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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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Reserve vs. Shyness in Jane Austen

JaneAustenCassandraWatercolourIn the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy proposes and is rejected (in the rain – my theory is that in this movie Elizabeth Bennett rejects him because he is so ungentlemanly as to propose instead of doing something constructive like getting the lady an umbrella or a carriage or even offering his coat), and among other things Elizabeth mentions his interference in the romance between Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett as a reason for not liking him. She then proceeds to explain why Jane did not appear to Mr. Darcy to be in love with Mr. Bingley: “That’s because she’s shy…my sister hardly shows her true feelings to me.”

Shy? Around Elizabeth? Does she mean that her own sister Jane is shy around her? That would be awkward since the two sisters share a bed in this movie.

Perhaps I’m being a little ticky-tack here in my objections, but what Elizabeth really means here, I assume, is that Jane is reserved. The difference being whether one is silent because one is uncomfortable and afraid or because one is generally disinclined to speak of one’s feelings and deep thoughts.

The two words can often be confused. I had the meaning of both conflated in my mind, but Jane Austen actually possess great clarity on this point in all her books, especially in Persuasion, where she draws a distinction between the two. A shy person might be perfectly open and flamboyant around those they know, though completely quiet in company. It is only the reserved who do not often share their feelings, even with those they know and love.

In Persuasion, Anne Elliott is attempting to draw out Captain Benwick, partially as a kindness for a man who is suffering from the loss of his fiancé and partially so that she does not have to speak to her own ex-fiancé, Captain Wentworth:

He [Captain Benwick] was shy, and disposed to abstraction; but the engaging mildness of her countenance, and gentleness of her manners, soon had their effect…For though shy, he did not seem reserved; it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints.

Pers-brock-13Anne Elliott later thinks Mr. Elliott, her cousin, is reserved. “Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others.” and later she observes that “he is not a man, I think, to be known intimately soon.”

Jane Austen often seems to use reserve in regard to people who hold something back; they are reserved because they must be or else their secret will be out. This is true with Mr. Elliott, but also true for Jane Fairfax in Emma. Emma frequently complains about Jane Fairfax’s reserve and uses it as an excuse for her own dislike of her. It seems that Jane was always a trifle reserved, as a natural part of her temperment, but when she returns during the time of the book she is more reserved than ever and even Mr. Knightly notes it. “She is reserved; more reserved, I think, that she used to be.

Jane Fairfax is, of course, hiding the fact of her engagement with Frank Churchill and it has made her more guarded than she was before. It is only when the secret is out that she is able to speak openly with Emma.

Reserve, however, does not have to be the result of having a secret. Many people are naturally reserved. This simply means, like Jane Bennett, that they are undemonstrative, even-tempered and less likely to share or discuss their intimate feelings. I think it could be argued that Jane Bennett, in the book, is reserved and it definitely could be argued that she is reserved in the 2005 movie. In fact, in the book, Elizabeth and Charlotte discuss how calm Jane appears, even though she’s in love and Charlotte is concerned that her calmness will not be sufficient encouragement for Mr. Bingley.

Fanny Price, on the other hand, in Mansfield Park, is timid and shy. She rarely has the courage to speak exactly what she thinks. It’s not because she wishes to hold something of herself back, but because she has been taught that she must hold herself back as a person of less importance. It makes her artificially reserved, and partially because she is hiding the fact that she loves Edmund Bertram from him and everyone else. I always felt great sympathy and understanding for Fanny. She is often considered one of Austen’s most mousy heroines, but I always had a strong feeling of protectiveness for her. I think it’s because I can see myself in her, the shyness and timidity, the tendency to make everything seem a bigger deal that it actually is and inclination towards reading and reverie.

Emma_CE_Brock_1909_Vol_I_chapter_IMy sister and I, when we go out, are both quiet. However, the cause is different. She is reserved; I am shy. Shyness has to do with fear or discomfort. It’s like stage-fright and like stage-fright for certain people, it never quite goes away. It’s something you manage. I quite simply blank out around people I don’t know or am not comfortable with and the moment I get into a group larger than three or four, I clam up. My sister, on the other hand, is just not going to express her feelings in certain contexts. There is absolutely no fear involved at all.

Reserved people, I might add, are absolutely the best listeners in the world. Reserve is also not synonymous with rudeness or an inability to interact socially. They might not expose their heart, but they can interact. It is the shy people who have more trouble with interaction.

My theory is that a reserved person feels that excessive sharing of emotions and thoughts is like exposing themselves in public. They are really and truly content to listen and hear. A shy person might like to participate, but doesn’t know how and can feel more awkward in their silence than a reserved person. However, if, like Anne Elliott, someone takes a little time to break through that shyness, shyness can be dispelled, in regards to that particular person, anyway. A reserved person, however, you have to catch in the act of sharing. It will come in a little confidence here, or a statement there. If you ask them a point blank question, they might not tell you; it has to come naturally in conversation.

I always defend shyness and reserve. I know such tendencies must often be overcome or overruled, but when extreme extroversion and frankness is often celebrated – even when frankness is supposedly being censured, it’s still half admired – and I read things about how not to be shy, as if there were something wrong with me, I can get a little defensive. After all, shyness and reserve can have its benefits – such people can be observant, tranquil, more likely to be comfortable with their own company, good listeners. And it’s hard for me to imagine myself not shy or even a little bit reserved. If I were the life of the party, I wouldn’t be me.

Shy and reserved people of the world, unite! Except we wouldn’t have much to say to each other once united…but that’s okay.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Literary Thoughts

 

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