Friday, November 15, 2013

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

Director: Sam Wood


Growing up many individuals have had that one teacher that was beloved and served for many, many years at their school. He or she was silly, but wise, good natured, but stern, and an overall treasure to the school’s community. It is this type of person that is the focus of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a British produced film by MGM. Spanning a near lifetime of the main character, this picture tells a gripping sentimental story of how one man lived so much in his humble life as a simple teacher.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a romantic drama of a school teacher’s life, spanning several decades from the day he first starts teaching to the day he passes way, including the tale of how he met and lost the love of his life while molding the minds of generations of school boys. Encompassing a period of 63 years Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat), better known as “Chips,” begins as an eager yet green teacher setting out on his first day at the illustrious Brookfield School for Boys, a boarding school as old as the days when Columbus discovered America.

We watch as time passes, happily meeting his wife Kathy (Greer Garson) while on holiday in the Austria. She helps open up the personality of Chips, making him more warm and welcoming to his students with his hospitable personality. Tragedy would strike too soon for him as Kathy dies while in childbirth, losing the child as well in the process. Broken Chips continues to be the welcoming man she aided him to be. He rises to become head master of school during the years of the Great War, sadly hearing of boys he once taught be named as soldiers killed in the line of battle, but he remains a strong and uplifting figure for the school into retirement. His lasting impact is manifest with remembering multiple generations of boys that had come and gone, remarking in his final moments that he was not sad that he never had children, because he did, “thousands of them,” all of them boys.

The tale is touching. The acting is tremendous. The picture is one of the stories that shares a person’s lifetime in the span of the feature and touches those with a sentimental heart. Goodbye, Mr. Chips encompasses the gambit of moments in a person’s life from the eager, yet nervous first day of work, to discovering love, the heartbreak of heart-rending loss, life’s joys and disappointments, leading to the ultimate satisfaction of a life well lived as we look back on the collective whole. This is a common structure for any film sharing the lifetime of a character, but what makes this picture so very enjoyable is its main character and actor.

Robert Donat plays the title role of Mr. “Chips” from the youthful 20 year old newcomer to the weather old man that could remind you of a wonderful, old grandfather. British actor Donat would most likely be known for his work in the Hitchcock feature The 39 Steps, a suspense film, but here he outdoes his previous resume with role that defined his career. At times it is difficult to believe that it is Donat under the convincing make-up which produces familiar wrinkles to an age weather face. His body language changes as Chips gets older through the picture. His most stirring moments are during the loss of his loving wife and attempting to go on with his day’s lessons, and the simple moments near the end of the picture as he sits back remembering all of the good that has happened in his life days before he passes away. He makes Mr. Chips a treasure of a man, in turn making it a treasure of the picture.

Donat’s performance would stand out so much that he would walk out of the Academy Award that year with the title of Best Actor. The performance would best the likes of Clark Gable in his most popular role in Gone with the Wind, as well as Jimmy Stewart iconic role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Laurence Olivier’s breakthrough role in Wuthering Heights, and the year’s top grossing star Mickey Rooney. Donat’s performance stood above so many great stars in their finest roles manifesting just how much Donat’s effect was on acting that year.

Humbly directing this masterpiece of a picture is Sam Wood. Better known for his work in comedies including many Marx Brothers films, Wood is able to direct a bit of humor in this feature which deals with more drama. His lighthearted touch brings humanity to the world of a stiff British boarding school for boys. His skill would continue to work more into the realm of sentimentality as he garnered his first nomination for best director with his work here in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

This MGM picture was shot and produced from their offshoot British studios, utilizing a cast and studio overseas from their wonderland Hollywood lot. New to the American screen was Greer Garson, a find of MGM head Louis B. Mayer two years prior, but making her first appearance here in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. This stage actress, like many aspects of the picture, gained enough attention to receive a nomination for best actress. Her warm hearted Kathy was important to forming the character that Mr. Chips would become, even coining the nickname of Chips in the first place. It would be a fine springboard for Garson to begin her movie career.

A minor, but important actor to the production would be child actor Terry Kilburn who plays four generations of boys of the Colley family. His character signified just how much a lasting impact Chips has on his students as he is able to remember many of his pupils’ fathers or even grandfathers with the younger boys later in the film. Kilburn’s childish doe eyes and slight layer of baby fat allowed him to be the wide-eye, fresh faced boy so likable in the picture, as he was in 1938’s A Christmas Carol where he played Tiny Tim. Kilburn’s continual reintroduction to Chips as every generation of Colley is at first a bit off-putting, but then slightly amusing. Overall his role is tiny, but it gets the point across that Chips has been around a long time and is sentimental to the past pupils

In such a magnificent year in film Goodbye, Mr. Chips was one of the highest praised pictures of the year, even gaining seven nominations at the Academy Awards, including best picture, but coming away with only one award, for Robert Donat. The feature remains one of the highest praised pictures to ever come out of the UK, even finding itself named to the British Film Institute’s Top 100 British films at 72nd in 1999.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips leaves a lasting impact on the film world further with a remake in 1969 as a musical starring Peter O’Toole, it too highly praised and remembered. This original film is very touching and rooted at the heart of sentimentality within people’s lives, allowing the feature to remain a good film for years to come.

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