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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.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2015 in Movies

 

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Goodbye, Mr. Chips – James Hilton

2980After reading Lost Horizon, and now Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I’ve found I really like James Hilton as an author (he also wrote Random Harvest, which is next on my list). There is something gentle about his style, slightly sentimental, humorous, but also mournful. James Hilton is not nostalgic in the traditional sense of wishing blurry-eyed for the past. He has a pretty clear idea of the faults of the Victorian age – and that the age he is remembering led to WWI – so his books don’t veer off into excess nostalgia. He misses the upbringing of his youth, but partially because in comparison to the present (the 1930s, which seems to have filled him with well-rooted and ominous pessimism) the past appears remarkably optimistic and free-thinking.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips, published in 1934, is arranged as an episodic novella, with each chapter like snatches of memory, of the things that stood out most to Mr. Chipping, a school teacher at the boarding school of Brookfield where he taught for his entire life.

Mr. Chipping isn’t a particularly brilliant man and Brookfield isn’t one of the top boarding schools, but everything about the man and the school are solid, traditional, warmhearted and true. Mr. Chipping – known in fun as Mr. Chips – began teaching as a young man whose specialty is the classics. He was a bit stiff and not especially good at discipline, but he was content with his life. Then, when he thought he was long past ever falling in love, he meets a young woman, Katherine, half his age, who represents everything he was uncomfortable with. She is a modern woman, slightly socialist in her politics, rides bicycles alone and believes woman should have the vote.

But Katherine and Chips fall in love and marry and his life changes at Brookfield. She brings life and warmth into his life and he learns to relate to his students better. He doesn’t essentially change his character, but he is broadened and she helps him think outside of his usual traditional confines and it gives him courage later to make a stand when he needs to. But after only two years of extreme happiness, she dies in childbirth, leaving him devastated with grief.

But although Katherine only occupies a few chapters in the novella, her influence is far reaching. Her marriage to Chips was the defining moment in his life and he always remembers it. Later, he reflects sadly that there is no one left at Brookfield who remembers his wife. Most of the children assume he was a bachelor, though he does have one touching encounter with a young man who did remember her warmly and what an impression she made on his life. He and Chips talk about her, only for Chips to learn later that the young man dies at Passchendaele during WWI.

Greer Garson and Robert Donat in the 1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Greer Garson and Robert Donat in the 1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips

World War I is the overhanging tragedy of the entire novella. James Hilton talks in the introduction and afterward of the Readers Digest edition of Goodbye, Mr. Chips about the impact it made on him. He just missed entering the war, which ended as he was being called up from school, but the world was never the same again and all his books seem to reflect this (Lost Horizon also lies suspended between  WWI and fear of future calamity, both economic, moral and political). Chips is constantly hearing of former pupils who died at the war. He even courageously, though quietly, calls attention to the death of a former teacher at Brookfield, who died fighting for the German army.

It is also during WWI that Chips has his greatest moment. Before the war started, he retired and settled in a boarding house just across the street from the school, where he could keep a hand in, get to know the new students and generally be a benevolent presence. But after WWI begins, teachers leave to fight, students die, rations are in affect and the headmaster asks Chips if he could possibly come out of retirement to help him. Chips agrees and when the headmaster dies, Chips is made acting headmaster for the duration of war, even teaching a lesson during a Zeppelin bombing near the school. And when the war is over, he retires again, feeling that the moment for his usefulness is past.

One of the things I love about Chips – and what possibly made the book such a success, especially in America – is his attitude towards people. He humbly takes people as they are, not assuming that he is anything extraordinary, either. There is no condescension, disdain, or even much dislike of others. He seems to genuinely like people. It is endearing. So often, characters in books and movies seem to need to justify their intelligence at the expense of other characters. With Hilton, there is a remarkably understanding sense of common humanity. His characters never criticize or rag on anyone. Mr. Chipping is, above all, a kind and gentle man. One suspects it was the gentleness of his character that drew Katherine to him. He also has a sense of humor, which he especially knows how to use to make his students laugh.

