Labeling most any movie “the best picture of ‘any’ year!” would normally suggest a marketer’s penchant for extreme hyperbole. I have read the back jackets of far too many contemporary DVD and Blu-ray releases declaring their product “an instant classic”or “the greatest of all time.” Frankly, such gushing praise at the time of ‘any’ movie’s theatrical debut does all movies a grave disservice; essentially a testament to clever PR and/or some very bad writing by critics, pompous enough to believe they alone can assess ‘greatness’ at a whim, whistle and arrogant wave of their pen. How gauche! Occasionally, however, time proves the rarest of exceptions to this rule. Case in point: Sam Wood’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939); just one of the outstanding screen achievements from that golden epoch in Hollywood’s folklore. It goes without saying, 1939 holds a hallowed place in cinema history as an ancient flower almost impossible to fathom; a scant twelve months, telescoping nearly two decades of technical and artistic evolution in the medium to bring forth a staggering multitude of bona fide classics – each an archetype in its genre. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is no better than its competition from this year – which is saying a great deal about its superb craftsmanship both in front of and behind the camera. Based on the novella by famed author, James Hilton, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the byproduct of an ambitious intercontinental venture, spun nearly a year before its premiere by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s raja, Louis B. Mayer; an Anglo-American détente, presumably, a means to sell American stars to international audiences in British-made pictures. For the briefest wrinkle in time, the audacity of this intrusion by the Yanks into England’s already well-established picture-making business clicked as it should. However, at the outbreak of WWII, MGM would all but abandon their ambitions abroad; after the war, leasing their facilities to other studios at a premium.
It is safe to assume that without the war, Hollywood’s wellspring of raw talent – both in front of and behind the camera – would have lacked a good many riches we have long since taken for granted as part of the American film-making landscape; Europe’s mass exodus of creatives, made exiles by the insidious spread of Nazism in Europe, decidedly Hollywood’s gain. In all likelihood, western audiences would have never known the shimmering miracles put forth by such artists as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. Hollywood’s British colony alone included such émigré luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Basil Rathbone, Rex Harrison, David Niven, Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Colman, Roddy McDowell, Angela Lansbury and Donald Crisp – to name but a handful. Two more ‘imports’ from this period, destined to make their splash in American movies were Robert Donat and Greer Garson. While Garson would go on to have a prolific career as the cultured Irish lass in countlessly memorable MGM pictures throughout the 1940’s and beyond (Pride and Prejudice, Random Harvest, Mrs. Parkington, The Valley of Decision, and, the Oscar-winning Mrs. Miniver among them), Robert Donat’s enduring legacy – at least as far as American audiences are concerned – can be exclusively tied to Goodbye, Mr. Chips; an affectingly tragic performance as Charles Edward Chipping; the lonely Latin Classics master of Brookfield Boy’s Academy. The picture had been in development under Irving G. Thalberg, before his untimely death; L.B. Mayer, moving forward with the project relatively untouched, if under his newly appointed ‘college of cardinals’ with resident workhorse, Sam Wood assigned to direct. Wood is one of those directors today largely forgotten, despite some iconic movies (including A Night At The Opera, 1935, A Day at the Races, 1936, Kitty Foyle, 1941, Kings Row, 1941, The Pride of the Yankees – both in 1942 – and For Whom The Bell Tolls, 1943) to his credit. To say nothing of his credible assist on Gone with the Wind(1939), shooting second unit and a few crucial scenes to help fellow Metro alumni Victor Fleming speed up production over at Selznick International.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a practically perfect entertainment, held together by Robert Donat's lithe central performance. Donat convincingly ages from a youthful twenty-five to whiskery seventy-eight with superb make-up. Latex applications, skull caps and spirit gum will only get you so far. What truly sells the metamorphosis is Donat’s subtly nuanced intonations; his expert timing too, and, his unvarnished believability. This never wanes or falters. To witness Donat in any of the many stages in Chips' life is to experience the true art and craftsmanship of a very fine thespian at work. Even knowing it is Donat we are seeing from start to finish, it remains almost impossible to accept the same actor encompassing all these many variations within a scant 114 minutes. In a year virtually dominated by accolades and plaudits afforded David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind, Donat’s portrait of Chips trumped Gable's Rhett Butler to win the Best Actor Academy Award. In 1939, Donat’s ascendance to the podium was perhaps eased by the fact he was a virtual unknown to Americans. It is always easier to buy into ‘the truth’ of a performance before the lure and/or curse of stardom has taken hold. It is also a lot riskier for a movie to garner critical praise and box office popularity without the magnetic pull of a ‘name’ above the title. Yet, this should neither dismiss nor discount the astonishing verisimilitude Donat has wrought on the screen. His Chips is every bit as enduringly heartbreaking, yet filled with a gentlemanly grace and exquisitely retiring zest for life, repeatedly denied any lasting happiness by the hands of fate.
