Adapted from Mary Norton’s beloved 1952 children’s novel of the same name, this low budget television project filmed in Whitby, Ontario, Canada has long been a favorite memory of my childhood. I’ve no idea if I saw it on it’s network debut but I do know it played regularly on the small screen throughout my early years giving me ample opportunity for repeated viewings.
“Borrowers” are tiny people who live below the floorboards of a great old mansion in the country. Eddie Albert headlines as Pod with Tammy Grimes as his wife Homily and Karen Pearson playing Arrietty their fourteen year old daughter. The family’s last name is Clock due to the fact that they come and go about the mansion through a small hole in the baseboards beneath the Grandfather Clock in the hallway.
The film opens with the arrival of an eight year old boy (Dennis Larson) who has come to spend some time with his Great Aunt Sophy (Dame Judith Anderson) who though bedridden, owns the mansion. Employed to nurse her and keep the home in shape is a very stern headmistress (Beatrice Straight) and her hubby (Barnard Hughes).
“I’ve never been seen!” Eddie likes to boast to wife and daughter though he does carry on amusing conversations with Dame Judith in her bedroom. While he goes about borrowing things like a thimble which can serve as a pot for Miss Grime’s cooking, he pays regular visits to the Dame’s room to converse and argue. His advantage is the fact that she isn’t so sure he’s real or just a figure of her imagination thanks to the brandy in her decanter which she sips freely from.
To get about the house and the stairs Eddie uses a string and a grappling hook to move about. Panic sets in when he’s spotted by the Boy while descending in the night from a dollhouse loaded with dishes for his wife’s makeshift kitchen.
The Boy’s imagination goes into overdrive hunting about the house for the “little man” he is sure he seen in the night. While the boy hunts, Eddie, is convinced they’ll have to abandon their home and flee to the fields as many other Borrowers had and live life in a gopher hole always worried about the wildlife that roams about.
Part of the fun in the film is seeing the adventure in the eyes of Eddie’s daughter, Pearson. She wants nothing better than to leave their safe haven and experience life in the outside world. It’s her adventurous spirit that will lead to her being spotted and befriending the Boy. Much to the chagrin of her parents.
They’re certain that no good can come of it. What they didn’t expect is for the Boy to go around the house looking for items that they might make use of. Doll furniture, an expensive figurine and other items that are noticeably missing under the watchful eye of the headmistress.
Playing the “heavy”, the headmistress begins to suspect the Boy is up to no good and will herself see what she believes to be little mice beneath the floor boards, “dressed up.” Time to bring a ferret in to vanquish all critters from the innards of the house.
Can Eddie and his family escape certain death with a giant ferret running amuck in their tiny home beneath the floorboards of Dame Judith’s massive mansion?
I’ll let you in on a secret. There were four more novels/adventures in the series of books from Miss Norton released between’52 and the fifth and final book, The Borrower’s Avenged, a full thirty years later in 1982. Like many others I’m always looking to collect nostalgic items and do indeed have a nice set of hardcover editions of the books. Someday I intend to read them to my grandchildren if I’m blessed with any.
While acknowledging the special effects are lacking in the production, I wouldn’t have even noticed as a child so they don’t bother me now all these years later thanks to my fondness for the film. There have been more recent attempts to bring the books to the screen. In 1992 BBC turned out a miniseries I’ve yet to see though I do have them tucked away on VHS.
Then there is the 1997 big screen version that left me in tears. Let me explain. I’d shown the 1973 film to my own son when he might have been about 4 or 5 years old and wasn’t surprised that he was captivated by the movie and the idea of little people living below the floors. It was about this time that my own parents moved halfway across the country to Nova Scotia and into an old farmhouse that needed some work and new floors. My son and I flew out for a visit. In the main hallway there was one board in particular that was missing some wood allowing us to pear into the space beneath the floor. Low and behold there was some sort of a toy chair that had fallen through the crack and that’s all my son needed to send his imagination wild as he searched that house for a “borrower” of his own.
A memory I’ll always cherish. As for that 1997 edition I took him to see at the theater? A major disappointment. They tried to turn it into some sort of Home Alone with evil John Goodman receiving the brunt of the bruises from legions of “borrowers.” I can’t recall much more than that and don’t intend to try. There is apparently a 2011 attempt on the books as well I am not familiar with.
I’ll add that I think the film fit nicely with other similar movies and shows I’d see growing up. Notably the sci-fi classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Harryhausen’s The Three World’s of Gulliver and the TV show, Land of the Giants. These along with the books and this 1973 adaptation of The Borrowers offered up plenty of enjoyment to this youngster then and still do to this day.
I’ll close with a wish. That the film might be picked up by KINO or another label with an eye towards restoring it. A film that won an Emmy for 1974’s Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming. Sadly, it’s languished in public domain via a very shoddy, faded print for years.