100 New Code Films – #88. “On Borrowed Time” from 1939; A Life and Death Fantasy

100 New Code Films

Today is Sunday, so it’s time for another 100 New Code Films article. This is the series I publish most often, since I publish two articles in it in all but four weeks this year. These articles are reviews of American Breen Era (1934-1954) which I have seen for the first time during the week. I call these new Code films, although they aren’t actually new. They actually are many decades old, but I think of them as new because I am seeing them for the first time. I share my opinions of these films with my readers through this series.

On Borrowed Time (1939) - IMDb

Today’s topic is On Borrowed Time from 1939. This film was offered as a suggestion on Amazon Prime Video, so we added it to the watchlist recently. Last Sunday evening, we tried to find a new film to watch. This one sounded interesting to us, so we bought and watched it.



The young son of a doctor is orphaned when Mr. Brinks, the well- dressed Grim Reaper, claims the souls of both his parents in a car crash. The boy then lives with his grandparents. He worships his grandfather, a rambunctious, irreligious old scallywag, wanting to be just like him. This concerns his serious minded but loving grandmother. Even more concerned, or so she claims, is his aunt. Although the lady says she only is interested in her nephew’s welfare, the grandfather believes that his daughter-in- law only wants custody of the boy because of his late father’s money. Imitating his grandfather, the lad acquires a strong dislike for his aunt, frequently calling her mean names. The aunt truly is a busy body who is determined to manipulate the whole family. She even pointedly criticizes the moral suitability of a kind young woman who is a servant to the old couple. Unfortunately, the grandmother is soon also claimed by Mr. Brinks. Although deeply saddened because of his wife’s death, the grandfather is determined to keep custody of his grandson, no matter what. However, the indefatigable Mr. Brinks soon issues his first warning to Gramps, warning him that his time to follow will soon come. However, because of a wish Gramps made which conveniently gave him power to keep people in a certain apple tree until he grants permission to come down, the old rascal is able to affectively defy death by trapping Mr. Brinks in the tree. However, this proves to be more complex than merely delaying his own death. The grandfather must determine what is best not only for his own beloved grandson but for the whole human race as he makes the difficult decision of how long to imprison the Grim Reaper.

Overlooked Movies: On Borrowed Time(1939) | Not The Baseball Pitcher


This movie stars Lionel Barrymore, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Beulah Bondi. Supporting actors include Una Merkel, Bobs Watson, Eily Malyon, Nat Pendleton, and Henry Travers.

eMoviePoster.com: 3z227 ON BORROWED TIME TC 1939 Lionel Barrymore makes a  deal with Death to save his grandson!

Production Notes

This movie was directed by Harold S. Bucquet. It was produced by Sidney Franklin. The production company was MGM. The screenplay was written by Alice D. G. Miller, Frank O’Neill, and Claudine West. It was based on the hit play from 1938 by Paul Osborn, which was from a dramatization of the novel On Borrowed Time by Lawrence Edward Watkin.

On Borrowed Time (MGM, 1939). Herald (6.75" X 11.75"). Comedy. ... | Lot  #25237 | Heritage Auctions

Code Compliance

This is a good Code film. It deals with some very serious topics, such as life, death, and the afterlife. The handling of such subjects is not in line with the teaching of any major American religion, as far as I know. This may offend some religious people, especially Christians. However, I do not believe it is meant to be taken as a serious or truthful depiction of life and death. Like Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Angel on My Shoulder (1946), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), it is a fantasy which presents death and heaven in a fanciful way. Other than that, however, it is a decent, wholesome film. it shows the importance of familial love, devotion, and sacrifice for the ones you love. Like many Code films, this movie contains references from one character to another which complain about the latter’s swearing. However, the language which Gramps (Lionel Barrymore) uses when his wife (Beulah Bondi) accuses him of swearing would hardly be registered as language by the Rating System. He uses some mean names and some very mild expressions, but he never uses profane words or blasphemes. I appreciate the delicate, tactful, and creative ways filmmakers and scriptwriters used during the Breen Era to convey the idea of swearing, often negatively, without including actual offensive language.   

bare•bones e-zine: Classic Film Spotlight — On Borrowed Time (1939)


I highly recommend this film. It contains excellent acting from everyone involved. Lionel Barrymore is magnificent as always as Gramps, lending his inimitable style and boundless personality to the part, even though bound in a wheelchair. He interacts perfectly and often very touchingly with young Bobs Watson, who plays his grandson, Pud. Bobs Watson gives an amazing performance as Pud, a boy forced to endure much loss in a short period of time but who doesn’t let these hardships keep him from getting fun out of life. Although he bears the death of his parents and grandmother with admirable strength, Pud is devastated by the thought of being parted from his grandfather, whom he loves above everyone else in the world. Bobs makes us feel this relationship very keenly, breaking our hearts with his horrible sobs of anguish when he declares that his grandfather doesn’t love him anymore since he is considering sending him away. Beulah Bondi is perfect as Miss Nellie, the stable grandmother who tries to keep order in the household. She looks very convincingly old, although actually only fifty and still very pretty. Una Merkel plays the maid, Marcia Giles, who grows from a supporting character to a surprisingly important part of the plot. The story’s villain is a tossup, but I think the title truly belongs to Aunt Demetria (Eily Malyon), the daughter-in-law who is determined to gain custody of Pud. This actress does a good job of making you really dislike this character. The last very important character in this film is Mr. Brinks, who could be considered to be the Grim Reaper. He is played with startling sang froid and sophistication by Sir Cedrick Hardwicke, who seems less than human in this role. At first, this character seems very cruel. However, as the story progresses, we see that there is a kind side to Death.

On Borrowed Time (MGM, 1939). Lobby Card (11" X 14").. ... Movie | Lot  #84039 | Heritage Auctions

For the Event

Rob of MovieRob hosts an ongoing series called Genre Grandeur. Every month, other writers suggest themes for different writers to feature. For November, Kristen of KN Winiarski Writes chose the topic, Classic Fantasy films (thru the 1970’s). I received Rob’s notification about this month’s topic right after I finished watching this film. I haven’t participated in this series for several months, since the topics have not been ones which were appropriate for PEPS reviews. However, when I saw this topic, I instantly new that I wanted to write about the movie I had just watched.

Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog
Mr. Brinks (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) inviting Gramps (Lionel Barrymore) into eternity.

The word fantasy often makes one think of magic and mythology. However, not all fantasy films have to involve unicorns, fairies, trolls, or wizards. This movie only features real people looking like real people, but it deals with a very fanciful topic. Different religions believe different things about death and the afterlife, but I think that most people will agree that the idea of a man being able to trap the agent of Death in an apple tree, halting death around the world, is pretty fanciful. Also, the very means by which he is able to do so is very fanciful. Gramps and Pud discuss the folk belief that, when a person does a good deed, he gets to make a wish, Gramps having just given a large donation to the minister who performed Pud’s parents’ funeral. Unthinkingly, Gramps later wishes that people who climb his apple tree will be unable to come down until he allows them to, having been angered by a neighbor boy stealing his apples. Apparently, the folk tale is true, since the next boy who climbs the tree is unable to get down without Gramps’s permission.

On Borrowed Time (1939) - Photo Gallery - IMDb

This is one of the most serious, human fantasy films you will find. Especially from the 1930s-50s, fantasy film were much rarer than they are today, since most movies focused on real or probable events. Thus, it is interesting to discover a 1930s movie which bends the rules of reality.

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