It has always struck me as more than a little ironic how often the most memorable of movie-land heroes lack great brawn or merely exist in the absence of committing daring deeds. While there is undeniably something to be said for the Gables, McQueens, Brandos and Holdens – men of action – there really is a lot more to be unearthed and discussed about the James Stewarts, George Brents and Henry Fondas residing in this cinematic fantasy landscape, and who have emerged as the seemingly common and distinctly unassuming among these great stars. In retrospect, it remains a tie which of these polar opposites has left us more spellbound in the dark: the Sergeant Yorks, Atticus Finches, George Baileys and Elwood P. Dowds of the silver screen – casting their own giant shadows. From an anthropological perspective, I suspect it has something to do with the notion we all aspire, but may not see a mirror image of ourselves in paragons like Clark Gable, Marlon Brando or Errol Flynn, but we find flashes of ourselves imbedded in the likes of a James Stewart or Gregory Peck. Whatever the reason, Robert Donat is perhaps the slightest among these aforementioned monuments – a diminutive Englishman with a common brow and unprepossessing physical stature; in hindsight, the perfect star to embody Charles Edward Chipping.
Donat’s greatest achievement in Goodbye, Mr. Chips is he breaks our hearts, apparently by accident. He shows us a life, not as oft perfectly concocted for the movies, but frequently sad, isolated and devastating in its disappointments. Donat’s best moments in the picture are encapsulated by the most sorrowful lows embellished in the screenplay; the way he raises or lowers a furry eyebrow just so, revealing a subtler gaze of abject bewilderment at having lost both his wife and stillborn son in childbirth, or his timid body language, emanating wounded regrets when repeatedly denied school-sanctioned promotions that rightfully ought to have gone to him, or, in the final reel, in his seemingly pleasant acquiescence to death at the tender age of ninety-eight, dreamily slipping into a painterly reminiscence of all those generations of young lads his own contributions have helped to mold. It might have all become easily maudlin and contrite without the right actor in the part. Instead, Donat’s artistry presents us with a ‘Chips’ none of us want to say goodbye to; the mentor for whom most any young boy would proudly boast to call upon for guidance as a surrogate father-figure. L.B. Mayer likely considered Goodbye, Mr. Chips more sensibly marketable in Europe where Donat already had cache as a leading man on both the stage and screen. Mostly thanks to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), Donat had a modicum of notoriety on this side of the Atlantic.
