Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Goodbye Mr. Chips" with Robert Donat and Greer Garson (1939)

I have to confess that this has always been one of my favorite films, mainly due to the personality of Mr. Chips. He reflects my own lack of confidence and shyness when I was younger. And, just like Mr. Chips, I required time and patience to overcome those obstacles. Even today;to some extent; I still identify with his character.

This movie; like so many others; begins at the end. It is 1937, and Mr. Chips is instructed by his physician not to attend Graduation ceremonies at Brookfield; an upper crust English boarding school; for the first time in 57 years, due to his health. Naturally he attends at the last possible moment before retiring to his cottage, where he falls asleep in front of the fire, reminiscing about his life as a teacher; and later as Headmaster of Brookfield. The rest of the movie is a flashback of his life there; from his first days as a novice teacher until his final ones as the most beloved and respected of both his students and his peers.

When “Chips”; as everyone called him; first arrives at Brookfield he is unsure of how to proceed. For a while it looks as though he has chosen the wrong profession for a shy and gentle man. His first days as a new Master are an exercise in futility. But time wills out and he slowly becomes an object of affection to his students.

When a German colleague takes him home for the holidays, Mr. Chips is transformed in many ways. He goes hiking in the mountains and gets stuck in the fog, forcing him to wait it out alone. Hearing a woman's voice calling out, he begins a perilous climb in search of the woman he assumes to be stranded. The woman turns out to be Katherine; an Englishwoman played by Greer Garson in her first screen role, for which she received an Oscar Nomination. She is the exact opposite of Chips; modern and outgoing. She even rides a bicycle! They spend the evening together on the mountain waiting for the fog to lift.

They become close quite quickly due to the anonymity provided by the fog and being so far away from the real world down below. Their affection for one another is palpable, but Chips dares not act upon his feelings, fearing rejection and humiliation. Actually, until he meets Katherine he is called by his surname of Mr. Chippings. It is actually Katherine who renames him "Chips."

When he and his German colleague Max; played by Paul Henreid; continue on their walking tour of the mountains they encounter Katherine and her lady companion once again. They become inseparable for the remainder of the trip, although Chips is still too "proper" to make his feelings known to this forward thinking woman. Indeed, it is she who engineers his asking her to dance on their last night together. And at the train station, while saying goodbye, she kisses him goodbye. To his way of thinking he is now engaged! Katherine has successfully maneuvered him into a de-facto proposal of marriage.

When Chips arrives back at Brookfield with his new bride, she quickly becomes the object of curiosity and attention at the all-male school. His students are simply shocked that he has a wife at all, while his bachelor peers are in awe at the beauty she brings to the school. They cannot understand how the shy and uncertain Chips could have managed to acquire such a lovely and beautiful woman for a wife.

His marriage marks a wonderful change in Chippings life. Katherine has the boys over for tea and becomes a part of the school. She helps Chips bring a new way of thinking and teaching to the institution. When she passes away during childbirth; on April Fool’s day; Mr. Chips is left alone once again. It is almost as if fate is mocking him. Surely he was a fool to believe that lasting happiness could be his. But the lessons he has learned from Katherine about taking chances and looking at things in a different light never leave him, and serve to endear him to both students and faculty.

When the First World War breaks out he watches as several of his students and colleagues march off to war, some never to return. When he reads out the name of Max, the German Professor; who had returned to his country at the outbreak of the war; along with the names of the English dead, the students; and the viewer; cannot escape the message.  ALL lives hold value, even the lives of "so-called" enemies like Max.

As a result of the shortage of manpower due to the war Chips is finally made Headmaster, a position he has dreamt about for the last 50 years. And when he does eventually retire; and subsequently passes away; it is with contentment. He has tasted of love and left his mark on several generations of young men, who are better off for his having taught them.

This movie is a gem. A more poignant film would be hard to come by. The book which sparked this film was written by James Hilton. Carefully directed and performed, this was a wonderful viewing experience which you will not want to end.

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