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Goodbye Mr. Chips is a 1969 remake by MGM of its smash hit from thirty years before, the film that made Greer Garson a star. Various attempts to revamp the film as a musical had been announced, naming Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison as possible stars. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs of the successful Planet of the Apes franchise finally brought the project before the cameras, casting non-singer Peter O'Toole opposite pop singer Petula Clark. The music score was written by Leslie Bricusse, the composer of Jacobs' Doctor Doolittle, one of the musical flops that dragged 20th Fox to the gates of bankruptcy.
Screenwriter Terence Rattigan's updating drops much detail from the career of school headmaster Arthur Chipping. "Chips" no longer transitions from an ineffective teacher to a revered sage, and the script makes fewer references to his classroom molding of successive generations of English upper class youth. O'Toole never takes the thoughtful, bookworm-ish Mr. Chipping in the direction of parody. He's aided in the later stages of the film by modest old age makeup.
Both versions turn on Chipping's chance meeting with the love of his life, Katherine, now re-imagined as a musical star on the London stage. Well known singing star Petula Clark ("Downtown") makes her entrance in a big production number, her voice bursting with enthusiasm. If Goodbye Mr. Chips has to be a musical, this is the way to go. 1
Chipping proves a social flop when he's introduced to Katherine at a posh restaurant, confusing her with another much older actress. But a week or so later they meet again on vacation in Pompeii, and are soon inseparable. Much to Chips' amazement, Katherine would like nothing more than to escape her glitzy lifestyle and become his wife. She accepts Chips' eccentricities at face value, without condescension.
Most of the film's songs are done as inner monologues. Petula Clark sings normally, but Peter O'Toole voices his lyrics in the half-singing, half-speaking manner that worked so well for Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Sometimes the stars lip-synch the words and sometimes their voices are heard over non-singing footage.
The visual style for these "poetic" musical numbers is borrowed from television spots of the time. Dreamy dissolves link images filmed with bright colors and gauzy diffusion. The camera "racks focus": Katherine and Chips stand next to a bright pink blur, which suddenly focuses into a giant flower while the lovers become indistinct. Cameraman Oswald Morris certainly gets the most from the technique. One particularly impressive helicopter shot holds steady on a pair of moving bicyclists, zooming back with a fluidity not found in automated CGI moves. The visuals provide the songs with a decorative, music video-like context.
Katherine "comes out of retirement" to sing with the boys at a school function, providing the movie with another "live stage" performance. But the show's best musical moment comes on Katherine's first day at school, when she joins in singing the school song. Clark's voice raises the roof, energizing the galleries of schoolboys and turning a cliché into a triumph. Although Goodbye Mr. Chips received mixed reviews, theater audiences responded to this scene with applause.
1939's Katherine exited the story early, leaving Chipping to make his way through several more decades of school life. In this updated version Katherine increases Chips' popularity as before but also intervenes when a wealthy alumnus attempts to stall her husband's career. Lord Sutterwick (George Baker, the heraldry expert in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) doesn't approve of Katherine's "scandalous" theatrical background and withholds his financial support pending Chipping's demotion. Katherine saves the day with the help of her flamboyant actress friend Ursula Mossbank (Siân Phillips, Murphy's War, I Claudius).
The film eventually works its way to the inevitable tragedy, but by then we've been thoroughly charmed by the combined chemistry of the two stars. O'Toole appears to truly worship Clark, and Clark seems tickled pink by O'Toole's cute behaviors. The aging headmaster must play out the last couple of reels alone. By no means a classic, Goodbye Mr. Chips is a satisfying sentimental romance.
Miss Clark makes a fine impression in her largest screen role, but the acting attention went to Peter O'Toole, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. Michael Redgrave carries a thankless role as a bland headmaster helping Chips surmount the disappointment of being passed over for promotion. Redgrave had already explored that issue in The Browning Version, scripted by Terence Rattigan from his own play. Michael Bryant plays Chipping's best friend, a German national summoned back to his country when war breaks out. The script doesn't resolve this subplot, which bears a strong resemblance to the between-the-wars section of Michael Powell's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. As in the 1939 original, an admiring student utters the title words to the elderly, retired Mr. Chipping.
The production relies for many of its effects on gorgeous Italian scenery. For road show engagements it was blown up to 70mm. One aerial scene over an R.A.F. aerodrome appears to be an outtake from a United Artists movie of the same year, The Battle of Britain.
Warners' DVD of the 1969 Goodbye Mr. Chips is a bright enhanced transfer that replicates the warm colors of original prints. The soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby 5.1. When the movie didn't perform in theaters, shorter cuts were screened as the studio removed musical numbers. This version is intact and includes the original Overture, Entr'acte and Exit music. The original trailers for both the 1939 and 1969 versions have been added as an extra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Goodbye Mr. Chips rates:
1. Since it also has a song entitled "London", it's easy to image a version of Sweeney Todd with Petula Clark as Mrs. Lovett. Of course, she'd make the whole play so bright and cheerful that the theaters could sell meat pies at the concession stand.
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