“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” - Sam Wood (1939)

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) was a popular romantic drama that has remained a favorite of audiences and critics who have seen the film over the years [1].  Produced by the British Division of MGM and shot in England, the film was directed by Sam Wood and starred two of my favorite screen performers – Robert Donat and Greer Garson.  Donat, whose career was unfortunately hampered by chronic, possibly psychosomatic, asthma, was the memorable star of what I regard as one of the all-time greatest films, The 39 Steps (1935) [2].  His performance here in Goodbye, Mr. Chips was equally commendable, and it earned for Donat an Oscar (US Academy Award) for Best Actor.  Greer Garson, also originally British, was at the age of 34 making her screen debut in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, but she quickly established herself as a Hollywood superstar.  Between 1939 and 1945 Garson earned six Oscar nominations for Best Actress, including one for Goodbye, Mr. Chips [3].  One of my favorite of her roles is that of Paula/Margaret in Random Harvest (1942), a performance for which Garson couldn’t gain an Oscar nomination since she was already nominated for (and ultimately won) the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Mrs. Miniver (1942).

Overall, Goodbye, Mr. Chips was nominated for seven Oscars in 1939 – for Outstanding Production, Best Director (Sam Wood), Best Actor (Robert Donat), Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording.  Of course it was up against super-stiff competition, since this was also the year of the epic classic Gone with the Wind (1939), which also received Oscar nominations in those seven categories as well as in six others.  So it was a tribute to Robert Donat’s remarkable and sensitive portrayal of a man who ages 63 years over the course of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, that he won the Oscar for Best Actor over Clark Gable’s magnetic performance in Gone with the Wind.

The story of Goodbye, Mr. Chips is based on the popular 1933 novella of the same name by James Hilton.  Hilton authored two other stories that were turned into enormously popular films – Lost Horizon (novel - 1933, film version - 1937) and the aforementioned Random Harvest (novel - 1941, film version - 1942).  All three of these filmed stories concern a man who stumbles upon something wonderful and then soon loses it – a special person or people who, for an all-too-brief period, show(s) and convey(s) to him the essence of joy and happiness. 

This story traces the life of a teacher in an exclusive, private English secondary school for boys (called a “public school” in the UK) from 1870-1933.  The teacher, Mr. Chipping (“Mr. Chips”), is a modest, well-spoken man who begins his career at the Brookfield Public School timidly but who eventually evolves to symbolize the very heart and soul of the school.  The evolution of Mr. Chips into a compassionate friend beloved by all the students is highly influenced by his relationship with his vivacious wife, whom he first meets as a middle-aged bachelor.  The film’s narrative is presented over six phases, or acts, the middle four of which are extended flashbacks.  To support the narrative continuity across these flashbacks, we are shown several generations of students from the same family – Peter Colley I, Peter Colley II, and Peter Colley III – all played by the same child actor, Terry Kilburn.

1.  1928

At the venerable Brookfield School’s first-day school assembly, the school’s headmaster announces that 83-year-old teacher Mr. Chipping (played by Robert Donat) is, for the first time in 58 years, unable to attend the session due to illness.  However, we soon see the old man disobeying his doctor’s orders and belatedly trying to enter the assembly hall.  When he finally sees the many boys departing the hall, it is clear that he knows most of them by name.  Then he returns to his home near the campus, sits down, and begins reminiscing about his past.

2.  1870
At his very first day at the Brookfield School, the 25-year-old Chipping is given the onerous task of beginning with an obstreperous class of 13-year-olds.  The boys are all impudent and raucous, and soon the entire class descends into chaos, much to the chagrin of the mild-mannered Chipping.  After getting a thorough chastising from the stern headmaster, Dr. Wetherby (Lyn Harding), Chipping vows to turn himself into a strict disciplinarian.  When he later punishes his class one day by ordering them to stay in the classroom after school and thereby miss an important school cricket match,  the boys can’t conceal their dislike for their too-serious teacher.

Then a montage of dissolves indicates that time is passing.

3.  1888
After Dr. Wetherby dies in 1888, Chipping, now sporting a thick mustache, has hopes that his many years of service at Brookfield will be rewarded by his appointment to a housemastership.  However, he is greatly disappointed when he learns that he was passed over for the promotion. To cheer him up, his colleague Max Staeffel (Paul Henreid, who also appeared in Casablanca (1942)) insists on taking Chipping on a walking tour in his native Austria.

On the trip, while walking alone one day in the Austrian mountains, Chipping gets fogged in on dangerous mountain pass.  By chance, he encounters there a similarly fogged-in young English woman, Katherine (Greer Garson), and the two of them just have to sit down to wait for the fog to lift. While they converse, their contrasting personalities are on display.  While the 43-year-old Chipping is politely diffident and starchy, the younger Katherine is ebullient and friendly.  Nevertheless, Katherine becomes attracted to the somewhat old-fashioned Chipping, and they get on well together.

