It IS a rather potent theme on which to base a movie. I recently rewatched the thing and I can honestly say I had forgotten just how powerful it is. In fact, if I was to re-do my recent 100 FAVOURITE MOVIES list, I would include ON BORROWED TIME on it and necessarily bump some other movie off. The thing I think I really like most about it is the very soothing picture of Death it presents. It's the same effect that Rod Serling was going for in the famous episode of Twilight Zone "Nothing in the Dark" in which old lady Gladys Cooper (who looks EXACTLY like Beulah Bondi in this movie) meets Death (a young Robert Redford). However, the effect isn't nearly as effective and successful as director Harold S. Bucquet manages to portray in ON BORROWED TIME.
The film opens as young Pud (Bobs Watson) visits his grandparents (Lionel Barrymore and Beulah Bondi). Pud's parents are killed in a car accident and he comes to live with the grandparents. There is an especially close relationship between Pud and Gramps; in fact, the boy mimics everything the old man does -- including cussing. This gets them in Dutch with mean old Aunt Demetria (hatchet-faced sourpuss Eily Malyon) who, upon learning that the young boy inherited $55,000 from his dead parents, begins to rangle for full custody of the boy to get her claws on the cash. Gramps isn't fooled for a moment; he and Pud often sing a taunting melody of "Aunt Demetria is a pismire!" For those not in the know, a pismire is a really nasty and vicious ant. Get the connection. I thought you would. Unfortunately, Granny begins to believe that Gramps just might be a bad influence on the boy and begins to become swayed by Demetria's lies. Even lovely and thoughtful Marcia Giles (Una Merkel), who comes to help the old folks with daily chores and cooking, becomes a target for Aunt Demetria. She's been seen kissing a boy in the park. She should be fired! Needless to say, the innocent kiss was between Marcia and her fiancee. But nothing stops Aunt Demetria's perfidy. WHAT A PISMIRE!!! Meanwhile, naughty neighbourhood ruffians have been climbing Grampa's apple tree and stealing his prized golden russets. So Pud has Gramps make a wish that anyone climbing up that apple tree won't be able to come down unless he gives them permission.The first half of the movie plays like a pretty straight forward domestic drama. Except for the fact that, right before Pud's parents die in the car crash, they pick up a hitchhiker named Mr. Brink (Cedric Hardwicke) who just happens to be Death incarnate. Meanwhile, an increasingly tired Granny begins to see through Demetria's evil plans and determines not to let her adopt Pud after all. Unfortunately, before she gets a chance to tell anyone, Mr. Brinks enters her bedroom and Granny quietly dies. The heartbroken Gramps stops eating for a while but then realizes that he's got to pull himself together and convince the authorities that he's a fit guardian or else they'll take Pud away from him and leave him in the clutches of Demetria. Gramps makes a valiant effort but Demetria is determined and sets the legal machinery in action to adopt Pud and declare Gramps unfit. Then Mr. Brink shows up and tells Gramps it's time to go. An angry Gramps tells Mr. Brink that he wouldn't go with him even to a rat fight! Brink disappears for a while but comes back insisting it's time for Grampa to go with him. The crafty grandfather asks Mr. Brink a favour: before he leaves, could he have one of his prized golden russets? Of course. But wheelchair bound Gramps asks Mr. Brink to climb up in the tree and get one for him. TRAPPED!!! Mr. Brink cannot get down from the tree unless Grampa says he can. The consequences being that, not only won't Grandpa die, but NO ONE IN THE WHOLE WORLD CAN DIE. Unless, that is, they touch the tree or eat one of the apples. However, this seeming blessing begins to take on the aspects of a curse as we slowly realize that those who are suffering cannot achieve the release of death and must continue to linger and suffer. One nice feature of the film is that no religious denomination is espoused. Mr. Brink is simply Death with no Judeo-Christian (or any other) attachments. As much as any movie dealing with this subject could be, ON BORROWED TIME remains a secular fantasy.
While the first half of the film can seem like a typical 1930's movie and the acting likewise, the second half really sees the acting kick in for real. Young Bobs Watson as Pud is particularly effecting. While most child actors get on my last nerve (and Watson CAN occasionally be a little loud and shrill), he excels in the crying department (no doubt the fact which led to his casting in the film). When Watson turns on the waterworks after Gramps tells him he must die and go with Mr. Brink, Bucquet leaves the camera on Watson in one continuous take as the tears flow and the little jerk had my tears flowing as well. Pud pleads with his grandfather to let him go with him (in other words, for the boy to die) and Gramps naturally refuses. Then an increasingly frantic Pud pleads and accuses his grandfather of not loving him anymore. I'll tell you, I'm getting a lump in my throat just writing about it. In the usually annoying category of child actors, Bobs Watson kicks hell out of most of them in this one scene alone. And, in fact, once things get serious in the film's second half, he is uniformly excellent. The same can be said for Lionel Barrymore who is always fun and crotchedy but in the second half of the film gets serious about his acting and really gives a powerful performance. Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Brink makes a charming, low key Death and, if I had my choice, is the one I'd like to come and get ME when my time is up (rather than the Monty Python version with the salmon mousse that almost certainly WILL come and get me!). Beulah Bondi (in heavy old age makeup) can be slightly (I said slightly) cloying in some scenes (particularly as her end approaches) with a little too much quivering "old lady" voice but her deathbed scene really hits like gangbusters as well and makes up for any slight ham she may have been slicing earlier in the picture. And Una Merkel is gloriously loveable as the almost angelic Marcy who is too good to be true, sure, but I'd like to marry her if that other guy takes a powder. Veteran character actors also populate the film with equally fine performances: Henry Travers (Clarence the Angel himself) as a country doctor who first disputes but comes to believe Grampa's story about Death in the tree, Grant Mitchell as lawyer Ben Pilbeam and Nat Pendleton as strongarm Mr. Grimes. Then of course there's the perfect (read: hissable) performance of Eily Malyon as pismire Aunt Demetria.
This is a quiet little movie which is easy to overlook but I really can't recommend it enough. It sort of takes one by surprise as the rather lightweight first half turns into something much more weighty, thought-provoking and emotional. And modern viewers might be flabbergasted at the ending of the film; it's can honestly be said it's something you rarely see happen in a movie -- then OR now! When the year 1939 is constantly referred to as the best ever for movies, it's a shame that ON BORROWED TIME isn't mentioned along with all those other greats because frankly it belongs right there among 'em.