Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is a classic film looking at British school system with a rose tinted glass. It might well be for the author of the book on which the film was based was a teacher himself. Mr. Chips was modeled on W.H. Balgarnie, James Hilton’s old classics master who taught for over 50 years at The Leys public school in Cambridge. James Hilton’s short novel of the same name was first published in the British Weekly and then in The Atlantic Monthly (April 1934 issue).
The plot is simple. It traces the life of a British 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.
For authenticity’s sake, this melodrama was filmed at the Repton School that was founded in 1557, with actual students and faculty serving as extras in the cast.
The film was remade three times and none of these is as unforgettable as the 1939 version. (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.)
Robert Donat rightly deserved his Oscar for Best Actor in the year of the giants: Clark Gable (Gone With the Wind), James Stewart (Mr.Smith Goes To Washington) and Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights) were other nominees for the same category.
Film In Depth
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. They file into a building for an all-school assembly, and they are about to fulfil 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.
The film opens around the late 1920s.
The story of Mr. Charles Chipping (nicknamed “Mr. Chips”) 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 their teasing.
The hold of the film on a viewer is built gradually. In the manner the awkward and cold school master copes with his fears of failure and disappointments (of being bypassed from becoming a housemaster with the retirement benefits and loss of his wife) we see the gift of love which abounds in one so noted for lack of warmth and vision. A traditional British school life of the time one might think is an all-male prerogative with studies and cricket predominating. Mr. Chips for all his disadvantages was lucky to find a progressive English suffragate in his first summer vacation while cycling through Tyrol, Europe.
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.
The grandeur of little people is not that they set the world on fire but they realize they could mold influences that came their way however small and make them go long way. In the present world the challenge of teaching as a profession is swamped under high paid jobs in the corporate world, teaching is far less considered as a welcome choice. Mr. Chips would have lived his life without fulfilling his potential had he not that vision. It was a gift passed on by his wife, Katherine Ellis, a charming, beautiful, spunky English girl from Bloomsbury (Greer Garson in her exceptional film debut.) She makes him thaw and see what a great calling he has.
Chipping: Do you suppose a person in middle age could start life over again and make a go of it?
Katherine: I’m sure of it. Quite sure. It must be tremendously interesting to be a schoolmaster.
Chipping: I thought so once.
Katherine: To watch boys grow up and help them along. To see their characters develop and what they become when they leave school and the world gets hold of them. I don’t see how you could ever get old in a world that’s always young.
Chipping: I never really thought of it that way. When you talk about it, you make it sound exciting and heroic.
Katherine: It is.
Give this core idea of a teacher who renews himself to mold so many ‘stinkers’ to take up responsible positions later in life is inspiring. One who accepts his humble position in life and keep the gift of life through the loss of his wife ( after just one year together she dies during delivery and also her infant) and loss of many other to war is touched by grandeur. Of course Robert Donat’s acting is so exceptional we are also moved to feel empathy for him as he advances well into old age.
Towards the end we see Mr.Chips ill and on his deathbed. He is in his eighties, in response to overhearing that he was a poor chap and must have had a lonely life by himself – with regrets because he never had children of his own, Mr. Chips stirs and refutes the remark:
Doctor: Poor old chap. He must have had a lonely life all by himself.
Headmaster: Not always by himself. He married, you know.
Doctor: Did he? I never knew about that.
Headmaster: She died, a long while ago.
Doctor: Pity. Pity he never had any children.
Chips: What, what was that you were saying about me?
Headmaster: Nothing at all old man. Nothing at all. We were just wondering when you were going to wake up out of that beauty sleep of yours.
Chips: I heard you. You were talking about me.
Headmaster: Nothing of consequence, old man. I give you my word.
Chips: I thought I heard you say ’twas a pity, a pity I never had children. But you’re wrong…I have…thousands of them…thousands of them…and all boys!
With his eyes closed, he smiles as the camera rises up when he passes on. He dreamily remembers many schoolboys filing past to repeat their names at call-over, while the music of the school song swells in volume in the background. The final lad, the superimposed image of the last Peter Colley, appears and speaks directly into the camera:
Goodbye, Mr. Chips…Goodbye...
The film was voted the 72nd greatest British film ever in the BFI Top 100 British films poll.
The film was shot at Winchester College and Denham Film Studios.
Directed by Sam Wood
Produced by Victor Saville
Written by R.C. Sherriff
James Hilton (novel)
Music by Richard Addinsell
Cinematography Freddie Young
Editing by Charles Frend
Distributed by MGM
Running time 114 minutes
Dead Poets Society (1989, Peter Weir)
The Browning Version (1951, Anthony Asquith)
Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995, Stephen Herek)
Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941, Tay Garnett)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
Good Morning, Miss Dove (1955, Henry Koster)
L’Ecole Buissonière (1948, Jean-Paul Le Chanois)
The Browning Version (1994, Mike Figgis, John K. Watson)
Selskaya Uchitelnitsa (1947, Mark Donskoy)
Merlusse (1935, Marcel Pagnol)
Movies with the Same Personnel
Random Harvest (1942, Mervyn LeRoy)
Forever and a Day (1943, René Clair, Edmund Goulding, Cedric Hardwicke, Victor Saville, Kent Smith, Robert Stevenson, Herbert Wilcox, Frank Lloyd)
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood)
Knight Without Armour (1937, Jacques Feyder)
The Young Mr. Pitt (1942, Carol Reed)
The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, Sam Wood)
Kitty Foyle (1940, Sam Wood)
Julia Misbehaves (1948, Jack Conway)
Other Related Movies
To Sir, With Love (1967, James Clavell)
has been remade as: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969, Herbert Ross)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips (2002, Stuart Orme)
(Ack:filmsite, allmovie, wikipedia)