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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. Academy Award winner (for his 1937 short film Torture Money) Harold S. Bucquet 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]

On Borrowed Time
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 byMGM
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 Julian Northrup ("Gramps"), a wheelchair user (Barrymore had broken his hip twice and was now using a wheelchair, though he continued to act), who, with his wife Nellie, played by Bondi, are raising their orphaned grandson, Pud. Hardwicke plays Mr. Brink, the personification of death.



Brink (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) has recently taken Pud's (Bobs Watson) parents in an auto wreck. Brink later comes for Gramps (Lionel Barrymore). Believing Brink to be an ordinary stranger, the crotchety old Gramps orders Mr. Brink off the property. Pud comes out of the house and asks who the stranger was. Gramps is surprised and relieved that someone else could see the stranger; he was not merely a dream or apparition.

Pud tells Gramps that when he does a good deed, he will be able to make a wish. Because his apples are constantly being stolen, Gramps wishes that anyone who climbs up his apple tree will have to stay there until he permits them to climb down. Pud inadvertently tests the wish when he has trouble coming down from the tree himself, becoming free only when Gramps says he can.

Pud's busybody Aunt Demetria (Eily Malyon) has designs on Pud and the money left him by his parents. Gramps spends much time fending off her efforts to adopt the boy.

Brink takes Granny Nellie (Beulah Bondi) in a peaceful death just after she finishes a bit of knitting. When Mr. Brink returns again for Gramps, the old man finally realizes who his visitor is. Determined not to leave Pud to Demetria, Gramps tricks Mr. Brink into climbing the apple tree. While stuck in the tree, he cannot take Gramps or anyone else. The only way anyone or anything can die is if Gramps touches Mr. Brink or the apple tree.

Demetria plots to have Gramps committed to a psychiatric hospital when he claims that Death is trapped in his apple tree. Gramps proves his story first by proving that his doctor, Dr. Evans (Henry Travers), cannot even kill a fly they have captured. He offers further proof of his power by shooting Mr. Grimes (Nat Pendleton), the orderly who has come to take him to the asylum; Grimes lives when he should have died.

Dr. Evans is now a believer, but he tries to convince Gramps to let Death down so people who are suffering can find release. Gramps refuses, so the doctor arranges for the local sheriff to commit Gramps while Pud is delivered to Demetria's custody. With the help of his housekeeper (Una Merkel), Gramps tricks Dr. Evans and Demetria into believing they are scheduled to go with Mr. Brink when he comes down from the tree. They beg Gramps to convince Brink otherwise, and Demetria vows never to bother Gramps or Pud again.

Gramps realizes that sooner or later he will have to let Brink down; Death is an unavoidable part of life. He tries to say goodbye to Pud, who reacts angrily and tries to run away. Mr. Brink sees Pud in the yard and dares him to climb the tree. Pud gets over the fence Gramps has had built around the tree, but falls and is crippled for life. Distraught, Gramps lets Death down from the tree. He takes both Gramps and Pud, who find they can walk again. In the final scene, they walk together up a beautiful country lane and hear Granny Nellie calling to them from beyond a brilliant light.



Child actor Peter Holden (Pud) and Frank Conroy (Mr. Brink) in a Stage magazine character portrait for the original Broadway production of On Borrowed Time (June 1938)

Frank S. Nugent said 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:[3]

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.

There are many archaic lines of dialogue in the movie. 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.[4] Gramps dismissively tells Pud 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. ^ 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.
  4. ^

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