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On Borrowed Time (1939) was a star vehicle for Lionel Barrymore without question. In it, he plays a grandfather who traps Death (Mr. Brink) up a tree so that he won't die until he has secured his young orphaned grandsons future. The film, directed by Harold Bucquet, was based on a fable by Geoffrey Chaucer, Lawrence Edward Watkin's novel and the play of the same name by Paul Osborn which opened on February 3, 1938 at the Longacre Theater and ran for 321 performances. The play starred Dudley Digges as Julian Northrup (Gramps), Peter Holden as Pud and Frank Conroy as Death (Mr. Brink). A young Dick Van Patten had a minor role. None of the stage actors appeared in the film. Instead, Barrymore got the Northrup role, Bobs Watson played Pud and Sir Cedric Hardwicke played Brink.
Lionel Barrymore was one of MGM's biggest stars in the 1930s, despite being in his early 60s and confined to a wheelchair by inflammatory rheumatism in a hip that he had fractured. This left him in terrible pain, alleviated by the studio doctors by injections of cocaine and other drugs. Co-workers like director Frank Capra remembered that this did not affect Barrymore's acting. His body was a mess but not his verve. The wheelchair had made its first appearance in the Dr. Kildare series (also directed by Harold Bucquet) and Barrymore had to use it for the rest of his career. Kildare star Lew Ayres once said, "The wheelchair couldn't have mattered less. It enabled him to do what he wanted - paint and play the piano and play the raconteur. Between scenes, he would wheel to the center of things and hold court. The last scene of On Borrowed Time in which Gramps walks off to heaven with Pud was done using a moving backdrop that made it look as though Barrymore was walking when, in fact, he was merely standing."
Bobs Watson, like many child actors, found it difficult to work when he was being given direction by a parent and a director. "My dad was the one that really directed me, and I think some of the directors resented it a little bit. I remember one frustrating day on the set of On Borrowed Time: My dad wanted me to read the line in a specific manner. The director wanted me to do it a different way. I trusted my dad implicitly, so I read the dialogue the way he told me. After we had filmed it, the director said, 'Bobby, this time I want you to read the line this way.' I looked over at my dad and he shook his head no. During the few minutes when they touched up my makeup, my dad said, 'You do it the way I told you to do it.' So I went back in and I did it the way my dad told me, and the director said, very gently, 'No, Bobby I want you to do it this way.' I looked over at my dad and he shook his head. I did it again the way my dad told me to do it. Then the director got very impatient. 'No, I want you to do it this way.' So, finally, I did it the director's way and he said, 'Bobby, perfect!' I looked over at my dad and he shook his head and turned and walked away. That just broke my heart."
He found working with Lionel Barrymore much easier than his father. "After messing up his line, I ad-libbed my way out of it pretty well, but after it was over, I was almost ready to cry because I felt humiliated." Barrymore hugged Bobs. "'Okay, Bobby, don't feel bad, son. That's the first time you've missed in two weeks of shooting. Do you know that?'" Watson later said, Barrymore gave back. "The one thing about him and all the people I worked with that I consider great Rooney, Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Fonda was their eye contact. As they looked at you, they became the characters they were portraying. The actor was my grandfather."
Released on July 7, 1939, On Borrowed Time received mostly positive notices from critics though some bemoaned the loss of the spicier dialogue of the play. Philip T. Hartung, in The Commonweal noted that, "Even though [producer] Sidney Franklin's production is not guilty of too many Hollywoodian changes, it misses the emotional impact of the stage version. However, On Borrowed Time is still recommended fare for those who can take a genuinely charming fantasy in modern dress. Its best scenes, those in which Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Brink (of Eternity) comes with gentle persuasiveness to make his final calls, are done with amazing sincerity and reality."
Variety called it a prestige picture for both Metro and the industry, with a chance to get more than passing reception in general bookings. "Despite treading close to dangerous ground with its basic premise, On Borrowed Time holds a wealth of humanness and homey dramatic atmosphere in its unfolding to command attention. On Borrowed Time follows the stage play closely and retains the richness of human and spiritual qualities of the original. It's a definite departure from accepted lines of cinematic entertainment, given all advantages of finest production and neatly guided in the direction by Harry Bucquet."
Time reserved its praise for Bobs Watson, "Though 61 year-old Lionel Barrymore makes expert use of his wheelchair, a prop as dear to a character actor as sword & cloak to a romantic hero, in scene-stealing honors, 8 year-old Bobs Watson comes off best. Youngest son of an old time actor who has four other children in the movies, Cinemactor Watson has appeared in 29 pictures, now earns about $800 a week. He got the role of Pud after its Broadway incumbent, 8 year-old Peter Holden, was judged too mature for the part. Swamped by autograph seekers at the preview of On Borrowed Time, he grandly observed: "At times like these I sometimes wish I wasn't in pictures. But really I like them and don't feel that way when I realize how much happiness they bring to everyone."
Producer: Sidney Franklin
Director: Harold S. Bucquet
Screenplay: Alice D.G. Miller, Frank O'Neill, Claudine West; Paul Osborn (play); Lawrence Edward Watkin (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Franz Waxman
Film Editing: George Boemler
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Julian Northrup, Gramps), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Brink), Beulah Bondi (Nellie Northrup, Granny), Una Merkel (Marcia Giles), Bobs Watson (John 'Pud' Northrup), Nat Pendleton (Mr. Grimes), Henry Travers (Dr. James Evans), Grant Mitchell (Ben Pilbeam), Eily Malyon (Demetria Riffle), James Burke (Sheriff Burlingame), Charles Waldron (Reverend Murdock), Ian Wolfe (Charles Wentworth), Phillip Terry (Bill Lowry), Truman Bradley (James Northrup).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Time , July 17, 1939
The Commonweal film review by Philip Hartung, July 14, 1939
Variety June 30, 1939
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