Filmsite Movie Review
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)
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Background

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is the British-made, classic, sentimental tale of much-loved English schoolteacher guiding many generations of schoolboys through almost 60 years of education at the fictitious Brookfield School, from his early career days as a young classic scholar to his slightly doddering old age.

The screenplay for director Sam Wood's melodramatic film, made at MGM's British studio, was based upon James Hilton's short novel of the same name, first published in the British Weekly and then in The Atlantic Monthly (April 1934 issue). The story was built upon Hilton's own experiences with a senior Master of Classics at a private elitist school in Cambridge. For authenticity's sake, the tearjerker picture, from MGM's British studio, was filmed at the Repton School that was founded in 1557, with actual students and faculty serving as extras in the cast.

Robert Donat won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1939 (his sole Oscar win), becoming one of the few non-Gone With the Wind victors - he defeated some of the most famous nominated performances in film history - Clark Gable's performance as Rhett Butler, James Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

Although the film was honored with seven Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture (Victor Saville, producer), Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Director, Best Screenplay (Eric Maschwitz, R. C. Sheriff, and Claudine West), Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing, Donat's Best Actor category was the only victor.

The film was remade three times: Herbert Ross' big-budget musical drama/romance Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) with Peter O'Toole as the schoolmaster in an Oscar-nominated performance (he won the Golden Globe award for Best Actor - Musical or Comedy), as a 1984 BBC-TV mini-series with Roy Marsden, and as the 2002 made-for-TV movie for Masterpiece Theatre with Martin Clunes in the title role.

The Story

At the conclusion of the opening credits, the film acknowledges: "our gratitude to the late Irving Thalberg, whose inspiration illuminates the picture of 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips'".

The film opens within the quadrangle of the revered Brookfield School, founded in 1492:

...one can almost feel the centuries...Gray old age, dreaming over a crowded past.

A train whistle blows, signaling the arrival of chattering, excited boys for the beginning of the new school term. As all the pupils, each wearing a hat, file into a building for an all-school assembly, they carry on the time-honored tradition of the British boys' school called 'call-over.' [The film ends with the same tradition.] A master stands at the doorway with a list of the names of each pupil, and the boys file past and call out their last name.

It is the late 1920s - the head of the school announces a "small disappointment" for the students:

For the first time in fifty-eight years, Mr. Chipping has been unable to attend first-day assembly. Chips - and you'll allow me to refer to him as 'Chips,' seeing that thirty-seven years ago this autumn, he gave me a thrashing for sheer-bone laziness. Well, Chips has a cold, and a cold can be quite a serious thing for a young fellow of eighty-three.

Old schoolmaster 'Chips' was ordered to stay at home by the school's doctor, "but it was quite a battle. Our old friend was finally induced to surrender, and he is now sitting under violent protest by his own fireside."

At the same moment, a doddering, tardy Mr. Charles Chipping (nicknamed "Mr. Chips") (Robert Donat), the retired master who still lives on the school grounds, ignores his doctor's orders and is glimpsed shambling along in full academic garb (with mortar board and walking stick) toward the assembly. Locked out because he is a late-comer, Mr. Chips passes the time with a young, first-time student named Dorset by speaking about the building's stone tablets that memorialize former students or "stinkers":

Mr. Chips: So, you're a stinker, eh?
Student: A stinker, sir?
Mr. Chips: A new boy. That's what we call them here. Stinkers... (he points to a tablet which reads: "Sir Francis Drake 1552")
Student: Drake! Was he here, sir?
Mr. Chips: Yes.
Student: Was he a stinker too, sir?
Mr. Chips: To be sure he was. But he grew out of it. And so will you.

He is asked about his school position by Dorset, prompting him to reflect back to his first year:

Mr. Chips: I was a master once. I've taught thousands of boys, right back to 1870. But I gave it up, gave it up fifteen years ago.
Student: I say, you must be terribly old, sir.
Mr. Chips: Well, I'm certainly no chicken, no chicken.

When he hears the singing of the school song, he mouths the words to himself: "A beautiful song." The elderly Chips is thoroughly revered by the young boys and greeted warmly at the conclusion of the assembly. He protests to the Headmaster and doctor that there was "interference" and he is really "sound as a bell." After being introduced to a new History master, a young graduate named Mr. Jackson (David Tree), Chipping remembers how it "took time - too much time" to become a beloved old schoolmaster:

Jackson: You seem to have found the secret in the end.
Chips: Hmm? What? The secret? Oh, yes, in the end. But I didn't find it myself, Mr. Jackson. It was given to me by someone else. Someone else. Mr. Jackson, when you go into class tonight to take evening school for the first time, remember you're not the first master who stood there and felt afraid.

His story at Brookfield is told through flashback memories, as he dozes as an old codger in front of a fire at Mrs. Wickett's (Louise Hampton) place just across from the school:

A long time ago, yes. A long time. Things are different now. (He hears other voices: "Chips at Brookfield. Discipline, Mr. Chipping, discipline," and the last names of boys during a typical 'call-over.')

