GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (MGM-Apjac Productions 1969) Warner Home Video
Throughout the 1960's, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in a mad scramble to keep its balance sheets from slipping deeper into the red. Arguably, by the end of the decade the studio was no longer interested in maintaining its once Teflon-coated façade as ‘the king of features’. The die had been cast for Metro’s slow, sad demise as early as 1949, when then fledgling movie star, Debbie Reynolds stepped into L.B. Mayer’s inner sanctum to suggest she and other alumni could appear weekly on television to promote the studio’s new films and also perform skits and songs in a sort of variety hour styled revue. Mayer’s curt reply, “That is a little black box and it will never amount to anything…and you can’t do it!” effectively sealed MGM’s fate. In Mayer’s defense, he was running true to both the form and spirit of his ilk; the old-time moguls unable to see how the klieg lights had already begun to dim on their movie-land empires, never again to have quite the same luster as before. Within a year, Mayer would be ousted from power, replaced by an ever-revolving roster of ‘executives’ – men with business moxie but only a bean counter’s sense of creative genius, grossly unable to maintain Metro’s tenuous balance as the leader in the industry. “You had the sense that the real golden years were over,” actor, Richard Chamberlain recalls, “Even though there was still a lot of activity on the back lot and a lot of features being made, there was a fear creeping in on all sides, and you had the very real sense the best years were behind the studio.”
By the mid-60’s, television had won both the battle and the war as more than half the potential ticket buyers stayed at home to watch Milton Berle, or, Kukla, Fran and Ollie; MGM, in a misguided cost-cutting attempt, putting an end to all their experimentations and smaller-budgeted features to focus exclusively on ‘landmark’ pictures; expensive globe-trotting story-telling that, more often than not, severely strained Metro’s coffers with their crippling overhead. In this fallow period, MGM suffered from a sort of artistic myopia against the changing times, instead, becoming insular and God-like in their resurrection of time-honored features from their past; remade with even more expense, though alas, less profitability. One such project was the ill-advised musicalized version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969). The 1939 dramatic classic directed by Sam Wood (with an uncredited assist from Sidney Franklin), costarring Robert Donat and Greer Garson, had been a sublime and heart-felt masterpiece, based on the novel by celebrated author, James Hilton. Regrettably, the 1969 version would transform this tender love story into a sort of musical hall revue, advancing the narrative from WWI to WWII, and, adding to the miscalculation Peter O’Toole in the pivotal role, as Arthur Chipping – ‘Chips’ for short- not because he was the right star for the job; rather, for his cache in popularity from David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, still looming large on his calling card.
The fault was not entirely O’Toole’s, and yet, in hindsight, it seems more glaringly his brunt to bear; O’Toole, notably, a very fine dramatic thespian, sadly underwhelming as the singer of songs. Of course, it did not help matters Leslie Bricusse’s score was barely memorable and, in many cases, well below par to satisfy the expectations of a sixties road show. Lest we forget, here was a unique era in movie musicals that gave us such indelibly etched film fare as West Side Story (1961), The Music Man (1962), Mary Poppins, and, My Fair Lady (both in 1964), The Sound of Music (1965), and, Hello Dolly! (1969) among other Broadway-to-Hollywood hybrids. Regrettably, while Goodbye, Mr. Chips had a pre-sold title, it also did not come from the traditions of the stage. In the 1940’s Hollywood musicals were mostly the byproduct of an in-house style; each studio hiring song writers, often from Broadway, to pen original ditties for the silver screen. But again, by the late 1950’s, with the once galvanized studio system on the cusp of imploding, Hollywood increasingly found it easier to simply buy up Broadway shows and transpose them for the movie screen.
MGM was running true to form. Throughout the mid-to-late fifties the most heavily invested of all the majors – Metro’s commitment to churning out increasingly costly musicals remained their coin of the realm. Miraculously, there were still a good many crowd-pleasers to be had, despite changing tastes and the intrusion of TV. And MGM had already decided on a formula for success: taking some of their most celebrated B&W comedies from the 1930’s and ‘40s and remaking them as musicals. Hence, George Cukor’s brilliant and scathing, The Women (1939) became the guileless and depressing, The Opposite Sex (1956); Ninotchka (1939) – the equally as charming, Silk Stockings (1957) and, The Philadelphia Story (1940), one of the biggest and brightest of them all, a sparkling champagne cocktail – High Society (1956). Feathered into this mix were a string of outright remakes of even creakier operettas (Rose Marie, The Student Prince – both released in 1954 with middling success), each, taking advantage of Technicolor and Cinemascope, a few Broadway hybrids (Brigadoon 1954, Hit The Deck 1955) and the occasional ‘original’ property (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers 1954) that hit their targets with a bullseye.
