Thursday, August 21, 2008

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

I love movies about great teachers. It's my weakness--Dead Poet's Society, The Emperor's Club--give me a movie about inspiring educators and I'm sure to love it. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is in a bit of a class by itself, however. It has been remade several times, but the original, starring Robert Donat as Charles Chipping, remains a masterpiece. The film garnered Donat an Oscar for best actor, and was nominated in pretty much every other category, including Best Picture (it lost to Gone with the Wind--and faced tough competition from the likes of the Wizard of Oz). Robert Donat's portrayal of "Mr. Chips" progression from a shy, young teacher to a school institution is masterful and remains a standout performance.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is based on James Hilton's 1934 novel of the same name and tells the story of Charles Chipping, a Latin teacher at Brookfield, a prestigious boarding school. The story opens in 1870 with Chipping's arrival at Brookfield, just as the Franco-Prussian War was breaking out. Chipping is painfully shy and lacks confidence in his teaching abilities. His reticence makes him a target for the boys' rambunctious ways, nearly costing him his job. Determined to be successful at Brookfield, he transforms himself into a strict disciplinarian, earning the boys' respect at the cost of his popularity.

After losing an important promotion as the result of his unpopularity, Chipping goes on vacation in Europe, where he encounters his future wife Katherine while lost on a mountaintop. They marry, and through their relationship Chipping (she gives him his nickname)begins to soften. Sadly, tragedy strikes the couple very early in their marriage, but Katherine has helped Chips to see his relationship with the boys in a different light. He becomes very popular with the students and having Sunday afternoon tea with Chips becomes a beloved tradition.

One of the most pronounced themes in the film is the importance of continuing education in the midst of war. This is hardly surprising, given that Britain was deeply embroiled in World War II at the time of the film's release. After the outbreak of World War I, Mr. Chips is actually coaxed out of retirement at 65 to serve as headmaster (the position he was overlooked for years earlier). He does an excellent job boosting the student's morale in the midst of crisis. There is also a clear nostalgia for the Victorian era, and for the past in general (after all, Chips teaches a dead language!). This is also demonstrated by Chips' reluctance to adopt the "modern" Latin pronunciation (which nearly gets him forced into retirement!). There's a great scene where Chips tries to explain to the headmaster how much more glorious the old pronunciation of Caesar's words: "veni, vidi, vici" sounds compared to the new version (sounds like "weenie, weedy, wiki"). Although I was taught modern pronunciation, I must say I'm in agreement with Chips. There are, of course, aspects of the story that seem rather dated, such as the scene when Mr. Chips takes his cane to a rebellious youth. But I don't see this as a problem because the story is a historical piece and should be seen as such.

Sentimentalist that I am, I never fail to burst into uncontrollable tears at the film's close, when the dying Mr. Chips overhears his friends discussing what a shame it is that Chips never had any children of his own. He responds: "I thought you said it was a pity... pity I never had children. But you're wrong, I have. Thousands of them ... thousands of them ... and all boys." The story is a classic, and I particularly enjoy the way the film follows the protagonist through his entire life, and showing the audience the disappointments, tragedies and triumphs that make up Chips' life. It's also a movie that I appreciate more each time I see it. I remember that in high school, while I appreciated Mr. Chips, I preferred the flashier, more overtly sentimental Dead Poet's Society. I suppose my perspective has changed over time, because these days I'm attracted more to the subtleties of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Do any of you have other favourite movies about education you'd like to share? I always love hearing about new ones!

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willow said...

I absolutely love vintage films. And Greer Garson is fabulous! I can't believe I've never seen this. I'm adding it to my Netflix queue and making sure I have a box of tissues handy. Nice review, Margaret!

Love Maggie Smith in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie".

Margaret said...

I'd almost forgotten about "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"--a fabulous film, and the performance of a lifetime by Maggie Smith.

A Cuban In London said...

'Bad Eucation' by Pedro Almodovar comes to mind. I, too, love 'Dead Poet's Society'.

Good post.

Greetings from London.

Amanda said...

Oh! My favorite that I'd watch with my mom and sister is "To Sir, With Love". That movie never fails to choke me up. Good post!

M.Kate said...

Hello Margaret, what an interesting post..I am quite like you..the sentimental and crying part..and at times, I had to hide away as I didnt want the kids to laugh at me. Happy weekend :D

Melanie said...

Hi Margaret, I do like this film. I saw it again a few months ago on TV. There were still some teachers like him -very old school- when I was at school. They were the ones who got respect and results from the class as they could also get over their love of their subject. To this day I adore mind puzzles which I was introduced to by the now Rev. Moody. The good teachers are the ones you remember as I think they can help shape your life.

"To Serve Them All My Days" is another tear jerker and beautifully told.

Thorsprincess said...

Oh, it is wonderful to live long enough for your children to share your passions! I loved this film so much for many years, and was so glad when I could buy it on a VHS tape to share it with my daughters, only to realize they were a bit bored (politely, of course) and preferred the more volatile Dead Poet's Society. Well, we watched all those wonderful films together and enjoyed debating and discussing their merits. But, oh what joy to learn that you now appreciate my beloved Mr. Chips! Thank you for the wonderful review and tribute.