He remembers how he arrived in 1870 at Brookfield Boys School as a shy, withdrawn 24 year-old Latin master, wearing a bowler hat. Appearing eager but uncertain as a novice on the "Brookfield special" train full of new "stinkers," he is an easy target for the boisterous pranks of rowdy, lower school boys: "I'm new too. It's not easy to begin with," he reassures another first-time student. From the very first, he expresses his resolve to be headmaster of Brookfield:

You know, it means everything to me to come to Brookfield....I'll get on, I know I will. Headmaster of Brookfield - that's something worth working for.

However, at the school "as is customary, he is taking lower-school for preparation." Some of the more experienced masters offer their warnings and advice to the newcomer: "You mustn't let them rag you. Take a quiet look around for drawing pins in your chair. Or rat traps in your desk." According to one old-timer, "the boys are a bit restless the first day. New masters are an exciting bloodsport with them."

As anticipated in the first day in the classroom, he is deliberately provoked and intimidated as a new teacher by the lower-school students. During his stiff entrance into the room, the boys tip off his hat with a wire, and humiliate the lenient novice by kicking it around on the floor and dirtying it. [One of the boys is Peter Colley (Terry Kilburn), the first in a succession of many generations of Colleys who are taught by Chips - a technique to show the passage of time and continuity between each family.] When he finally maintains a short moment of order, he instructs them: "You will employ the hour in writing an essay on the book you were given to read during the holidays. I understand this was Kingsley's Westward Ho."

In the midst of the exercise, the boys repeatedly and playfully disrupt the study session and cause a humiliating commotion - his first class becomes a complete disaster when they tackle him and disarrange his gown. The noisy chaos and bedlam brings the headmaster Dr. Wetherby (Lyn Harding) to the room. He takes control of the class and threatens to cane every one of the students the next day: "You will present yourselves at my study tomorrow afternoon in alphabetical order at intervals of three minutes, starting at three o'clock. I believe I can promise you that I have lost none of my vigor."

After prayers, the earnest Mr. Chipping is chastised and reprimanded by the head of the school for not controlling his class and exercising authority:

Our profession is not an easy one, Mr. Chipping. It calls for something more than a University degree. Our business is to mold men. It demands character and courage. Above all, it demands the ability to exercise authority. Without that, I think any young man should ask himself seriously if he has not perhaps mistaken his vocation. When a man is young, Mr. Chipping, there are many other walks of life open to him.

Reluctant to resign the teaching profession so soon, he thereafter attempts to prove himself. Grateful that he has been given a second chance, Mr. Chipping returns to the classroom with a stronger resolve to be stern and avoid further embarrassment: "They will not do it again, Mr. Bingham, I assure you," he informs another master.

As a strict disciplinarian with no regard for the school's cricket matches, he keeps his class in for an afternoon to punish them, thereby preventing one of the best athletes in the class from participating in the all-important, crucial competition: "I had entirely forgotten about the cricket match...and my attention was drawn to the fact by my class in such an insolent manner that I thought it invitable to go back on my decision." To uphold his authority, the boys slave away under his humorless tutelage the afternoon of the athletic contest - he is unyielding and one of the boys, Peter Colley, blames him for the school's loss: "We've lost the cup. It's not just us. It's the whole school. We know you don't care how the fellows feel." He apologizes for possibly losing their friendship and becoming the most unpopular teacher in the school, but it is too late:

Boys, I should like to say that my judgment in the first place was hasty and ill-advised. And no one regrets more than Dr. Wetherby that my authority had to be upheld. If I've lost your friendship, there's little left that I value.

Almost twenty years pass, illustrated in a montage of rugby and cricket matches, call-overs, school traditions, and the death of the headmaster in 1888. Leading a fairly lonely and rather dull, austere life, and soon becoming aloof, his existence at Brookfield is distant and he is only cooly respected by others. At the end of one of the school's terms, a group of faculty masters assemble, where one of them remarks about a futuristic book written by the unknown H.G. Wells: "It's his first. He'll never come to anything. He's too fantastic" - a tie-in to the next scene of Chipping's denial of a promotion.

Chipping's announced goal is to become housemaster with the retirement and departure of the present master during the following term, but he is passed over for the promotion by the headmaster because of his lack of warmth and vision. His ability as a demanding, classroom taskmaster is cited as the reason:

You are the senior master and normally the vacancy would go to you. That is why I feel that in fairness to you, I should tell you personally why the governors and I have decided to appoint Mr. Wilkinson. We felt that with your unusual gifts of getting work out of the boys that you'd rather concentrate on teaching and leave the rather tiresome job of housemaster to someone with special gifts in that direction...I doubt if Mr. Wilkinson will ever turn out as many minor Latin poets as you have.

Dismayed by the decision that deprives him of the position that he craved, Chipping returns to his dark room, looking even more withdrawn and deserted. Everyone is leaving him for the holidays. He always vacations in the same place in England, further evidence of his lack of camaraderie and alienation from others. One of his teaching associates, a German master named Max Staefel (Paul von Hernreid, later Paul Henreid), attempts to bring him out of his isolation with a suggestion to join him for a walking tour of his "old country" - through Tyrol. Chipping is astonished to be asked to "go abroad...it's quite out of the question," and he resists. But he is cajoled to accompany his fellow teacher for his first summer vacation in Europe - at over 40 years of age.


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