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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

ON BORROWED TIME (1939)

Crotchety Lionel Barrymore catches Death in his apple tree . . . and won’t let him down in this tough-minded bit of whimsy taken from Paul Osborn’s sturdy play. Along with Bobs Watson as his adoring Grandson, Barrymore lays it on pretty thick in the film’s first half as ‘Mr Brink’ (in the alarmingly calm & reasonable form of Cedric Hardwicke) spirits away the boy’s parents, Grandma and then tries for Granddad. That’s when Death gets tricked into that backyard tree and Takes a (forced) Holiday. That’s also when the film, which has threatened to tip over from sentiment, starts to make its case. Not only does Death/Brink find his voice and make a neat defense for himself (very GBS)*, but just as crucially, Henry Travers (Capra’s Clarence the Angel) playing Barrymore’s worried doc, finds just the bone dry sceptical tone needed to make the fable come to life. Barrymore, no slouch when nudged off his hammy tricks, rises to the occasion, pulling back as the story moves toward a series of clever dramatic reversals, ending with a quietly shocking, sobersided finale that would never have made it past a modern focus group. Harold Bucquet megs without resorting to a lot of spectral effects, helped by unusually rich tech work from lenser Joseph Ruttenberg (check out the stream-of-conscience tracking shot he gives mean Aunt Demetria) and from Franz Waxman who supplies heaps of atmosphere with his background score.
DOUBLE-BILL: A 1957 Hallmark Hall of Fame version had Beulah Bondi repeating as Grandma, plus Ed Wynn & Claude Rains in for Barrymore & Hardwicke. It even had the real Margaret Hamilton as mean Aunt Demetria, played here by Hamilton manqué Eily Malyon. Alas, it’s not available. Instead, try Brad Pitt in MEET JOE BLACK/’98 which is an updated version of DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY/’34, something of a companion piece to this. (DEATH once came on a deluxe BLACK edition, but is now hard to find.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Fitting, since George Bernard Shaw pegged Hardwicke as his second favorite actor.

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