Lovely, gentle drama. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has re-released Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the 1939 smash hit from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that won an upset Best Actor Oscar for British star Robert Donat. Based on the runaway best-seller from James Hilton, and co-starring Greer Garson, Paul Henreid (both in their U.S. debuts), and Terry Kilburn, if "forgotten" classic Goodbye, Mr. Chips is ever mentioned today, it's usually as the answer to a Gone with the Wind or Jimmy Stewart trivia question ("What star of what movie robbed Gone with the Wind's Clark Gable / Mr. Smith Goes to Washington's James Stewart, from his pre-ordained Best Actor Oscar?"). Seen today, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a marvelously affecting piece: romanticized and sentimentalized, to be sure...and wonderfully so, with a tour de force performance by Donat that deservedly won the Oscar. No extras for what appears to be the same so-so transfer Warner Bros. used for the movie's 2004 disc release.
England, 1933. The Brookfield Grammar School, a public boarding school for boys. First Day assembly. As it's announced by the Head that for the first time in 58 years, beloved former Master Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) won't be able to attend due to a cold--a potentially dicey prospect for someone 83 years old--"Mr. Chips" himself is huffing and puffing his way toward chapel, only to find himself locked out. Afterwards, greeting the departing boys and faculty, Chips makes his way back home to his rented rooms across from the school. Drowsing by the fire, and hearing Brookfield's school song, Mr. Chips dreams about his former days as a teacher. Arriving at Brookfield in 1870, the 23-year-old novice makes a botch of his first class, letting the rambunctious, high-spirited boys humiliate and dominate him--not a good start for a teacher with ambitions to become the school's Head one day. After admonishments from his Head, Wetherby (Lyn Harding) about maintaining authority (such as caning), Chipping turns into an even further humorless disciplinarian, and regains control of his class...while losing any potential for friendship or camaraderie with the boys. 20 years of glum isolation for Chipping follows, until tradition is ignored when senior instructor Chipping is passed over for promotion as House Master. Quietly devastated, Chipping contemplates another solitary, lonely vacation when German Master Staefel (Paul Henreid) insists that Chipping go on a walking tour of Tyrol with him. Once there, Chipping finds himself fogged in on a mountain walk/climb, where, in the mists, he attempts to rescue a woman who doesn't need rescuing at all: young, gay, beautiful Katherine (Greer Garson), who is much taken with the gallant, soft-spoken, old-fashioned, middle-aged school teacher. A chance meeting in Vienna finds the two falling in love, and Chipping returns to Brookfield not as Mr. Chipping but as "Mr. Chips" (Kate's nickname for him), a changed man who, through Kate's encouragement, has unlocked the key to becoming a "success" at Brookfield. However, Fate moves in many directions over the next decades as Chips greets each new wave of boys.
Why is "sentimental" such a dirty word with so many movie critics? As a movie lover who has constantly read that crank from the likes of Kael and Crowther, to Ebert to Sarris, to today's humorless wonks...what is it about movies that express and elicit emotions of kindness and gentleness and honest sentimentality, that subsequently send them into either left-handed dismissiveness...or outright hostile attack-mode? It's almost as if they resent a movie making them feel "good" about something in life. They distrust the process...or maybe the emotion itself (Kael, the greatest, always had a bug up her ass about being "manipulated"). And yet, it seems an awful lot of movies that celebrate the very worst, the most base, in the human condition, are opportunities for these same critics to unconditionally rhapsodize (you don't get a better example of this than the majority of mainstream critical reception for this past year's abomination, Django Unchained). "Ugliness" equals "art" in their minds...and "sentiment" equals "manipulated pap."
Poppycock! Now don't get me wrong: I don't want everything to be Chips and Disney and The Sound of Music. Far from it. I need Lynch and Losey as much as Capra and Uncle Walt. There is a popular definition of "art" that states it as anything that challenges the receiver; anything that upsets and changes their established perceptions. That's a good starting point. But "art" can't also be a beautiful or sensitive or compassionate representation of something fine in man, as the concept used to be known by the Greeks? Just as someone like Hitchcock could smoothly and sinuously illustrate the secret, erotic, perverse, and violent desires of his flawed, post-modern characters, here in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, "studio directors" Sam Wood and an uncredited Sydney Franklin (along with an assist by all the hands at Metro, including Louis B. Mayer, no doubt) beautifully illustrate the tender, achingly sad emotions of lonely traditionalist Mr. Chips. How is that any less of an artistic achievement, just because its message is predicated on sentiment that pulls at your heartstrings?
