January 31, 2017

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
Grade: 74/100

Director: Sam Wood
Stars: Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Terry Kilburn

What it's about. Set between 1870 and 1933. Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) spends most of his adult life as a Latin teacher at Brookfield, a school for boys between the ages of 13 to 18. The shy and retiring but charming Chipping arrives there as a young man, and is gradually beloved by both students and faculty as the decades pass.

While on a summer break holiday with gregarious fellow teacher Paul Henreid, Mr. Chips (as he comes to be called) encounters lovely and classy Greer Garson in the German Alps. Because it is a movie, they are soon wed, and Garson enjoys playing hostess at Brookfield for Chipping's students. Alas, she dies during childbirth, another sad predicament for Chipping, who is passed over for promotions and suffers the loss of former students dying in World War I battles.

How others will see it. 1939 is regarded by older generations of cinemaphiles as the greatest year in Hollywood history. The best-known films from that year, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, have been seen by every American of a certain age. In addition, it was the year of Stagecoach and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It comes as a surprise to many, then, that the Oscar for Best Actor for that year went to Robert Donat, instead of Clark Gable or Charles Laughton. Particularly when Donat's character seems like such a wimp in the later and less enlightened era of Donald Trump.

Donat's diffident character, and a story designed to evoke a flood of tears from the sentimental, are not for everyone. It is true that the film was well-regarded upon issue. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, though Donat was the only winner, a dark horse candidate with Gable, Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), and James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) also nominated.

Today at imdb.com, Goodbye, Mr. Chips has 8K user votes, respectable for a black and white film from nearly eight decades ago. The user rating of 7.8 is also high, but drops to 6.8 among women over 45, who presumably dislike the undersized role and ultimately tragic fate of Greer Garson.

How I felt about it. One wonders whether Donat's unlikely Best Actor Oscar was partly due to his performance in prior films, especially Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935). The gracious and statuesque presence of Greer Garson, at least during the middle of the movie, also aided his sentimental cause.

But it is Donat's performance that matters, not that of Garson or Terry Kilburn, who plays three generations of mischievous student Colley. Mr. "Chips" is devoted to the boys, and by extension, to the fictional boys preparatory Brookfield School. He wins over the students with the interest he takes in them: he knows their names and personality traits, and, eventually, their fathers and grandfathers, when they were boys themselves.

Donat also develops a kindly and wry sense of humor, which contrasts with the stern figure of Wetherby (Lyn Harding), the school's longtime principal (in American terms) when Donat begins his long stint at Brookfield in 1870. Although Donat whips an impudent young man in one scene, such discipline is otherwise alien to his character. His style influences the other teachers, who take after his engaging manner.

Good-natured kidding is his primary means of communication, and it is undoubtedly effective. It also requires both a wit and memory, which makes it a harder path to trod than merely brandishing a cane to keep the students in line.

Yes, Greer Garson is too good to be true, as is Donat's cheerful friend Paul Henreid. The boy students are too earnest too often, and their pranks are more charming than vicious. In the end, the movie presents an image of England and its traditions that is more like how we would like it to be, than how it actually is and was.

But then, cinema isn't about projecting reality, which can be dull and bleak. The movies are about entertainment, both then and now. If viewers demand something more, as they should, it might be an insight into the human condition.

Why does "Mr. Chips" believe he belongs at Brookfield, and why does his personality come to permeate that institution of learning? When tragedy strikes, should we set it aside and carry forth as before, sadder but resolute? Goodbye, Mr. Chips presents these questions, and answers them in fairly convincing fashion.