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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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Anna and the King of Siam (1946) – Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison

220px-Anna_and_the_king_of_siam75I love The King and I. The music, the songs, the chemistry between Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, Oscar Hammerstein’s positive and uplifting view of humanity that is present in all his musicals. It is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best musicals. However, after watching the 1946 Anna and the King of Siam – with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison and directed by John Cromwell – I do have to admit that in comparison, The King and I is not an especially nuanced story.

Anna and the King of Siam is far richer, covering a greater period of time and with more characters given more depth and motivation, though the story is the same and there are actually a lot of scenes and dialogue that were later used in the musical. Fortunately, I only occasionally expected someone to break into song (Irene Dunne could have done it, too). Truly, the movie stands on its own and is especially well-made.

The movie begins, as in The King and I, with Anna Leonowns (Irene Dunne) arriving in Bangkok with her son, Louis (Richard Lyon), to teach the king of Siam’s children and some of his wives. Many of the events follow just as in the later film, too. They are met by the prime minister, called the Kralahome (Lee J. Cobb), Anna rather unceremoniously meets the king (Rex Harrison) and impresses him with her boldness and intelligence, and then she meets the children. There is the same story regarding her desire for a house rather than to live in the palace (specifically in the harem – Anna feels rather bad about bringing her son into a harem). The same clash of wills, the give-and take, the learning of respect and appreciation for each other. The same friendship between her and Lady Thiang (Gale Sondergaard), the king’s first wife and mother of the oldest prince, Chulalongkorn (Mickey Roth). The same incidents regarding the king’s desire to demonstrate to Britain that Siam is not a barbaric country and the same friendship between Anna and the King. One difference is that in the 1946 movie, there is less unspoken romantic tension. It is mostly a friendship, though a very warm one, which consists primarily in discussion.

annaandthekingofsiam

Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison

Rex Harrison’s king of Siam is more of a philosopher. He was evidently persuaded years before by the Kralahome to give up being a monk and be king. He can be almost childlike in his curiosity and desire to do the right thing, but he is insatiably inquiring and always reading. There is actually a very touching friendship between him and the Kralahome (who has a very one-dimensional role in the King and I), who feels responsible for having put him in the difficult and dangerous position of being king. The king is trying to make Siam more Western in the face of growing European influence in Asia, and reveal a crueler side that very nearly drives Anna away for good.

Anna is also far more nuanced. She doesn’t just go charging in with her determined, no-nonsense British satisfaction that she is always right (as Anna does a little bit in The King and I). Anna is often right, but she also makes a number of misjudgments and has several cultural misunderstandings. There is a culture clash when she first arrives and she does not initially understand the king and the difficult position he is in as king. After an argument with him over her house, she is determined to leave and it is the Kralahome who asks her to stay and tries to get her to see things in a different light. Later, she gets so caught up in the king that she does not see that Prince Chulalongkorn is longing for more of her attention and teaching.

I really enjoyed the character of the Kralahome in this film, too. He and Anna interact almost as much as she does with the king and he acts as a kind of go-between for Anna and the king. Intelligent, dignified, diplomatic, he also has a good sense of humor. Gale Sondergaard won an Oscar for her performance as Lady Thiang, the first wife of the king who loves her husband but knows that she no longer has either his love or his ear. Instead, she must now look out for her son, crown prince Chulalongkorn. Linda Darnell is billed third, but she has a fairly small role as Lady Tuptim, who was a gift to the king and is also his current favorite, until she realizes that the king now listens to Anna rather than to her, and runs away to the man she loves.

king-of-siam-annaApart from the relationship between Anna and the king, there are two other significant themes in the film. One is the theme of home. When she arrives in Siam, Anna wants a house. When she is considering leaving, the Kralahome suggests that since she has no home or family in England, she should consider making Siam her home, her place to put down roots. Siam becomes not just a place where she works, but the place where she forms her relationships and ties.

The second theme is that of the crown prince, who represents the next generation. It takes a while for Anna to see clearly how much the prince wishes to learn; it takes an explanation from Lady Thiang, who cannot give her son what he needs and it is really only after Anna loses her own son that she sees that the prince has been lost in the shuffle of the palace, which revolves around the king.

Not especially historically accurate, the film is nevertheless excellent. I like Irene Dunne in pretty much everything she does. She could do comedy, drama and musicals, anything. Rex Harrison, Lee J. Cobb, Gale Sondergaard are also excellent. I found it a very touching film and especially enjoyed the relationships between the characters. It doesn’t have the joyous music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but what it does have it does just as well, and I think is a better story. Though I must warn potential viewers that the film conforms to contemporary practices of the time by casting all white actors to play the Siamese characters. The actors do, however, endeavor to give their characters dignity and make them more than just caricatures.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2015 in Drama, Historical Drama

 

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