Goodbye, Mr. Chips isn’t precisely a Christmas film, but since I read and reviewed the book recently and since it does feature a Christmas scene and the entire film glows with warmth and kindness, it seems appropriate to review it during the holidays.
James Hilton’s novella Goodbye, Mr. Chips really made an impression on me with its intermix of sentiment, chivalry, tragedy and ordinariness. It’s a touching story and I had read that the film was equally touching. And accounting for the usual differences between the printed word and visual cinema, I was impressed at how close the movie was to the novella, not so much in events, but in tone.
Robert Donat plays Mr. Chipping from the time when he first comes to Brookfield Public School as a young man in 1870 to when he dies in 1933, having given his whole life to Brookfield, lived through every war from the Boer War to WWI and seen three monarchs, from Queen Victoria to King Edward VII to King George V. But in the midst of it all, Brookfield remains essentially the same. The boy’s clothes change, the topic of conversation changes, but the boys retain their essential character. Child actor Terry Kilburn even plays four generations of Colleys, who all attend Brookfield and interact with Chipping in some way or other (one of the Colley boys grows up to be played by John Mills).
Blink and you’ll actually miss Donat playing his own age. For most of the film he’s in make-up and makes a very creditable middle-aged and elderly man. When he first comes to Brookfield, he is full of ambition and trepidation, but he’s not comfortable interacting with the boys, or really anyone. He’s shy and becomes established in his character as a bit of a dry stick in the mud.
But after being passed over as head of one of the boy’s dormitories, he is resigned to his fate as a partial outsider who doesn’t quite belong. His friend and fellow teacher, Max Staeffel (Paul Henreid) coaxes him into taking a walking tour of Europe. Completely unexpectedly, he meets and falls in love with Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson), a young woman on a biking holiday with her friend. He is captivated and she charmed by his innate chivalry and kindness….and a lurking sense of humor that he doesn’t often show.
Greer Garson absolutely sparkles in her American screen debut, which comes in the middle of the film and doesn’t last long, but she still makes a big impression. No wonder it launched her as a star. Her warmth, her energy; she is the perfect actress to play the woman who changes Chipping’s life by drawing him out and helping him to show the man he really is inside.
Most movies are not particularly good at portraying shy people sympathetically, but Goodbye, Mr. Chips is somewhat unique in putting a shy man at the center of the story. Mr. Chipping is shy, not reserved, and Katherine sees that. She makes a comment to her friend that she always felt sorry for shy people, because they must be lonely. Shy people often start with the assumption that people don’t really want to talk to them or are not interested in them, and it can cause them to feel isolated as a result. But Katherine changes everything by loving him, Mr. Chipping, as he is. By learning that he can be loved, he learns he can give it to other people, though without changing his fundamental nature. But it all happens because Katherine takes the time to see the real man beneath the surface and to bring it out.
One of my favorite scenes is when Chipping brings his wife to Brookfield to meet his fellow teachers. When they hear he is married, they assume she must be a sad sack of a woman and are completely bowled over when Chipping enters with Greer Garson. All she has to do is smile and they are falling all over themselves to be solicitous. Chipping’s shy pride in her and her own pride in him and his profession makes the scene entirely adorable and sweet and one can’t help but smile along.
Robert Donat beat out Clarke Gable for the Oscar for Best Actor, and now that I can finally make a comparison I can see why he won. Donat exhibits the full range of emotions, from love to loss, to understanding, sorrow, sympathy, humor, embarrassment, shyness. He is never anything less than compelling and he really brings out the internal goodness of the man, whilst not stinting on his eccentricities, but not making him a caricature, either.
The movie is definitely more nostalgic than the novella, which is more strongly colored by the events of WWI. But coming out as it did in 1939, when another war was looming, the film focuses more on looking back on another age, before WWI, a more humane and gentle age, before it was shattered by gas warfare and the machines of war. Mr. Chipping represents that age and although he sees a lot of tragedy, he also lives a full life, living his principles, not spectacularly, but in small things, giving his entire life for others simply by living.