The other overhanging theme of the book is Chips perfect memory of all the boys who have come through his school. He always took special care to know them by name and never forgets them. He loves to meet former students, talk over old times and find out what’s become of them. Often, he would see three generations of boys pass through his school. By the end of his life, people pity him (one person observing that it was a pity he never had any children) while he has a sense of a life well-lived. He had, he tries to say, many children.

goodbye-mr-chips-bd3e77b5-e1331500337877Hilton said that there were many teachers who inspired Mr. Chips, one of whom was his father, a fine teacher, a pacifist and a slightly unorthodox man. Brookfield was also something of a composite of many schools where he happily attended (where he says he wrote slightly revolutionary poetry without the slightest flap from anyone – he found the past almost more freethinking than the present – the 1930s).

Chips philosophy can be illustrated in an exchange with a young boy named Waveney, in the short story “Young Waveney,” where he gets in trouble for trying to buck the in-class system of a disliked teacher. Chips advice to him is as follows (in his later years, Chips halts and clears his throat a lot).

“But it’s a system, sir.”

“Systems, my boy, are hard things to fight. I warn you of that…but there’s one thing, Waveney…”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be – be kind, my boy.”

“Kind, sir?”

“Yes – umph – even when you’re fighting systems. Because there are – umph – human beings – behind those systems…”

Then Chips asks him what he’s going to be when he grows up and offers this observation.

“You’re going to be either – umph – a great man or – umph – a confounded nuisance…Or – umph – both…as so many of ’em are…Remember that.”

1969 musical of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Peter O'Toole

1969 musical of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, starring Peter O’Toole

I also found this observation interesting, presented by Hilton in the afterwards of my copy of the book.

On Sundays we attended Chapel and heard sermons that preached brotherly love and forgiveness of our enemies. On Mondays we watched cadets on the football field bayoneting sacks with special aim for vital parts of the human body. I wondered endlessly whether Sunday’s or Monday’s behavior were the more hypocritical. I have changed my attitude since. That Brookfield declined to rationalize warfare into its code of ethics while at the same time sending its sons to fight and die seems to me now to have been pardonably illogical and creditably inconsistent. I can see that countries where high ideals are preached but not practiced are at least better off than countries in which low ideals are both preached and practiced.

He was, presumably, referring to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Hilton was not an idealist; he sounds more disillusioned, as if he can see life too clearly to have much faith in systems or ideologies or even the future improvement of society. His characters simply do the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in, upheld by a sense of old fashioned duty.

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2015 in Books

 

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Lost Horizon – James Hilton

71lMxC8oPCLThe primary emotion I got from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon was weariness and longing, a longing for rest from a seething, changing, chaotic world. The novel was written in 1933 – certainly a year portending massive upheaval and violence – and was a success, especially in America.

The book is framed as a book within a book. Two former schoolfellows meet while traveling in Asia and one of them tells the other of a curious story he heard from a man named Hugh Conway, who they both knew at school and greatly admired. But Hugh Conway never lived up to the expectations many people had of him while he was at school. He was brilliant and a natural leader, but after WWI he was not the same man and settled into a career as a British civil servant in Asia.

During the revolution in China, he is charged with getting people out of Baskul, but on the last plane out there are only four people on it: Conway, a young British civil servant named Mallinson, a missionary, Miss Brinklow, and an American financier named Barnard. The plane is supposed to take them to Peshawar, but is instead hijacked and crashes in the Tibetan mountains. They are met by a man named Chang, who takes them to Shangri-la, a lamasery overlooking a village that is nestled between mountain peaks and is protected from the elements. It is so far out of the way that it almost never receives visitors.

The book is constructed somewhat like a mystery. Who are these people who live in the lamasery? Did they deliberately bring that plane to Tibet? Are they trying to keep them in Shangri-la? What is the purpose of Shangri-la? Will they stay or try to escape? But it is a mild mystery, very relaxing to contemplate. When Hugh Conway describes the affect Shangri-la has on him as “its atmosphere soothed while it’s mystery stimulated,” he could have been describing the book. There’s something about the atmosphere of the book that has a similar affect. There is mystery to interest, but it does not barrel the reader along at a breathless pace. It is a restful book to read.