Greer Garson, on the other hand, was a virtual unknown, though yet again, one of the rarest and most satisfying discoveries Mayer would ever lay claim to as a ‘star maker’ par excellence, adding to his formidable roster of talents back home. So the legend goes – Mayer had come to London in 1938 on a routine goodwill tour, to finalize a slate of projects at his fledgling MGM-British Studios; also, to scout a few promising West End properties to make into movies. While staying at the Dorchester, Mayer elected to get tickets for the play, ‘Old Music’. Assuming it a musical - a genre Mayer adored - he was instead bitterly disappointed when ‘Old Music’ turned out to be metaphorical for a creaky ole melodrama. Mayer hated it. However, possessing a keen eye for talent, almost immediately he took an interest in the play’s bright-eyed and henna-haired ingénue, Greer Garson. Hurrying backstage after the performance to introduce himself and ask the young lady to supper, Garson astutely brought along her mother to chaperone the evening. Ever the uber-conservative, Mayer liked girls who like their mothers. Within the hour, a contract was signed, Garson agreeing to appear in Goodbye, Mr. Chips in the modest part as Katherine. Effectively, she almost stole the show. Without question or guile, she broke everyone’s heart with her rewarding genteel Irish wit and charisma. Garson could be counted upon to affect this air in later pictures with varying degrees of success. Yet properly placed in a Tiffany setting like Katherine Chipping, Garson is nothing short of miraculous; lilting to the strains of an Austrian waltz, ebulliently letting out the champagne bubbles of an exuberant little laugh that continues to echo throughout the Alps as she tells Edward he is ‘nice’ after being stranded with him on a mountain top for several hours in a dense fog, or affectionately lying at his feet in their living room after they are married, gazing with adoring sincerity as she quietly admits, “My darling, you’re a very real person and a very human person. Don’t ever be afraid, Chips. There’s nothing you can’t do.”
Goodbye, Mr. Chips would also tap into Mayer’s affinity for telling stories that mythologized and romanticized a particular way of life fast fading into the sunset of history. America’s affinity for Britain, particularly during the war, generally leaned towards glowing portraits of that unconquerable English stoicism; its unabated pride for remaining steadfast and truer still to its time-honored principles and traditions, and its imperishable faith in the common good of humanity, despite being repeatedly tested by darker forces looming on the horizon of a European hemisphere in flames. Quietly setting aside Britain’s own checkered history, often bloodthirsty in its ‘nation-building’ conquests, American movies instead presented our far-away cousins as quaintly superior, ruled by decorum, propriety and goodness, occasionally – humorously – stuffy, but always as a more refined extension of America’s own big-hearted and sentimentalized prospects for the future. It served the fantasy well that many movies supposedly set in England were actually shot on Metro’s studio backlot in sunny Culver City, their air of fog-laden authenticity a complete fabrication from the ground up. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is, in fact, a regression into England’s nation-building era, with only twinges of suggestion its classism and stiff upper lipped congeniality are fast coming to an end. Goodbye, Mr. Chips stops short of growing cynical about what the future may bring. Indeed, in 1939, with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland already a fait accompli, such potentials for a brighter tomorrow – whether pitched on either side of the Atlantic – similarly, if not perfectly, marked an alignment between two nations – America and the United Kingdom; destined to jointly procure a policy for peace at the end of the Second World War.
After an exuberant main title, set to the impeccably academic strains of Richard Addinsell and Eric Maschwitz’ Brookfield School Song, Goodbye, Mr. Chips begins in 1928 with Edward Charles Chipping, a spry eighty-three. Ordered by his physician to abstain from commencement exercises for the first time in his entire career to stave off a cold, Chips instead defies doctor’s orders, scurrying in cap and gown toward the chapel. He encounters a new student who is also late. Chips listens intently to the school’s anthem; the cherub-faced newbee regarding him with casual amusement as a very old man. Afterward, the established students are elated to have Chips join them. By now he has become far more than just a favorite educator; something of a beloved school mascot. Returning to his home on the outskirts of Brookfield Academy, Chips is attended to by his stodgy housekeeper, Mrs. Wickett (Louise Hampton). Ordering the woman to ‘go about her loathsome statistics’, Chips reclines in his armchair next to the fireplace and quietly slips into his daydreams.
