Thursday, May 15, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Mr. Chips

Mr. Chips (Robert Donat): I thought I heard you saying it was a pity ... pity I never had any children. But you're wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them ... and all boys.

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the fifth of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
Forty–five years ago, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" was remade as a musical starring Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark. When I saw it several years later, I had no idea there had been another movie by the same name.

But there was, and it was released on this day in 1939 — and it was better. Much better. Not as good as the book that was published in 1934 but a pretty good movie even so. Fifteen years ago, the British Film Institute rated it the #72 British–made movie of all time.

The version of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" that premiered 75 years ago today was kind of like its generation's "Little Big Man." Well, a British version, I guess. It covered more than six decades of Mr. Chips' life, from his first days as a teacher to his retirement.

One of the things that made the movie (and the book upon which it was based) so good was that it was like a time capsule, telling a story of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the O'Toole remake, everything was rewritten, propelling the story well into the 20th century.

(A nice little touch early in the movie shows a couple of 19th–century teachers, presumably Mr. Chips' colleagues, curriculum specialties unknown. One, holding a book, identifies its author as H.G. Wells. His colleague replies, "He'll never come to anything. He's too fantastic.")

But the version that premiered today told the story of Mr. Chipping, a 19th–century Latin teacher at a boys boarding school. When the movie began, he was starting his career and was the target of numerous practical jokes from his students. As inexperienced teachers are prone to do under such circumstances, he became a hard–nosed disciplinarian, which earned his students' respect but not their friendship.

He was given the nickname "Chips" by Greer Garson's character, and that was adapted to "Mr. Chips" by the boys at his school.

Much of the story was told in a kind of flashback mode. Mr. Chips was retiring after a half century or so of working with young boys.

Sometimes the story was a little implausible. For example, Chips met the love of his life (played by Garson) while mountain climbing in Austria.

That part of the story would have been more believable, I suppose, if the two of them had been wearing clothes that were appropriate for scaling steep mountains.

Yet there they were on the rocky cliffs, Chips wearing a tie and a vest, Garson's character in a dress.

And then, upon their return, Chips was treated like some kind of conquering hero, saving a damsel in distress — when, in fact, Garson never appeared to be in distress at all. In fact, she admitted as much when Chips found her on a mountain peak.

"I'm sorry I wasn't in any danger," she told him. By that time, he was smitten with her — but too shy, in his British way, to say so.

The tragedy of Chips' life came some time after that — after he had married Garson's character and then she died while giving birth to their child (who also died).

Robert Donat won Best Actor. "As soon as I put the mustache on, I felt the part," he said, "even if I did look like a great airdale come out of a puddle."

The 34–year–old Donat aged 63 years during the course of the story, thanks to great makeup work — which probably would have won an Oscar if the Academy had rewarded makeup work in those days.

There weren't many Oscars that "Gone With the Wind" lost, but Best Actor was one of them. Donat beat a distinguished field — Clark Gable, James Stewart, Laurence Olivier and Mickey Rooney.

"Goodbye Mr. Chips" was nominated in seven categories and lost five to "Gone With the Wind" (the other loss was to "When Tomorrow Comes" for Best Sound).