23 August 2004 | theowinthrop
Barrymore and Travers' first spiritual fantasy picture
Everyone knows of evil old Mr. Potter and sweet Clarence in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and who played them so well: Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers, two splendid actors. But their only sequence in that film was either never shot or cut by Frank Capra (where Clarence momentarily turns nasty and reveals to Potter he will soon die and face some unfriendly times from providence). So they both showed up in a great fantasy film, but never appeared in the finished movie together.
Fortunately, seven years earlier they did appear in this little gem. Again it is a fantasy with spiritual overtones. The theme of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is that the individual human life is more valuable than we imagine because we interact with so many others in our lifetimes. But the theme of ON BORROWED TIME is that of the better known DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY. The theme here is that we should not fear death, but see it as a welcome release from pain and anguish, and that we will be reunited with those we love in the afterlife.
Of course this is a philosophical/theological point of view and suject to one's opinion. Being optimistic one might fully buy it. Being more pessimistic one can question if there is a genuine afterlife, and whether dying is something to fully embrace. I have problems with this idea, as dying is usually painful, and (despite many religious dogmas) there is no real proof of an afterlife. However, as death for all of us is (unfortunately) inevitable, we might as well take a positive approach to it.
The movie was based on a novel, but in the credits it is pointed out that the novel had been turned into a play by Paul Osborne. Osborne was one of Broadway's legends up to the time of his death in 1988. He really is what is called a "play doctor", turning the work of others into viable theatre (and usually doing it superbly). Ironically, in his own career he only wrote one play that was original. It was the charming MORNING'S AT SEVEN, which had it's first Broadway debut in 1980, with Theresa Wright starring in it. It has been revived on Broadway and elsewhere since then, and probably will become part of regular drama repertory. MORNING'S AT SEVEN dealt with three 60-70ish couples in a small town. Osborne must have liked that type of background, because (except for Pud, and a boy who steals apples) most of the characters sin ON BORROWED TIME are grown-ups, and Pud lives with his beloved Gramps (Julian Northrup) and Granny (Nellie Northrup).
The plot is simply allegorical. Even the movie acknowledges this, by referring to similar stories going back to Geoffrey Chaucer in the forward. Death, here a "Mr. Brink" goes around meeting his next subject or subjects and taking them to the hereafter. We see him waiting for a car, and along comes one driven by a young man (a young Hans Conried, just starting his Hollywood career). He has a bad cough, and keeps coughing (pneumonia or tuberculosis?), but he has seen Brink and offers him a ride. Brink thanks him, but he's waiting for some other car. Before Conried leaves he hears Brink say he'll see Conried soon. Shortly after that a car drives up. It is Mr. and Mrs. John Northrup, the parents of John Jr. (Pud). Brink gets a lift, and is present when the car goes off the road into a ravine, killing the young couple.
We soon see the Northrup household, held together by the affection of Gramps to his wife, Miss Nellie, and his grandson. But soon we learn of the tragic death of Gramps son and daughter-in-law. This introduces the snake in this Eden: Pud's aunt Demetria (the "pismire") who has a facade of religious gentility, but is a greedy hypocrite and a vicious scold and gossip. Demetria has entry into the house because Miss Nellie would like Pud to be a bit more church going and observant. Since Demetria makes a big show of this, Miss Nellie tolerates her as a potentially good role model to counter-balance the less church-oriented Gramps. However toleration is not the same as stupidity. Although Beulah Bondi makes Miss Nellie seem elderly and fragile, she is not taken in by Demetria trying to get Miss Nellie to agree to the aunt getting legal custody over Pud. [Actually few are really taken in by Demetria - early in the film, when she first hears her sister has been killed, the minister who breaks the news to her hears her bemoan a trip to California the sister promised her!]
Mr. Brink shows up, austensibly to take Gramps, but Gramps won't go. For some reason Brink can wait (we never learn why, but it is a fantasy). Later Gramps accidently makes a wish that nothing can descend from his apple tree unless he says they can come down. We watch a boy who has been stealing apples get caught (Sonny Bupp, who played the young Charles Foster Kane two years later). Then Pud gets stuck for awhile. Then Mr. Brink returns, but he comes for Nellie, and takes her (in a rather sweet scene). When he comes back for Gramps, he is tricked into going into the tree to get Gramps (who is in a wheelchair) an apple. Now Mr. Brink can't get down unless Gramps says he can. So death is unable to function.
Which becomes the central theme of the rest of the film: What if death was banished from life? Sadly the movie takes the view that death is a release from agony and pain. Yes it is, but it is a release that has no return guaranteed. While Gramps keeps Brink in the tree nobody dies, but plenty of people suffer from illness beyond their time of death. Travers plays Dr. Evans, the family friend and doctor. He first is brought in with the family lawyer by Demetria, who is now trying to prove Gramps is mentally incompetent because he sees the invisible Brink in the tree, and is wasting money building a fence around the tree (to keep people from touching the tree, which is inevitably fatal). Travers thinks that Gramps has lost it, but subsequently he notices that things that should be dying are not, unless they touch the tree. When he realizes this he tries to convince Gramps to let Brink out of the tree, for the sake of the world. But Gramps is afraid that if he does so, he'll be taken and Pud will fall into the hands of Demetria.
The film ends tragically for awhile, but satisfactorily. Oddly one key to the future is overlooked by Gramps as the film continues: Nobody seems to see Brink but himself...except for Pud. Obviously, Pud can see Brink because he is meant to die soon too. Well, it is a fantasy, and a good one, so we can overlook the flaw in it's plot.