We regress to Charles Edward Chipping, aged twenty-five; an ambitious young man on his nervous journey by train to begin his career as a Latin Classics instructor. The train is overcrowded with boys also bound for Brookfield, including young, John Colley (Terry Kilburn, who will play all but one of his future relatives, attending the school). Their exuberance at the sight of a hot air balloon causes mild pandemonium for all except one lad, who sits with his head down, quietly homesick and isolated in the corner. In attempting to comfort the child, Chips inadvertently causes him to burst into tears. The others assume Edward has either struck the boy or said something mean-spirited, causing a pall to settle in for the rest of their journey. Arriving at Brookfield on the first day’s commencement, Edward is befriended by German Classics professor, Max Staefel (Paul Henried). Noting Edward’s giddiness, the other academics playfully goad him about the ‘blood sport’ first year students engage in with newly arrived teachers. Indeed, Edward is in for a rough time. On his first day’s lessons, his graduation cap is knocked off by a trip cord; the pupils exuberantly kicking it about the floor until John Colley ‘rescues’ it; further beating the crooked rim against his knee – presumably, to clean the dust from it.
The boys’ pranks continue. They ask Edward loaded questions, such as ‘who was Cadiz?’ to which Edward – taking the boys at face value – begrudgingly exclaims, “Cadiz is a town in Spain!” Now, the classroom erupts into sheer bedlam, the noise level bringing Brookfield’s outwardly gruff Head Master, Wetherby (Lyn Harding) into their midst. After he has settled Edward’s class for him with a very stern glower, Wetherby asks for a quiet meeting in his office. He informs Edward that the rigors of a school master are not for everyone; furthermore, what he has seen today constitutes a very bad start from which it will be difficult – if not impossible – for Edward to recover his dignity. In his defense, Edward promises no further outbursts. However, in pressing the point, Edward makes an almost fatal error in judgment; confining the school’s best rugby player, along with the rest of the boys, to detention during a crucial match with rivals from Sedgewick Academy. The game lost, Edward confides in his pupils he has overstepped his boundaries, adding “If I have lost your respect, there is little else that I value.”
Time heals most of these initial wounds and, as the years pass, Edward incrementally gains confidence as well as the respect of his students, both present and former; although, without the essential warmth necessary to make his tenure at the school anything more than a largely meaningless profession interpolated with casual friendships. Asked by Staefel of his plans for summer holidays, Edward suggests he will retire to Harrowgate for relaxation. Instead, Staefel commands Edward accompany him on a walking tour of his native Austria. Their sojourn will prove fortuitous in unexpected ways. For on only their second day’s crossing, the men are introduced to Katherine Ellis, a feisty English suffragette, and her rather mannish travelling companion, Flora (Judith Furse). The ladies are headed to Vienna, with a stopover at a Bavarian retreat in the Alps. As fate would have it, Edward and Staefel are staying at the same inn; Edward getting lost in a fog while hiking up one of the nearby mountains. Calling out for help, he is confronted by Kathy’s gentle voice nearby and spends most of the afternoon and early evening in her care on the mountain’s ledge. The two are acquainted socially. Edward sheepishly confides, “I’m terrified of ladies.” “Because I’m a strong-minded female who rides a bicycle and wants the vote?” she asks, to which he honestly confesses, “Oh, no. Because you’re so very nice-looking.” Amused by his sincerity, Kathy impetuously adds, “Frankly, Mr. Chipping – so are you.”