To say, MGM had entered the sixties rife for a makeover it would never receive is an understatement; its corporate boardroom perpetually rocked by the appointment of some new managerial custodianship that could do little to Metro’s unwieldy kingdom except watch helplessly as the ground beneath its fabled soundstages continued to shift away from the sort of popular entertainments it was used to producing. Incapable of changing horses in mid-stride, the studio launched into one overproduced spectacle after the next, hoping against hope for each to send cash registers ringing around the world, or, at the very least, keep them afloat. But for every Doctor Zhivago (1965) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) there was a box office turkey like the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) or Far from the Madding Crowd (1967); elegantly tailored, primo product that utterly failed to whet the public’s appetite. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is undeniably the last of this breed; shot on locations far from the cozy confines of Culver City and endeavoring to recall the halcyon days of a happier – and more fiscally sound decade. Tragically, the remake could not convince the youth market to partake, while oldsters still able to remember with a tear in their eye the magnetic performances given by Robert Donat and Greer Garson in the original, never warmed to Peter O’Toole’s reincarnation of this beloved school master.
In the expanded role of musical hall performer cum Chips’ doting wife, Katherine, sixties U.K. pop-sensation, Petula Clark proved a formidable presence and, at least in hindsight, the film’s singular blessing. In just a few well-appointed dramatic love scenes, Clark is able to convey a lyrical empathy for Hilton’s famed introvert; herein, stifled more by O’Toole’s inability to eclipse the memory of Robert Donat’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1939 film, rather than by any great misfire committed in the remake by him. Director, Herbert Ross ruthlessly endeavored to give it style and class, but nothing could mask the fact, Goodbye Mr. Chips was a cordial ‘little’ story wrapped in too much fluff and existentialist nonsense; Chips, isolated and singing to himself – mostly – or hearing tunes in his head; “What a lot of flowers” – what rubbish! Far better were Katherine’s overt overtures to a way of life fast fading in the rear-view of world history, cavorting about painted backdrop as she belts out ‘London is London’ or rather touchingly introspective in her rendition of ‘And the Sky Smiled’ – a moment meant to reveal the burgeoning tenderness between Chips and Katherine, though utterly emasculated of its emotional content by Ross’ verve for a travelogue through these ancient ruins; the camera cutting from long shot to long shot with only fleeting glimpses of Clark (looking like a wounded sparrow) and Chips (either perpetually befuddled or scowling – or both).
More often than not, Goodbye, Mr. Chips fails to reach its audience because screenwriter, Terence Rattigan cannot surrender his prose to the notion there is not enough story in James Hilton’s novella to sustain his more ambitiously epic love story. The original movie, as Hilton’s prose, rightfully kept its focus on Chips – a life richly touched by great joy, but even greater sadness – his devotion to his pupils, unerring and yet greatly advanced by his one brief moment of marital bliss, prematurely taken away. In the original film, Katherine meets Chips while on a walking tour of Vienna; their love affair culminating in a whirlwind marriage, but ending in tragedy when Kate dies during childbirth – their unborn son also lost to Chips. All of this happens in the original movie’s middle act. For the remake, Rattigan cannot resist to introduce Chips to Katherine at the start of the picture and extend her significance as the primary influence in Chips’ life – killed at the very end of the picture. It is an awkward and maudlin farewell at best, suffering Cupid’s slings and arrows for nearly 2 ½ hours of billing and cooing. It must be said of Peter O’Toole, he is not a very memorable Arthur Chipping; rather, a curmudgeonly prig who casually matures into something marginally better, thanks largely to the love of a good woman. Robert Donat’s Chips was always a gentle man. O’Toole’s is a sort of ensconced ole bachelor and debilitating introvert with few – if any – outside interests. Katherine is charmed by Chips, in spite of himself – but for what good reason? The audience is never quite sure, the Leslie Bricusse songs overlapping these moments that ought to have revealed a deeper, more meaningful character study of two drifters, but instead wall-papers the moments in a sing-song abuse of ‘Hallmark’ greeting card melancholia, tinged with an overview of what real love is, or perhaps, ought to be; idealized and unanticipated.
