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On Borrowed Time (1939)

CRUMBLIES…3 crumblies

Any film that has Cedric Hardwicke as a glowering, stern and nattily-dressed agent of death is a thing to behold. When he’s cheerily wrecking a family, taking adult children, grandma and having a damned good go at grumpy granddad and cry-baby grandson, well, what’s not to love?

On Borrowed Time doesn’t shy from its topic, but goes at it with a stagey energy and deeply pleasing performances. I watched this with Curmudgeonly Colin: a man so ill-tempered in his wheelchair binding he comes across as the brother of Davros, creator of the Daleks. Col adored Lionel Barrymore‘s turn as the ill-tempered, wheelchair bound Gramps, Julian Northrop, in this grim tale from 1939.

The story isn’t wildly complicated. Mr Brink (oh yes, Hardwicke as the blank-faced English face of death) kills a couple in a car, inviting himself in for a spooky final ride. Then he turns on the Northrops, a quaintly-housed pair of oldsters now raising their grandson Pud (Bobs Watson, here in his ninth year and holder of the Cry-baby of Hollywood award).  The terrific Beulah Bondi plays Nellie, the Grandma (not too far off her stellar turn in Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), but in a significantly less effective story). She and Barrymore peck and quarrel like they’ve been married for a long old time, whilst slowly realising that the boy’s aunt Demetria is angling to take the boy, his money, and to test out her fascist-raising skills on him. The chilling and mighty-jawed Eily Malyon plays Demetria as the Wicked Witch of the West, fools Nellie until the poor old woman gets a musical bedroom scene with the equally predatory Mr Brink. Old person as kitsch corpse, eh? I felt a twinge of resentment.

The story isn’t wildly scared of going weird, either. For Pud and Gramps remain, hurling abuse at the world and Demetria. Then Brink goes for Gramps, but, as luck and sanity may have it, the old apple tree in the yard is magic. And Gramps tricks Brink into its sticky embrace which triggers a startling Whomping Willow moment, Harry Potter fans. Barrymore won’t let Hardwicke out of the tree, putting fences around the tree and any progress in the plot.

Read that again, if it helps. Magic tree sans rationale…

Old Jack had been enjoying the story up to this point. Curmudgeonly Colin had tolerated the sobbing of the brat given the raging of Barrymore. But this brought us both up short.

There follows some ludicrous scenes in which Barrymore talks to the invisible Brink; Demetria tries to prove he’s insane; somehow manages to fail albeit it gets close; and then the film rushes to an ending that should be happy, but makes you ponder on who gets to find the corpses.


So, if you feel like watching an extended version of the black and white scenes from the same year’s Wizard of Oz, but with a shinily ill-tempered Barrymore ranting, the Auntie Em equivalent dying in her bed, Death as an Englishman, and, well, no colour in the fantasy bit, try On Borrowed Time. Its lead is an irascible gentleman of senior years, which is okay were it nor for the level of caricature; and the story is pleasant enough until it tumbles into stupid. If there’s a lesson for old age and fending off the threat of death, it’s get a magic tree. Hmmm.

The usual outlets apply, though Amazon Video has it free under Prime.

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