Of course many critics may find Chips' highly romanticized version of Victorian public boarding school life a sticking point (no, it was decidedly not this sanitized in real life). They may also carp about the movie's lack of condemnation of England's class structure--the movie says nothing overt about it...but it doesn't exactly denounce it, either (John Mills, as grown WWI officer Peter Colley, accepts Chips' laughter over having a "townie" as his batman). If Chips were made exactly the same way today, would it then be required to address these complicated issues in some more direct manner? For most critics working now, the answer would be an unqualified, "Yes." Everything is politics and sociology and economics in today's movie reviewing (sorry..."film criticism"), and for the vast majority of these writers, the semiotics in these movies better "serve" some vague propaganda purpose of ill-defined "enlightenment" for the viewer, and in the process of this "mission" those elements had better line up along a particular party doctrine...or else that movie faces withering condemnation. Chips' simple focus on universal, context-less themes such as the passage of time, of loneliness, of the redeeming nature of love, and the sad effect of that love's loss, isn't enough for these ideological critics and writers who have been trained and encouraged to look for "negatives," first and last. I suspect that to many critics working in today's world of deep cynicism and arch, brittle, joyless irony, Goodbye, Mr. Chips' straightforward sentiment isn't viewed as just passe traditionalism, but as dangerous retrograde fantasy, worthy of either flippant scorn... or open assault.
More's the pity for them...but I still believe there are many viewers out there who feel differently, who can appreciate and welcome honest sentiment for exactly what it is, and not denigrate it pro forma. And for them, Goodbye, Mr. Chips should prove very much to their liking. Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips and this subsequent movie version would prove to be so popular that many subsequent variations of its "teacher devoting his life to his students" plot would routinely appear over the decades. So, anyone coming new to Goodbye, Mr. Chips probably won't be too terribly surprised by the now-thoroughly familiar storyline. Where Goodbye, Mr. Chips excels is in its A-list production values, its soft, misty, nostalgic tone of genteel tradition passing by, and particularly in Donat's and Garson's performances. Although Goodbye, Mr. Chips was made at Denham Studios in England (Metro taking advantage of England's tax-advantageous quota system for "British-made" productions), you'd never really know it; except for some B-unit stock shots of real-life Repton School, almost all of the movie is studio bound. Shot in that "invisible," high-gloss Metro style that was the epitome, the pinnacle of classical Hollywood moviemaking, the production design here is meticulous, while directors Wood and Franklin (I couldn't find any specific info on what, exactly, Franklin shot...but it had to be substantial, since he gets his own special title card at the movie's opening), effortlessly guide the performers through their scenes. Their camera is unobtrusively "held back" to let the actors tell the story, while efficient montage sequences of endless streams of boys "calling over," bridge the elapsed decades (the "sameness" of repeated scenes in this long movie isn't tiring at all; on the contrary, it lends a quiet weight to the movie's overall tone of the inexorable passage of time grinding against the cultural traditions of the day).
As for the leads, this was Garson's first movie for Metro after signing her contract almost two years prior, where she supposedly waited for just the right picture for her debut (or at least that's the official story...I have a hard time believing Mayer let her tell him she wasn't working for two years). From her first shot, though, you can tell she's going to be a big star, which indeed Goodbye, Mr. Chips instantly did for her: assured, laughingly confident, and sensuously beautiful, she's perfectly cast as the idealized Katherine (a suffragette in the book but here, an indeterminate English tourist). The script may give no reason at all as to why she would be attracted to Chips...but you believe it none the less, coming from lovely Garson. Donat, largely forgotten now by most moviegoers and writers, I suspect, was actually a huge Metro star from the previous year's smash success, The Citadel, so his Chips Best Actor Oscar win over equally popular Gable and Stewart wasn't that "out of the blue," as the history books would make out today. Indeed, Donat's achievement is even more remarkable when you see whom he was up against in that most fabled year of Hollywood's timeline: Gable in Gone with the Wind, Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights, and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms. Oscar, then and now, always loves make-up and accents in its rollcall of Best Actor and Actress performances, and certainly Donat's epic task of aging from 23 to 83 didn't hurt his chances at a gold statuette. If Donat never really looks 83, his performance is technically flawless, done much more so with the eyes than with wigs and fake mustaches. Alternately scared and naive, hesitant and astounded and unbelieving (when Garson makes it clear she likes him), devastated emotionally SPOILER ALERT! when she and his baby die in childbirth, and finally confident and playful and exceedingly kind in his increasing old age, Donat transcends his makeup and pulls off a rather remarkable trick: he gets us to repeatedly choke-up for a character that many of us, in real life, would politely dismiss out-of-hand (if Mr. Chips' death scene, where he weakly marvels at the thousands of "children" he's had--"all boys!"--doesn't bring a tear to your eye, you're made of stone). It's a moving, delightful performance (without which, the movie would pull apart like gossamer), and one that should be at least as well known today as the other Oscar-nominated turns it bested in 1939: Hollywood's "greatest" year.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.