It would be too easy to condemn Goodbye Mr. Chips as just another leaden road show experiment made at the tail end of a cycle already exhausted of its possibilities. And the picture’s salvation, the one essential that precludes it from devolving into a weighty and thoroughly misguided tome a la, Ross Hunter’s brutalized 1973 incarnation of Lost Horizon (based on another cherished James Hilton novel) is Petula Clark’s magnetic performance. This shines through, despite virtually every obstacle set before the actress. For Clark can take even the maudlin ‘Fill the World With Love’ – sung with a steadfast fidelity to tradition, though minus much feeling by Brookfield’s pupils, and transform it into an anthem of declarative emphasis with feeling, a moment that almost elevates the song to a level we can believe would inspire the students to digest and then regurgitate its supposedly deeper meanings as more than platitudes for themselves. ‘Fill the World with Love’ is Brookfield Academy’s school song. The problem herein is that it sounds very much like a byproduct of the 1960’s (as do all of the songs) instead of harking from a time-honored chorale devoted to the aged mantras of personal integrity. The original movie had a far more stirring and appropriately ‘Latin-based’ Brookfield School Song, co-written by Richard Addinsell and Eric Maschwitz.
Terence Rattigan's screenplay is a clumsy departure from James Hilton's novella in several ways. For starters, it doesn’t begin at the beginning. Part of what endeared Chips to audiences in the 1939 movie was his arrival to Brookfield – the proverbial ‘fish out of water’, desperately struggling to remain afloat as he brings his principled humanity to the undisciplined next generation of boys he will ultimately be entrusted to mold into men. The ’69 remake begins with Chips already a member of Brookfield’s faculty, marginally tolerated for his idiosyncratic behaviors. We lose the rigidity of Victorian England, herein replaced by a post WWI facsimile, circa1920. Determined at all costs to illustrate the span of a man’s life, Rattigan’s narrative arc takes us all the way into the late 1960’s – then, the present day. While Arthur Chipping remains a stodgy Latin classics master, generally disliked by his students, Katherine Bridges has been transformed into a cockney soubrette who first meets Chips in the dining room of London’s Savoy Hotel. Dissatisfied with her career and lack of romantic prospects, Kate sets sail on a Mediterranean cruise and is unexpectedly reunited with Chips, who is on his summer holidays in Pompeii. Acknowledging in him a kindred spirit, she quietly arranges an evening at the theater upon their return to England, and is drawn to Chips’ even more soft-spoken sensitive side he usually shields from the public. A romance unexpectedly blossoms and Chips arrives at Brookfield to begin his autumn semester with a new wife by his side, effectively shocking his fellow colleagues. The pupils could not be more delighted, however, as Katherine is precisely the breath of fresh air lacking in all their other studies at Brookfield. She invigorates the student body with her freshness, procures a theater program that is a big hit with the boys, and, ingratiates ‘Mr. Chips’ to his own pupils, who steadily come to regard him with greater respect and endearment.
Although Kate’s devoted confidante, Ursula Mossbank (played by Siân Phillips and rumored to have been inspired by Tallulah Bankhead) first mistakes Chips for an actor, she later successfully assists the couple in thwarting the ruinations of Lord Sutterwick (George Baker), who finds Katherine an affront to the school’s traditions and plots to deprive Brookfield of his generous endowment, lest Chips’ resign immediately. When it is revealed Ursula and Sutterwick were once lovers long ago, he retracts his objections. But Kate’s reprieve works against Chips’ tenure at Brookfield. He is passed over for the post of Headmaster, despite possessing all credentials and hands-on experience to make the most of such an appointment. Nevertheless, the couple’s devotion is strengthened in these times of need, capable of overcoming virtually any obstacle threatening their happiness. In the original film, Katherine died in childbirth. The remake affords Chips twenty golden years with his soulmate; cruelly denied her lifelong companionship after a German V-1 bomb decimates a nearby Royal Air Force base where Kate has been entertaining the troops. Not long thereafter, the board of trustees at Brookfield is moved to appoint Chips to its headmastership. Alas, some victories come too late. Chips is elderly and retains the post for only a few years, eventually retiring from the college, though living nearby and refusing entirely to say farewell to the school. At story’s end, Chips – at the fragile age of ninety - is seen observing attendance being taken, and later – in a moment ripped directly from the novel – and original movie – he confronts a new arrival who casually refers to him as ‘Mr. Chips’. “Only one person in the world has the right…had the right to call me that,” he admits, marginally softening in his demeanor, before encouraging the pupil to go forth and have ‘a good life’; Katherine’s principles brought back to his happy memories of their life together.
Despite some of the most glowing film reviews of their day (personally, I haven’t decided yet whether the critics were simply on some psychedelic trip or merely indulging their sycophancy by gushing over O’Toole’s performance), Goodbye, Mr. Chips ought to have been better than it ultimately is. The makeup effects used to age Peter O’Toole from thirty to ninety during the latter half of the picture are laughable at best and in no way compare to the exquisite latex applications used to decimate Robert Donat’s youthful masculinity into the speckled old rooster we see, lying on his deathbed at the end of the original movie. Aside: we are spared Chips’ dying in the remake. Furthermore, Herbert Ross’ directorial debut is, at least for me, extremely problematic; his own incessant love affair with the zoom lens and an interminable series of helicopter shots, painfully diffusing the lithe tenderness of this simple story. Clearly, Ross and MGM are after a ‘big picture’ here. But the visual grandiosity is unapologetically paradoxical to this unpretentious tale of two oddly crisscrossed lives suddenly brought together.
