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On Borrowed Time

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On Borrowed Time (1939) starring Lionel Barrymore, Sir Cedric Hardwick, Beulah Bondi, Una Merkel, Henry Travers
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On Borrowed Time (1939) starring Lionel Barrymore, Sir Cedric Hardwick, Beulah Bondi, Una Merkel, Henry Travers

In short, On Borrowed Time is an excellent film, that I highly recommend to everyone. It almost plays as what a Twilight Zone movie should be. The basic premise is: an old, cantankerous man traps Death himself. This way, no one can die. He does this out of the best of intentions, to prevent suffering. But his beloved wife has died recently, and now they’re separated permanently. And then his beloved grandson is gravely injured … Is death a punishment? A release from suffering? Or a doorway that we must pass through?

On Borrowed Time is blessed with an excellent cast of truly great actors, all giving their best. It’s a very enjoyable film, that I recommend highly.

Cast of characters

  • Julian Northrup – Gramps (Lionel Barrymore, Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day). The protagonist of the story. A cantankerous old man, who truly loves his wife Nellie. Together, they’re trying to raise their grandson Pud. And someone thinks that he’s an unfit parent …
  • Nellie (Beulah Bondi, Penny Serenade). A very sweet, loving lady. Her and Julian’s love story is at the heart of On Borrowed Time.
  • Pud (Bobs Watson, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane). Gramps and Nellie’s grandson, recently orphaned after his parents died in an automobile crash.
  • Mr. Brink (Sir Cedricke Hardwicke, Lured). The personification of Death. He’s recently taken Pud’s parents, and comes for Nellie. It’s a very sweet scene, as he lets her finish a piece of knitting as they talk. Shortly after, he’s imprisoned in a apple tree by Gramps. And then, nobody else can die. And Mr. Brinks devises a plan, toward the end of the film, that forces the issue.

Secondary characters

  • Demetria Riffle (Eily Malyon, The Hound of the Baskervilles). If there’s a villain in the movie, it’s Demetria. After Nellie’s death, Pud’s busybody Aunt has designs on Pud … And the money left him by his parents. Gramps spends much time fending off her efforts to adopt the boy.
  • Marcia Giles (Una Merkel, Rhythm Romance). The Northrup’s housekeeper, a sweet young woman who tries her best to help fill the void caused by Miss Nellie’s death.
  • Dr. Evans (Henry Travers, The Invisible Man). Gramps’ old friend, who mistakenly think that Gramps has become unhinged after Nellie’s death. After all, Gramps thinks he has Death trapped in his apple tree! But he eventually becomes convinced. And horrified, since people can no longer die, avoid terrible pain, and be reunited with their loved ones in Heaven.
  • Mr. Grimes (Nat Pendleton, Buck Privates, At the Circus). Nat Pendleton had a career playing the strong, not dreadfully smart person. And he does so here as Mr. Grimes. He’s the orderly who comes to take Gramps the the insane asylum. But Gramps proves his sanity, and convinces Dr. Evans as well, by fatally shooting him! And he simply can’t die …

Editorial review of On Borrowed Time courtesy of

Death has come for Gramps Northrup. But Gramps has important work to do: raising his orphaned grandson. So he uses a bit of magic to trap Death in the branches of an apple tree. Clever work, Gramps! Or is it? With Death on hiatus, other folks whose time has come – folks who are worn out, ill and in pain – can’t be released from their earthly suffering. And Gramps begins to wonder if he’s done the right thing.

From the beloved Paul Osborn play, this endearing fantasy of family, love and mortality moves effortlessly from rollicking to whimsical to tragic. Lionel Barrymore plays Gramps, leading a sterling cast of character stars, including Beulah Bondi, Una Merkel, Henry Travers and, as a most wry and gentlemanly Grim Reaper, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

Updated 9/25/2020

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