries to say goodbye to a distraught Pud, who runs away.

A bird flies into the tree and dies. With Marcia's help, and over Mr. Brink's protests, Gramps tricks Demetria and the Sheriff into believing they are scheduled to go with Mr. Brink. They beg Gramps to convince Mr. Brink otherwise, and Demetria vows never to bother Gramps or Pud again. Marcia and Gramps search for Pud to tell him the good news.

Scene from On Borrowed Time

Mr. Brink sees Pud in the yard and dares him to look him in the eye. Pud climbs to the top of the fence and falls. His agonizing injuries would be fatal, if Death were there to take him. Holding Pud in his lap, Gramps asks Mr. Brink: “Please come down and take us both.” They find they can walk again. They walk together up a beautiful country lane... “Gee it smells good here Gramps.” “That's the woodbine, sonny. How long we going to be here Mr. Brink?” “For Eternity” “How long is Eternity, Gramps?” “That's a right smart piece of time, boy.” They hear Miss Nellie calling to them from beyond a brilliant light. “Coming Miss Nellie, Coming!” “Coming Grandma!” Betty runs, barking, to meet them.

The closing text reads: “And so they lived happily for all eternity—which, as Gramps would say, is a right smart piece of time.”



In his July 7, 1939, review in The New York Times, Frank S. Nugent says that the film "isn't nearly so effective on the screen as it was on the stage", pointing out the "Hays code required the toning down of the salty dialogue that was at once the most comically shocking and endearing virtue" of Gramps and Pud. According to Nugent:[4]

The picture, like the play, is a tender thing and wistful, fantastic in its way, yet firmly rooted in human soil. It is absurd and it is charming and it is not at all stupendous. And it has, we are pleased to report, a company of players who have fallen admirably under the spell of their drama's mood. Best among them, to our mind, are Beulah Bondi's Granny, young Bobs Watson's Pud, Sir Cedric Hardwicke's Mr. Brink and Eily Malyon's Aunt Dimmy. Mr. Barrymore's Gramps is well enough, we suppose. It is probably unfair to hold his Lionel Barrymorism against him.


Frank Morgan was originally slated to play Gramps, until Barrymore convinced the studio he could play the part in spite of his disability.[3]

Gramps is a veteran of the Civil War—he observes that they told him he was too young to serve—and of the Spanish-American War—he refers to Battle of San Juan Hill.

Early in the film, Mr. Brink tells Gramps he is there to take him "where the woodbine twineth." This is a reference to an 1870 poem by Septimus Winner (under the pseudonym Apsley Street) euphemizing death, heaven, and the afterlife.[5] Gramps dismissively tells Mr. Brink that's what people say to children. Gramps would have been a child himself around the 1870s, and would likely have heard that phrase in a popular song of that era.


  1. ^ The Routledge Modern Greek Reader, Η γριά κι ο Άγιος Πολύκαρπος
  2. ^ Ελπινίκη Σταμούλη-Σαραντή, Παραμύθια της Θράκης, Θρακικά. Σύγγραμα περιοδικόν εκδιδομένον υπό του εν Αθήναις Θρακικού Κέντρου, τόμος δέκατος έβδομος, 1942, σελ. 172–173.
  3. ^ a b "On Borrowed Time: Notes". www.tcm.com. Retrieved 2021-03-15.
  4. ^ Nugent, Frank S. (July 7, 1939). "Paul Osborn's Fantasy, On Borrowed Time, Reaches the Capitol's Screen Under a Metro By-Line—The Movies March On at Music Hall". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-11-24.
  5. ^ http://www.campbellmgold.com/archive_ponder/where_the_woodbine_twineth.pdf

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