On Borrowed Time: Review
On Borrowed Time is a sweet and tender story of a wily old man who cheats death in order to secure the future of his young, orphaned grandson. Although the scenario appears to be ripe for melodrama, what might otherwise be an overly dramatic tale is held in control by one of the most beloved and endearing actors of 1939, cinematic icon Lionel Barrymore.
Once again, Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life, Key Largo) plays a cantankerous and aged man confined to a wheel chair, this time as grandfather to one of the silver screens’ most achingly sweet little scamps, Bobs Watson. Watson was a cherubic child best remembered for his role as Pee Wee in the Spencer Tracy/Mickey Rooney drama, Boys Town. As a nine-year-old who played more like he was six, Watson could be terribly saccharine, but somehow, with him it just worked. Especially when cast alongside such a well-suited foil as Barrymore. The two complete opposites balance each other out, and create a very natural and believable pair as a grandson and a grandparent who become inseparable friends.
The crux of the drama (on and off the screen) is that Barrymore is a very old man in poor health, and there is a scheming relative who seeks custody of the boy. Now comes the interesting twist to the story. Already concerned for his grandson’s future, the old man becomes desperate when he literally faces an agent of Death who has come to take him "to the land where the woodbine twineth." The superb character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Suspicion, Rope) plays the dark messenger to icy perfection, and the two engage in a clever game of trickery as they try to one up each other. Barrymore ensnares Death in a magical tree, preventing him from taking his life or anyone else’s. This forces Hardwicke to devise a rather unkind scheme that will ensure Barrymore’s cooperation and provides an ending you just don’t see coming.
A quiet little film, and overlooked for the most part by the powerhouse films of the same year, On Borrowed Time is definitely in a class by itself. Along with the fine performances of its two leads the supporting cast is packed with some of the best character actors of the day, including the previously mentioned Hardwicke, Beulah Bondi (best remembered as Jimmy Stewarts mother in It’s a Wonderful Life), Una Merkle (Destry Rides Again), Nat Pendleton (The Thin Man), and Henry Travers (Jimmy Stewart’s guardian angle in It’s a Wonderful Life). It takes supporting talent such as this to keep the film at the level to which Barrymore has raised it. Without their help the lighter moments could slip into silliness, and the weightier scenes could easily slide into hysterics.
And yet it all comes back to Barrymore. Without the cache of his name and the talent that goes with it, On Borrowed Time might have ended up a forgotten film about a grumpy old man in a wheel chair. Racked with pain and confined to a wheel chair for the last several decades of his life, Lionel Barrymore was, and is respected as one of the finest actors on or off the screen, of any era, of any age regardless of health. In fact he’s so good, you often forget about the wheel chair. But one thing's for sure, you won’t forget he’s a Barrymore.