I have never been surprised this remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips was not a box office success. It lacks both the necessary oomph of a great screen romance and the razzamatazz of a sixties’ stylish and swinging musical. Advancing the timeline has further deprived us of the Victorian era’s Teutonic grace and gemütich charm; Arthur Chipping’s sternness now quaintly reeking of effete fastidiousness, wholly out of place in the 1920’s milieu. Is he a prig with a rod up his shorts or just a fun-killing, dandified and utterly frustrated ole bachelor doomed to inflicting precepts from his own cultured martyrdom on the rest of us? Peter O’Toole isn’t really telling. And I have never found him entirely comfortable in the role either; a flash of decadence preceded by a moment of awkward introspection or followed by another of equally unsure footing as he clings to the clumsy prose in Terrance Rattigan’s screenplay.
It’s still a sentimental ole love story, however, and the best that can be said of it in this incarnation, is that Goodbye, Mr. Chips treads very lightly and inoffensively on the satisfactions of the eye and ear, while nevertheless, interminably dragging in spots and cutting some narrative corners along the way. Hilton’s novel was anchored to a world of die cast traditions that, for their time, seemed imperishable. Skipping over that generation, Rattigan’s screenplay makes the mistake of attempting social commentary about the obsolescence of England’s caste system. It id too much ballast for this ‘Tenderflake’ pastry of a picture to bear. And Oswald Morris’ cinematography leaves much to be desired, flat and dull, perhaps even straight-jacketed by all that black in the school uniforms, set against Brookfield’s rather imperious stone facades. Again, and by comparison, the B&W ’39 classic was imbued with a sense of austerity never to become oppressive as it pointed to tradition as something to be revered and adhered to without fail.
The remake is more insincerely anchored to the sixties’ freeform education and the ‘let it all hang out’ mantra. In hindsight, the expanded characterization of Katherine as our bright-eyed force for change, reveals the new feminist cut and pasted into a period from whence she would otherwise not have been so easily welcomed with open arms – either by her Edwardian-notion prone husband, and, certainly not by a faculty as rigidly applying themselves as the educators at Brookfield; the internal clock by which Katherine develops her strong-minded will, buoyed by Leslie Bricusse’s score.
Interestingly, after Goodbye, Mr. Chips failed to find an audience lining up on the pavement outside theaters in 1969 for its limited 70mm roadshow engagement, the general release prints were mercilessly expunged of nearly all these musicalized internalizations. Regrettably, this only served to further truncate the point behind most every emotional response either character shares with the audience or each other – the songs integrally built into our understanding of the dramatic bits sandwiched between them. In some ways, Bricusse’s score is a prelude to the rock operas of Andrew Lloyd Webber, albeit, minus Webber’s bombast or ability to interpolate the thematic elements of a love song with more gregarious explosions of fiery passion. Alas, Chips – both the character and the movie – wouldn’t know passion if it hit them square on the nose. In the final analysis, and despite having been produced with inevitable authenticity and good taste, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is MGM’s last stab at turning one of their most beloved and bona fide classics into an equally as cherished musical. Time often does strange things to our perceptions of movies – either the great ones or the duds. Too bad Goodbye, Mr. Chips remains a failed experiment on most every level. It doesn’t hold up. In some ways, I sincerely doubt it ever did.
Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is well below par. The anamorphic widescreen image suffers from color fading, color bleeding and a genuine lack of strong contrast levels. While some scenes appear reasonably sharp, with a considerably smooth and refined color palette, others suffer from a very softly focused and blurry presentation with slight gate wobble. If I had to guess, I’d say this master has been derived from 35mm reduction prints and not the original 70mm surviving road show elements. Age-related artifacts are present throughout and occasionally very obvious. Blacks are never entirely deep or solid. Whites often take on either a blue or yellow caste. Flesh tones fluctuate between very pasty pink or de-saturated murky orange. This is a woefully undernourished visual presentation with little to recommend it. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital, retaining the inherent flaws of vintage recording technologies, but otherwise vastly superior to the visual side of things. Extras are limited to two theatrical trailers; one from the 1939 film, the other from its ‘69 remake. I’ve read various message boards championing Warner Home Video or the Warner Archive to come around with a new hi-def transfer for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. But honestly, I’d been incensed if this version made it to Blu-ray before the eloquently produced 1939 Sam Wood weepy. The ‘69 version is decidedly not recommended!
FILM RATING (out 0f 5 - 5 being the best)