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Goodbye, Mr. Chips
1969 was a bellwether year for the big budget film musical, and not in a good way. Fox, seemingly not having learned its red ink lessons from the disastrous Doctor Dolittle and Star!, had the mammoth Hello, Dolly! on tap. Paramount, seemingly not having learned that Joshua Logan hadn't directed a hit film musical since the late 1950s, had the mammoth Logan version of Paint Your Wagon playing to empty houses. Universal had what to my mind was the best of this late 60s crop of behemoths, Sweet Charity, helmed by original Broadway version director Bob Fosse and featuring some of the most exciting dance sequences ever captured on film. Somewhat lost in this shuffle of Broadway adaptations was MGM's entry into the musical minefield, a song-filled remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, remembered mostly (if at all) for its splendid lead performance by Peter O'Toole. Though the film was critically disparaged at the time, the intervening decades have been kind to this Mr. Chipping, and the film deserves a second chance at finding the audience it never quite achieved theatrically.
It's a weird sort of ignominy that two classic novels of James Hilton should first be adapted into classic films and then, decades later, as reviled musicals. The Bacharach-David Lost Horizon hasn't made it to DVD yet (though I for one would love to see it, especially if it included the "lost" footage offered on the laserdisc), and Goodbye, Mr. Chips is only now receiving a relatively decent home video release after a pan and scan videotape from decades ago. The story of shy British classics teacher Arthur Chipping (O'Toole) and his blossoming after falling in love (in this version, with an English music hall soubrette, played by Petula Clark), might seem to be an unusual choice for musicalization. And indeed composer/lyricist Leslie Bricusse and director Herbert Ross seemed to realize that from the get-go, as many of the film's musical segments are montages with the songs used as a sort of voiceover, a window into the characters' deepest thoughts and emotions. It's not always a successful approach, but it gives Chips a very distinctive flavor for a musical of this era.
Leslie Bricusse boasts an unusually resilient career in the film business, considering the megaflops with which he has been associated. Bricusse first came to international attention with his theatrical association with Anthony Newley. The team of Newley-Bricusse wrote two quite successful musicals (at least in their UK incarnations--they did OK, not great, on this side of the pond), "The Roar of the Greasepaint--The Smell of the Crowd" and "Stop The World--I Want to Get Off" (I guess the UK like em dashes in their musicals the same way we Americans like exclamation points). The team had a number of extremely successful songs to their credit, both from these shows and other collaborations, including "What Kind of Fool Am I?," "The Joker," and, as co-lyricists, the fabulous theme from Goldfinger. Bricusse then went on as a solo lyricist, providing scores of middling to excellent words for such movie themes as "You Only Live Twice" and "Two for the Road," chalking up an impressive pedigree of collaborators. In 1967, he assumed the triple threat of composer/lyricist/screenwriter for the gigantic dud Doctor Dolittle, for which he was, of course, rewarded (this is Hollywood, after all) with a Best Song Oscar for "Talk to the Animals." If Bricusse's lyrics are often pedestrian ("I smiled/he smiled/we smiled"--that's a whole lotta smilin' goin' on), he at least typically provides a colorfully melodic score that at times can be quite complex ("When I Am Older" in Chips is a fine example). Bricusse would have one more big musical up his sleeve (for which he again provided the screenplay) in Scrooge, which did nominally better than either of his previous two, despite once again featuring a lead actor (in this case, Albert Finney) who wasn't exactly known for his singing abilities. Bricusse reunited with Newley again for Willy Wonka (which brought the team back to the top of the charts with "The Candy Man"), as well as the English musical "The Good Old Bad Old Days."
Dolittle was more of a traditional musical than Chips, but its failure begs the question as to why producer Arthur P. Jacobs, who must have not been especially happy with Dolittle's lackluster box office, would then turn around and do another big musical with Bricusse starring another non-singing actor. At least this time he hired the brilliant Terence Rattigan to fashion the screenplay, and while some have argued with the Rattigan version's changes from the original, this Chips is an unusually literate reimagining of the source material. A lot of people have taken issue with the Clark character, and it's true she is certainly not the Garson character of the first film, but the two women share a joie de vivre which is in its essence the same, and that's the important part of the relationship with Chips. This Katherine was obviously custom tailored for Clark (though Clark was on record as stating she hated most of the score, with the exception of the lovely "You and I," which she recorded in a pop version in addition to her soundtrack duties). Clark is spunky and delightful throughout the film, holding her own against O'Toole, which certainly couldn't have been an easy task. Clark suffered from bad timing; with Finian's Rainbow and this film under her belt, she was the obvious heiress apparent to Julie Andrews, but there simply wasn't any product for her after Chips.
