Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An old warhorse attraction that's been entertaining as many generations of moviegoers as educated by
the agreeable teacher of the title, Goodbye Mr. Chips still plays as a pleasant diversion,
thanks to honest performances, good direction by the underrated Sam Wood, and an optimistic
attitude toward people in general.
Frequently copied, the story and filming look almost old-fashioned for 1939, but audienced loved
the picture back then. It made MGM's English import Greer Garson
(Mrs. Miniver) into an
Enthusiastic prep school teacher Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) has a disappointing
start and is passed over for house master, a job only given to teachers who establish a rapport
with the students. Then he takes a hiking vacation in Bavaria with co-teacher Staefel
(Paul von Henried), and on a foggy peak meets the delightful Katherine (Greer Garson). She brings
him out of his shy cocoon, and makes him feel as though life again has possibilities.
Using mostly English actors, Goodbye Mr. Chips takes a book by the author of
Lost Horizon and presents one of those multi-generational stories in the Edna Ferber mold,
like Cimarron or Show Boat. Only here the long career of a boarding-school
teacher is charted across several generations of English boys, fine lads all. This gives continuity
to Robert Donat's basically pleasant Mr. Chipping, who grows from eager novice through disappointed
failure, and finally to happy success in school life.
The film charmingly presents an England that's friends with all the world. German teacher Paul
Henreid, looking less puffy than in his later Warners' hits, is his best pal, perhaps because they're
both outsiders. Shy, unassuming Mr. Chipping is rejected and jeered by both the boys and his peers,
simply because he doesn't demand that people respect or pay attention to him.
Of course, his sweetheart Katherine 'saves' him by making him the most admired and popular teacher
in the school. The roadblock to advancement is lifted, and although he only becomes headmaster
because of a national emergency, he feels his life is a full one.
It's a sweet fantasy easy to shoot full of holes. When he corrects his unpopularity at school,
Chipping doesn't really learn to do much more than make a bad pun. Winning the students that
previously shunned him, it's all Katherine's doing.
Her beauty charms the faculty, and her cookies and other 'substitute mother' qualities win over the
boys, who suddenly behave like little gentlemen. If you don't fit in, the story
says, marry a looker with social skills. At the end of the show, Mr. Chips's own social faculties
aren't all that different, he's mainly managed to alter the way he's perceived. Maybe that's how
reality really works, and the movie's not that much of a fantasy after all.
The family continuity of students at Chips' school does the work of breaking in the new boys for him. His
reputation precedes him in a society where everyone knows their place. The son and grandson of a boy
from 1895 both look identical to the original, usually with the same personality. Oddly, Chips is
revered for comparing boys to their fathers, something that I wouldn't think would be so well received
by boys striving to be perceived as individuals. The film reinforces the English class system. When
a local boy has a fight with one of the prep students, Chips separates them fairly enough. But later
on in wartime, the local boy is proud to now be the enlisted batman (military valet, essentially)
to the gentleman officer prep school boy. We all have to know our places, you see. It's more
than a little odd that Chips remembers the kids mainly through their noble bloodlines, and everyone
teases one fat kid constantly, and the whole show still retains a basic respect for its characters.
Robert Donat was praised for his performance, helped mightily by makeup that ages him with
a believability impressive for 1939. Greer Garson is scarcely in the picture for a couple of reels,
but holds a bright center of interest. The charm of the actress is such that we're overjoyed that
this meek fellow can win such a pretty woman ... but not suspicious why such a
looker is interested in him. The other support is fine. We get to see a very early performance by
John Mills as a prep-boy turned soldier named Colley. A child actor named Terry Kilburn plays
four different Colleys as a younger boy, and is the kid with the maddeningly cheerful, kewpie-cheeked
face that says the immortal line that becomes the title (Well, Garson says it first).
Martita Hunt, John Longden and Nigel Stock are said to be buried among the large cast. Seeing the English
producer, cinematographer, along with the general look of the picture, makes me think that it was
produced in England instead of in Hollywood.
A musical remake with Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark in 1969 was a critical and boxoffice bust,
overloaded with bathos and soft focus musical montages.
Warners' DVD of Goodbye Mr. Chips is clean, intact and has a nicely buffed soundtrack.
Enormously popular, the film must have worn out its original negative and a couple of
generations of dupes a long time ago, leaving us with a printable version that's somewhat grainy and
dupey-looking around dissolves and opticals. But it's not at all distracting. The main assembly hall
scenes will remind today's audiences of the similar scenes in the Harry Potter movies.
There are no extras, but the packaging retains the original advertising art.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Goodbye, Mr. Chips rates:
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: February 8, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.