Mallinson is crazy to get away. He has a fiance and family in London and a life he wants to return to. But to his consternation, the rest of the group is not quite so eager to leave. Miss Brinklow is content to continue her work as a missionary in Shangri-la and begins learning Tibetan. Barnard is on the run from the police and has been chased all over the world for financial malfeasance (he lost a packet of money during the economic crash) and finds himself unexpectedly at peace in Shangri-la, where there is truly no stress or worry or distractions. And Hugh Conway especially finds himself content, philosophically content as well

Frank Capra's 1937 adaptation of Lost Horizon

Frank Capra’s 1937 adaptation of Lost Horizon

Shangri-la does not espouse a particular religion. It’s a blend of Christianity and Buddhism, with an Aristotelian outlook of moderation in all things. The primary goal of Shangri-la is, as the high lama tells Conway, to be a haven for that time when civilization destroys itself. They hope that Shangri-la will still exist, having preserved art, books and culture, and will be able to help the world rebuild. Conway is keenly interested, intelligent, and deeply sympathetic and the high lama begins to hope that Conway will take his place as high lama when he is dead.

But Lost Horizon is not a detailed suggestion for what a utopia should or would look like. It’s more like an imagination of what kind of an environment would produce rest from the world. What is the antithesis of noise and destruction? Conway thinks a lot about the dissolution of the world. “It fitted Baskul and Delhi and London, war-making and empire-building, consulates and trade concessions and dinner parties at Government Houses; there was a reek of dissolution over all that recollected world.”

The high lama tells Conway that “he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…” Conway talks about having spent all his passion a long time ago, during WWI, and now there’s nothing left in him. He longs for the quiet, dispassionate philosophical and aesthetic life that Shangri-la offers. It’s the opposite of a passionate engagement with life and is an embrace of the mind. “His liking for Chinese art was an affair of the mind; in a world of increasing noise and hugeness, he turned in private to gentle, precise, and miniature things.”

Conway reflects a profound and premature weariness that is common in the generation that saw WWI. Mallinson, on the other hand, did not experience WWI and is bursting with life and energy. He sees the other side of Shangri-la that Conway does not. He sees it as a prison (and it’s true – people are not allowed to leave). And Conway is sympathetic to Mallinson and feels fond of him, because he sees himself in Mallinson before WWI.

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in The Lost Horizon

Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt in Lost Horizon

Another interesting thing about Shangri-la is that it seems to be specifically for people who are world-weary. There are several lamas there – like Conway – who were busy and active while young and enjoy settling down as they age (you age very slowly in Shangri-la). But for people who do not get a chance to enjoy their youth, it drives them wild. Mallinson is like that, and also a Chinese woman named Lo-Tsen who lives at Shangri-la. She looks 17, but Chang tells Conway that she is really almost a hundred. She was found near Shangri-la when she was 17. She is lovely and the lamas find her an aesthetic presence who thy love to contemplate and listen to while she plays the harpsichord. Even Conway falls in love with her, though in a more aesthetic way. But she loves Mallinson, and not aesthetically.

Spoilers! Ultimately, Conway makes the sacrifice and agrees to help Mallinson and Lo-Tsen escape. It is his world-weary way of acknowledging that Mallinson should have the right to live his life. The irony is that it doesn’t seem to work – the man Conway later tells the story to does not know what happened to Mallinson – and Mallinson and Lo-Tsen appear to have died. And in a further irony, if Conway had managed to save Mallinson, it would have only been so Mallinson could have fought in another war, WWII, and perhaps have ended up like Conway. 1933 was a rotten year and Lost Horizon taps into that weariness from the past and fear of the future. What Lost Horizon really reminded me of is when I have a bad dream and wonder to myself if there is someplace I can go to wait out the bad dream until I wake up. That is what the book Shangri-la is like, a place to wait out a bad dream.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2015 in Books

 

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