Our review of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), published February 5th, 2009, is also available.
"Never be afraid, Chips, that you can't do anything you've made up your mind to. As long as you believe in yourself, you can go as far as you dream."—Katherine Chipping (Greer Garson)
The granddaddy of all inspirational teacher movies, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a warm and affectionate character study from that great movie year of 1939. Though occasionally dipping a little too far into sentimentality, it remains a lovely, beautifully acted drama that refuses to shy away from tragedy, and should inspire compassion from even the most hardened of cynics.
Facts of the Case
Goodbye, Mr. Chips chronicles 63 years in the teaching career of Charles Chipping (Robert Donat, The 39 Steps), who begins his tenure at England's Brookfield School in the late 1880s. Chipping, or "Chips," as he comes to be referred to, arrives at the school without any teaching experience, and remains one of the school's least popular teachers for many years, his timidity in dealing out authority causing a distinct lack of respect among his students.
Years after coming to school, Chips is invited by a fellow teacher (a pre-Casablanca Paul Henried, sporting a moustache) to go with him to Vienna one summer holiday. It is here that everything changes. Chips falls deeply in love with Katherine (Greer Garson, Mrs. Miniver), a free spirit whose joie de vivre opens him up to love and life in ways he never expected. Upon returning from the vacation, Chips and Katherine are married. Her spirit causes him to lose his rigidity and befriend his students, and he soon becomes one of the school's most beloved teachers. And though the years are not without their share of melancholy, Chips comes to realize that his friendship with his young men who pass through his classes is as great a reward as he could ever ask for.
When Gone With the Wind swept the 1939 Academy Awards, taking home eight Oscars, including awards for Best Actress (Vivien Leigh) and Best Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), very few of those in attendance were surprised. However, one of the biggest surprises came when the film's lead actor, Clark Gable, lost out on the prize for Best Actor. The winner? Robert Donat, for Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
Years later, it's easy to quibble over which was the better performance, but it's impossible to deny that Donat's work in Mr. Chips is wonderful—subtle when the part requires it, and always with a clear understanding that any attempt to play the role as more than what it is would result in oversentimentalizing an already sentimental film. Donat spends a good portion of the movie in heavy makeup, as over the course of the story Chips ages from naïve schoolteacher into a wise old master (I imagine this caused a bit of controversy in the casting department over whether to keep Donat in makeup or switch to an older actor), and though his performance in the later stages occasionally drifts into stereotypical "old coot" mode, for the most part, it's good, layered work. It's easy to see why the Academy gave Donat the Oscar over Gable, as Donat is essentially forced to carry the film on his own back. In this Judge's opinion, the award was justified.
And because of the single-character focus of the film, there are very few major supporting roles, with the only other noteworthy performances coming from Paul Henried and Greer Garson. Henried's role is essentially one-note, as he's forced to play the looser, carefree best friend to the comparatively stiff Chips. Garson, on the other hand, registers quite nicely in this, her film debut (for which she was also Oscar-nominated). It's easy to see why Chips falls for her so easily, even if it's tough to imagine someone so beautiful returning his adoration. Garson's Katherine finds Chips' lack of savvy and cynicism endearing, and it's a testament to Garson's ability to portray this that we accept her affection for him. And yet, despite the good work from both Garson and Henried, it's really Donat's film.
Movies have always had difficulty with displaying the passage of time. One would imagine that with Mr. Chips, this would come as a major problem in adapting the book, written by James Hilton. The screenwriters—R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, and Eric Maschwitz—faced a difficult challenge in condensing 63 years of one man's life into a 115-minute film, but despite the occasional hiccup and glossing over of events, they pull it off rather admirably. One device that works particularly well is the use of the same actor (Terry Kilburn) to play several different generations of students from the same family, a decision that lends the proceedings an important sense of continuity. In this sense, it also helps to make the film's final scenes rather poignant, if a bit too syrupy, as Chips finishes his tenure at the school. The passage of time in the film is handled as effectively as it probably could have been, and the filmmakers were wise to use touches like the young Kilburn's presence to make the transition through the years feel as realistic as possible.
The final thing that keeps Goodbye, Mr. Chips from dating too badly is the refusal of the screenwriters to gloss over the more tragic and downbeat events that occur in Chips' life, including the death of a major person in his life, as well as the difficulties that occur in the last third of the film concerning Britain's involvement in World War I. It would have been easy for the writers to cut out the melancholy material from the book and focus on only the positive events of Chips' career, but they wisely include these events and utilize them to impressive emotional effect. Without these, the film would have likely been bogged down in schmaltz, but its embrace of the sadder aspects of Chips' life is instead quite moving.
And if Goodbye, Mr. Chips still ends up feeling a bit syrupy, it remains worth a look—if only to witness Robert Donat's masterful transformation from the callow young schoolteacher into a beloved old Brookfield institution, a transition Donat handles with grace and simplicity. The film initiated a formula that Hollywood continues to utilize to this day (as recently as Richard Linklater's School of Rock), and there's still something to be said for seeing the one that started it all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've been a huge fan of Warner Bros.' catalogue releases, especially their classic titles from the pre-1960s, so it pains me to admit that they've really dropped the ball with their treatment of Mr. Chips. The digital transfer itself, which preserves the film's original full frame aspect ratio, is as adequate as can be expected, but the source print is in really bad shape, with dirt, grain and scratches painfully evident in about 90% of the shots. The studio has shown in the past that they're as good as it gets when it comes to restoring their classic properties, but it appears that they were a bit too consumed with getting Mr. Chips out on disc as quickly as they could (to coincide with the Oscars, no doubt) rather than taking their time to restore the print. I can't imagine a VHS copy of the film looking much better than this. Warners should have known better.
The audio, presented in the original mono recording, fares a bit better. There's still some noticeable background noise on the track, and again, it doesn't appear to have undergone any kind of restoration. A French mono track is also included, with subtitles offered in French, Spanish, and English for the hearing impaired.
And, in contradistinction to most of Warner Bros.' vault releases, there are no extras included on this disc, not even a trailer. With the studio turning out making-of documentaries as well as just about anyone in the DVD business these days, one would think there could have at least been a featurette slapped together that, however briefly, might have gone through the making of the film and explained its influences on more recent films, such as Dead Poets Society and the aforementioned School of Rock. Alas, the disc is as barebones as they come, a real disappointment considering the track record of excellence the studio has continually shown on previous titles.
Problems with disc quality aside, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is absolutely worth a look for anyone who's ever had a favorite teacher, or who has been inspired by films like Mr. Holland's Opus or any of Chips' other progeny. It's a sentimental but otherwise moving account of the life of a man who discovered the reward of his life's work was its effect on the lives he helped to shape.
The film itself remains not guilty, but the folks at Warner Bros. are held guilty of lacking respect for their classic properties, something I never thought I'd find myself saying. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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