Returning to the inn together moments before Staefel and Flora are about to commence with a search party, Edward is declared the hero of the Alps. Embarrassed by all the undue praise, Edward blushingly retreats to his room rather than stay for the celebration. Flora is mildly put off by Edward’s overt shyness, but Kathy defends him, saying “I rather feel sorry for shy people…because they’re lonely too”, quite unaware Edward has overheard their entire conversation from his balcony. Travelling with Staefel via a steamer down the Blue Danube, Edward can talk of nothing but the hours he spent with ‘Miss Kathy’ in the Alps. Staefel quietly acknowledges the lasting impression the girl has made on his travelling companion; both men innocent of the fact Flora and Kathy are also aboard. Later, in a resplendent ballroom, romantically lit by candlelight, an orchestra serenading patrons to the tune of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, Edward and Kathy are reintroduced. She tempts him to ask her to dance. At first, he infers to being ill-equipped to carry out the task. Prodded by his own persistent resolve to break free from his shyness, Edward works up the guts to accept Kathy’s wager. The couple spends the rest of the evening whirling about the dance floor, the scene dissolving to a parting of the ways at Vienna’s railway depot the next morning. At the last possible moment, as the train is pulling away with Kathy and Flora aboard, Edward throws caution to the wind, with an impromptu proposal of marriage. She blissfully accepts before a cloud of steam envelopes the platform and parts the lovers. Staefel laughingly reveals to Edward that both he and Flora have known about their whirlwind romance for quite some time; Flora having already picked out the church and Staefel given her their contact information.
At the start of the new semester, Edward shocks his contemporaries by returning to Brookfield with a new bride on his arm. These stuffy academics are instantly enamored by Kathy’s forthright disposition and graceful charm. Edward takes notice how his colleagues and the students treat him differently as a result of Kathy’s warmth towards them. After Brookfield elects to appoint Edward to his own house, Kathy institutes frequent ‘parties’ for the boys, building a solid relationship between them and her husband. She nicknames him, ‘Chips’ of Brookfield; a moniker destined to stick for the rest of his days. Kathy tells her husband he must allow the barriers he has placed between him and his pupils to slip just a little, in order to become more than simply their educator; indeed, to be a trusted friend and father-figure to all ‘his boys’. A short while later, Kathy reveals she will soon bear Chips a son. Alas, the birth is difficult, proving fatal for both mother and child; Chips returning to his classroom, shell-shocked and heartbroken after receiving the news, only to have a prank perpetuated by his students, who have yet to learn of his loss. Peter Colley II bursts into the classroom, quietly spreading the word Miss Kathy has died. A pall settles in; the boys intimately sharing in Chips’ grief.
Time passes. And while Chips grows more beloved, evolving into a cornerstone of the academy, time has not diminished his great sadness. Wetherby’s death results in the appointment of a new Head Master, Chatteris (Milton Rosmer), who informs Chips the old ways are dying and must be updated to conform to the ‘new’ academic standards. Chips fights this indignation, the suggestion he is out of fashion – and therefore, by extension, obsolete – hardly considered worth debating, except to lambaste Chatteris as a ‘progressive’ who does not appreciate what traditions and principles mean to the moral foundation of a young man’s life. The school’s board of trustees takes Chips’ side in the matter. Moreover, his pupils rally to his aid. As far as they are concerned, Chips can stay on until he is a hundred. Alas, time does not stand still for any man, and in 1914, Chips chooses retirement at the age of sixty-nine. After an absence of some years, he becomes reacquainted with former student, Peter Colley (now played as a dashing army sergeant by John Mills). Peter asks Chips to look in on his young wife, Helen (Jill Furse) as she is expecting their first child, even as he is being called to the front to fight the Germans in WWI. Chips obliges this request and is pleasantly surprised when Brookfield’s board of governors recalls him as their Head Master; more of a ceremonial post as every available man of fighting age has already been sent to the front to partake in the war.
Chips accepts the challenge of keeping the school organized and vital during these trying times, dealing with a belligerent elder student by caning his backside, but then diplomatically explaining the grave situation facing both Brookfield’s graduating class and the nation at large. The war exacts its pound of flesh, Chips adding Max Staefel’s name to the fallen – Staefel having returned home to fight for the Kaiser and dying as an enemy on the field of battle. But the most disheartening loss is Peter Colley. Reading his name on the roll call of those most recently killed in action quietly brings Chips to tears. A short while later, Chips receives a cablegram: good news for a change. Armistice has been declared. The war is over. At parade’s end in 1918, Chips relinquishes his title as Brookfield’s Head Master, happily so, and retreats into peaceful retirement. Once again, the years pass. We advance to 1933, Chips awakening from his slumber to entertain a new arrival, goaded by his peers into playing a practical joke on Chips. Instead, Chips invites the boy in for some tea and cake.