When the fog lifts, they climb down to safety, and later they meet again in Vienna and share waltzes together in a ballroom.  When it is time for Katherine to leave for England on a train, she impulsively kisses Chipping at the train station.  As the train is departing, the til-now tongue-tied Chipping blurts out a hectic marriage proposal to Katherine, and she joyfully accepts.

4.  A Blissful Marriage
Back at Brookfield School, Katherine has an immediate impact on Chipping’s life and demeanor.  She calls him “Chips”, a nickname that is immediately adopted by everyone, and she encourages him to treat all his students as personal friends.  To support this new approach, she invites all his students to come over to their home every Sunday for tea and biscuits.  And she also insists that Chips share his slyly witty sense of humor with his students in class.  Her warm and affectionate nature is thoroughly passed on to Chips, and he becomes the same kind of person.  In no time at all Chips becomes very popular with all the boys.  And soon Chips gets his cherished promotion to housemaster.

However, all this bliss turns out to be short-lived.  During her first childbirth, Katherine and her baby die, and Chips is left shattered.  When he quickly tries to immerse himself in his teaching, neither he nor his students can hold back the tears.

Curiously, Katherine’s pregnancy and death are not shown in the film; they take place offstage and are only briefly discussed.  The abrupt advent of Katherine’s death, however, does have a jarring effect on the narrative flow of the film that makes its tragic consequences even more dramatically affective.

Overall, acts 3 and 4 of this story, which feature Katherine’s emotive and compassionate feminine contributions to the testosterone-driven all-male society at the Brookfield School, are the most memorable and significant components of the film.

Now another montage of dissolves indicate the passage of some time, as boys are briefly shown commenting on various historical events over the years, such as the advent of the telephone, the Boer War, and the death of Queen Elizabeth.

5.  1909-18
In 1909 a newly appointed Brookfield headmaster seeks to modernize the school and force the retirement of Chips, whom he sees as an old fogey.  But Chips is now so popular with the students and faculty, thanks to the humanizing effect that Katherine had on him, that he has become almost a school institution.  The protests of these students and colleagues force the new headmaster to back off and let Chips stay on.

A few years later World War I begins, and when the headmaster along with a number of younger staff go off to serve in the military, Chips is appointed school headmaster.  He feels that it is now  his job to hold the school together on the home front. 

There is now another curious scene showing Chips caning a disobedient and hostile student.  This is evidently intended to show Chips’s adherence to old, strict rules of loyalty during these troubled times.  Indeed there is a general tone of national loyalty during this section of the film, as Chips tries to calm his students during German aerial raids and the receipt of disturbing news about allied war deaths.  Among the excruciating pieces of news that Chips receives are the war deaths of his former student Peter Colley and of his great friend Max Staeffel, who was fighting on the other side of this senseless war.  (We might say that all wars are senseless, but this one, with millions of war deaths, was particularly egregious, since the major parties entered into it voluntarily [4].)  This general concern in the film for national loyalty should be seen in the light of the film’s production year, 1939, and England’s prospects of entering another world war. 

6.  1933
We now shift forward to 1933, and the aged Chips is visited by yet another young Peter Colley, of whom we have already seen many generations.  With Chips taking ill, the boy departs and smilingly says, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips!”.  Then a doctor and a colleague attend to the dying Chips and quietly lament that Chips had led a lonely life and had never had any children.  But Chips, overhearing them, assures them in his last breaths that they are quite wrong; he had thousands of children!


The lasting message we take from the film is that Chips had thousands of students during his life, all of whom he treated, after encountering Katherine, with the warmth and affection that one would give to one’s own children.  He seemed to know and remember all of them by name.  So Katherine’s spirited warmth and benignity, as well as her confidence-boosting support, were what brought out the inner humanity in Mr. Chips, and her impact is the key driver of the film.  This is all underscored by Greer Garson’s vivacious performance as Katherine.  Even though her presence only spreads across 35 minutes of a 113-minute film, she leaves a lasting impression on us, as well as on Mr. Chips.  It is for this reason that her performance in a small-in-minutes role was nominated for an Academy Award.

So Goodbye, Mr. Chips is adorned by two inspiring feats of acting – Robert Donat’s amazingly nuanced performance of a man, Mr. Chips, who ages across 63 years and Greer Garson’s vitalizing performance as his dear wife Katherine.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Andrew Sarris, “New Thoughts on Two Old Movies”, The Village Voice, (14 July 1975). 
  2. See: 
  3. Greer Garson received a seventh Oscar nomination for Best Actress in 1960.    
  4. For an interesting discussion concerning contrasting East-West philosophical perspectives on war and its senselessness, see:
    • Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher, Schocken Books, New York, (1998).

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