Tuesday 21 July 2020

Movie Review: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

An affecting drama, Goodbye, Mr. Chips traces the multi-decade career of a beloved teacher.

It's the start of the academic year at the Brookfield all-boys public boarding school (established: 1492) in England. For the first time in 58 years, the hugely popular 83 year old Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat), fondly known as Chips, misses the opening day assembly due to a cold. In flashback, he recalls his career.

Chipping arrives at the school as the newest Master in 1870 to teach ancient languages. He finds it difficult to exert his authority and barely survives his first day. Over the years he builds a reputation as an effective teacher but also a shy and humourless loner. As Senior Master he has expectations to be promoted to House Master, but is passed over due to his lack of rapport with the boys.

Fellow teacher Max Staeffel (Paul Henreid) convinces Chips to vacation in Europe, and on a misty mountain hike in Austria he meets and falls in love with Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson). They get married and she has a huge influence on Chips, teasing out his hidden sense of humour and helping him develop genuine affection for the students. As Chips becomes a popular campus figure, tragedy, triumph and a world war await.

An adaptation of the James Hilton novella, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a bittersweet journey through a humble life. The film is a salute to teachers who leave an indelible positive mark and earn the respect of generations of students (and multiple generations from the same families). The screenplay by R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, and Eric Maschwitz elegantly frames the narrative as one long flashback, pausing at milestone moments in Chips' life and marking the passage of time with the daily roll-call of students announcing themselves with a tip of a hat.

Sam Wood directs with a firm hand and maintains focus on the central character. The film spans 58 years, and Chips is in almost every scene. In an illustration of loneliness accompanying longevity and legendary achievement, no other character overlaps with him for more than a few years. Chipping's memories are his true companions, the countless boys he helped to nurture into men creating an extended family.

The small incidents and seemingly casual decisions that profoundly shape a life is a constant theme. As an 83 year old man Chips is known to his contemporaries as a good-humoured, kind-hearted institution, happy to invite his students for conversation, tea and cake. None are aware of Staeffel's insistence that Chips join him on vacation, the chance mountaintop encounter with Katherine, her sharp perception of what lies hidden within the shy, hesitant young teacher, and her subsequent nudging of her man out of his shell, allowing him to blossom into an effective and rounded educator.

At just 34 years old, Robert Donat disappears into the makeup of Mr. Chips and delivers an unforgettable performance filled with poignant moments reflecting on a life well lived. In her big screen debut, Greer Garson makes potent use of limited screen time, instilling in Katherine a frisky determination powered by womanly subterfuge.

Ultimately Goodbye Mr. Chips highlights remarkable normalcy. Chips is everyman, evolving slowly thanks to the kind influence of others, riding out the disappointments, opportunities (not always easily welcomed) and joys of life with stamina and an even temperament. His legacy is built over time, on layers of experience, pain and delight.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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