The intimacy shared in their conversation about childhood anxieties and lifelong camaraderie yet to follow, quaintly reminds Chips of the years when Kathy strove to make his home a bastion for his students; a place where they could confide in him. After the boy leaves, memories unexpectedly begin to flood in and haunt Chips to distraction. A short while later he is confined to bed, a withered old man waiting to die. However, as he slips in and out of consciousness, he overhears several of his colleagues discussing what a pity it is he never married or had any children of his own. In reply, Chips murmurs, “But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them…and all boys.” As Chips closes his eyes, presumably for the last time, a collage of faces pass before the camera with the strains of Brookfield’s school song proudly echoing; all the boys and young men whose lives Chips has helped to impact – indeed, the veritable ‘promises for a brighter tomorrow’ pass before him – the last in line, young, Peter Colley, who affectionately turns, smiles, and sweetly delivers the penultimate line of farewell, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips…goodbye.”
Goodbye Mr. Chips was begun under the aegis of the late, Irving G. Thalberg; MGM’s wunderkind producer with a peerless track record for creating starry-eyed magic from a good many literary properties his boss, L.B. Mayer often disliked – not so much for their content – rather, because they cost so much to produce. In some ways, Mayer’s decision to ‘streamline’ Metro’s output after Thalberg’s untimely passing did much to equally homogenize their appeal. While MGM movies of the 1930’s could be counted upon to positively reek of ultra-sophistication and glamor, the lighter confections coming off the assembly line in the forties would gradually symbolize Mayer’s affinity for homespun family films – not terribly prepossessing, though nevertheless equally as popular with audiences. In some ways, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the last of Thalberg’s artistic triumphs, director, Sam Wood (along with producer, Victor Saville, Sidney Franklin, and, screenwriters, R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, Eric Maschwitz) paying tribute to the man who, in life never afforded himself any screen credit for guiding MGM onto such artistic heights, in a title card reading, “We wish to acknowledge here our gratitude to the late Irving Thalberg, whose inspiration illuminates the picture of ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’.” Indeed, the legendary producer had left an indelible mark, his artistic visions perfectly preserved for the ages since.
I am going to champion the Warner Archive (WAC) to remaster Goodbye, Mr. Chips for Blu-ray. Without question, it is one of the finest motion pictures of any era, and certainly one of the most deserving deep catalog titles currently under their custodianship. Warner Home Video’s old cardboard insert DVD has been replaced by a Warner Archive MOD DVD, the results looking pretty much the same and nothing terribly thrilling either. While the gray scale is generally impressive, the original elements are in a desperate need of clean-up and repair. Age-related artifacts are everywhere and, at times, thoroughly distracting. Film grain has been preserved, but during several scenes, appears slightly digitized rather than indigenous to its source. Also, I am distinctly ‘not loving’ the anomalies; edge enhancement and pixelization scattered throughout. While the aforementioned are slight, they nevertheless glaringly distract from the enjoyment of this classy classic. Also, contrast levels are a tad weak. Overall, the image is passable, but it is about time Goodbye, Mr. Chips made its way to hi-def. So, WAC, the gauntlet has been thrown down…please. We could also use a refurbished audio, to minimize the annoying hiss and pop that plagues quiescent scenes throughout this transfer. Extras are the other disappointment. There are none! Not even a theatrical trailer! For shame! Bottom line: Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a golden entertainment from a year as perfect as movies get. It deserves far better on home video. Here is to hoping it gets its just desserts sooner rather than later.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)