But this film is really O'Toole's, hook, line and sinker. He inhabits the bumbling, oafish Chips as fully as he ever has any role. Had John Wayne not been on his "career Oscar" juggernaut that year, I'm certain O'Toole would have won Best Actor, despite being up against other heavyweights like Dustin Hoffman for Midnight Cowboy. This Chips is alternately maddening and vulnerable, insufferable and lovable, and O'Toole brings it all to the screen with impeccable craft. Though it takes a while for the story to set up its premise, if you're not watching with a lump in your throat at least by the middle of the second act, I'd recommend checking in with a heart specialist.
(In the comedy relief department, that's O'Toole's then-wife Sian Phillips--of I, Claudius fame--stealing the show in a cameo as outre actress Ursula Mossbank in the party scene).
This was director Herbert Ross' first major directing job, though he had directed musical and dance segments previously for Funny Girl and, heaven forfend, Doctor Dolittle. Ross does some nice, if uneven, work here. The film relies a bit too often on the faddish use of zoom lenses, and some of the aerial work is a bit clumsy. But there's some really gorgeous location footage in such locales as Pompeii, and the recreation of the English boarding school environment is palpable. The "big" musical numbers are all staged brilliantly, and the more innovative, introspective voiceover material is handled well, too. The film has a typically burnished glow courtesy of master cinematographer Oswald Morris.
Special mention must be made of the outstanding contribution of John Williams, who orchestrated Bricusse's songs and provided underscore. This work of Williams is positively Elgarian in its elegance, with languid horn lines dotting the counterpoint and some really sophisticated string writing. Though for personal reasons I would have liked to have seen Cy Coleman take home the Oscar that year for his work on Sweet Charity (Hello, Dolly!, the "really big" musical that year of course won), if truth be told, it's Williams, if not Bricusse himself, who deserved the Oscar for one of the most remarkable pieces of scoring in any late 1960s feature, musical or otherwise. If you're a fan of Williams, I highly recommend you check out the film for no other reason than his contribution, and I also highly recommend the sterling 3 CD release of the film's score, as well as bounteous outtakes and unused material, from Film Score Monthly.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips said "goodbye" in its own way to the big budget musical film. Sure, there would be others to come down the pike (they're still coming, one or two every other year or so), but they ceased to be "events" like they were back then. Chips is unusual for a number of reasons--its conceit of using the songs as voiceovers, its unusually literate script by Rattigan, and mostly its disarmingly beautiful performances by Clark and especially O'Toole. I for one am glad to finally be saying "Hello, Mr. Chips" to this DVD.
The good news is we finally have Chips in its proper 2.35:1 OAR. The bad news is that the film, as so many late 60s/early 70s films were, is frequently on the soft side (aside from the ubiquitous use of soft focus on Clark). There's also substantial grain noticable throughout the film. Color is generally excellent, though you'll notice some registration issues and color "wobbles" occasionally, especially in some of the location footage. All of this said, this is easily the best Chips has looked on home video ever.
The soundtrack has been remixed to 5.1 and sounds great. Surround channels are, as usual, underutilized except for some passing effects (the most dramatic of which occurs in the denouement, for those who have seen this version), but the score is lovingly rendered and delivered with pristine reproduction. Everything from the mellow brass to tinkling glockenspiel to the school's pipe organ has sterling range and fidelity. Subtitles are available in English, French, Japanese and Thai.
Only the trailers for both the 1939 and 1969 versions are offered, which is a real shame. How hard would it have been to get O'Toole and Clark together for a commentary or at least some interviews?
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is an unusually heartfelt production that offers one of O'Toole's most nuanced performances. If Bricusse's score is sometimes lamentable, Williams' scoring prowess more than makes up for it. Herbert Ross stages things with a fair degree of fluidity and mastery, making this an enjoyable film for the whole family. Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet