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 instant star.
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: