Tag Archives: Boarding School

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

downloadGoodbye, 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.

Mr. Chipping introduces his wife to some of the boys - all she has to do is smile and they are lost

Mr. Chipping introduces his wife to some of the boys – all she has to do is smile and they are lost

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.

chips_2207209b1Robert 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.


Posted by on December 21, 2015 in Movies


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Life With Mother Superior – Jane Trahey

Life-with-Mother-Superior-Jane-TraheyAfter seeing and falling in love with the movie The Trouble with Angels (Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills), I desperately wanted to read the book it was based on: Life With Mother Superior, by Jane Trahey. I checked at my library and they didn’t have it and then I looked it up on Amazon and found a used copy was selling for $134. So, instead I asked my library to get it through an inter-library loan (if you’ve never used this feature at your local library, this is absolutely the best way to read obscure or expensive books).

It’s a pity this book is not more easily available, because it is a hoot. I was surprised at how much dialogue, narration and events found their way into the movie. Some of the funniest lines and events of the film (like when Mother Superior says in a deadpan voice, “Where’s the fire?” after she’s locked the girls into the nun’s dormitory and they escape through the fire chute), come straight from the book.

Life with Mother Superior is an almost tongue-in-cheek remembrance of Jane Trahey’s years at St. Marks, a Catholic boarding school. She tells about the pranks she pulled, the battle of wits she engaged in with Mother Superior, her experiences there, the people she knew, her classes.

In the movie, the story follows Mary Clancy (played by Hayley Mills) and her relationship with Mother Superior and her friendship with Rachel. She is the rebellious one and the one who comes up with most of the ideas. In the book, however, Mary Clancy is Jane Trahey’s friend. Many of Mary’s traits in the movie are actually Jane Trahey’s traits, though the girls in the book are really two peas in a pod. Rachel, in the movie, is almost a new creation, though there are some aspects of the original people that find their way into her character. She is awkward at sports, like the real Mary Clancy, but neither Jane nor Mary in the book are followers like Rachel.

Many of the pranks that are pulled in the movie are exactly the same ones that Jane and Mary pulled in reality. There is the smoking, the bubble maker put into the nun’s sugar bowls, the tours of the nun’s dormitory, the skipping of swim class. They even both get expelled, though their parents somehow manage to talk them back into school. What makes it all fun, though, is how Trahey writes it.

Trahey is a very funny writer. Her accounts of sex education is hysterical (“don’t sit on a boy’s lap”), her attempts to sew panties, learning dancing from Mrs. Dowland Phipps, the Senior Prom, the senior play (where she says the wrong line at the beginning of the play, which cues the premature death of Abraham Lincoln; he gets assassinated after 23 minutes and Mother Superior has to step in to assure the parents that the play will proceed to act 2 and 3), crowning Mary in May, the band competition, and so on. I laughed my way through the book.

trouble_with_angelsInterestingly, in the movie, Mary has a character arc. She begins as a rebellious teenager and ends up appreciating the nuns and joining their order. The whole movie is a coming of age story. This is not the point of the book. In fact, I got the distinct impression that at the time of writing, Jane Trahey was quite proud of her doings. She seems to have regarded it as a training ground for a way of life, more creative and free and not dictated by her parents or teachers. There is just a touch of contempt for those rather square students who always do the right thing and make the honor roll, as if they were living a rather prudish, stuffy, suck-up-to-the-teacher, narrow kind of life.

Amidst all the humor, there are poignant moments. As in the movie, the much loved teacher of Geometry, Sister Liguori dies unexpectedly, leaving a grieving school, as well as a grieving dog who loved her. And despite Jane Trahey’s stated view that the nuns were “the enemy” (tongue-in-cheek) there are signs all over the place that the nuns are really more understanding than she admits. As in the movie, Mother Superior really does help Jane with her sewing project and at the end, when Jane is shocked at Mary’s choice to become a nun and refuses to speak to her, it is Mother Superior who comes to her to comfort her and tell her she will one day understand why Mary did what she did. There is a gradual process, throughout the book, of beginning to see nuns as people rather than just as nuns. In a way, Mary becoming a nun completes that process.

One thing that was fun was how rooted in popular culture her book was. The nuns take the girls on a field trip to the Chicago World’s Fair, before it had officially opened in 1933. She also references movie stars like Fay Wray, Jeanette MacDonald, Deanna Durbin, and Ginger Rogers. She goes to see Kitty Foyle, released in 1940, and cries her way through it. She also mentions wanting to learn the Carica, which is a dance that had a brief span of popularity owing to the first dance Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever did together in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio. She has a crush on Robert Taylor, who was the hottie of the mid 1930s. There is no trace of a depression. Her parents seem to have been fairly well off.

After reading the book, I was curious about her life and found the most information in her obiturary in the New York Times, which gives a quick overview of her life as a successful and creative business woman. She lived from 1923-2000 and was a very successful copywriter and opened her own advertising company in the 1960s. She also wrote, penning everything from books about her experiences, novels, pamphlets, slogans for products like Danskin tights and so on. Her most famous ad campaign was for Blackglama, worn by stars like Lauren Bacall, Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Streisand, and Maria Callas. Their slogan was “What Becomes a Legend Most.”

This has little do to with the book, but here is a video showing all the many stars and modals who have worn Blackgama through the years.



Posted by on March 23, 2015 in Books


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