Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939). Film review of the classic melodrama starring Robert Donat

Goodbye Mr Chips 1939 mountain
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Drama

Film review by Jason Day of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) the classic Hollywood melodrama that chronicles the 60+ years career of a private school teacher in England. Starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Directed by Sam Wood.

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Synopsis

Aged and beloved headteacher Mr Chipping – aka Mr. Chips to his students – looks back on more than 60 years as a teacher at the private Brookfield School. From his early days when he struggled to get the respect of his pupils and to control a classroom, to a blissful later life romance with wife Katherine (Greer Garson) his time at Brookfield rings in and bids farewell to many changes.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

With grand and fulsome benediction, deceased movie producer supremo Irving Thalberg is thanked mightily for his part in getting this movie adaptation of James Hilton’s novel – leading members of the production team sign their names on a credits title card.

Thalberg was a workaholic and whose energies as Production Manager at MGM in the 1930’s helped propel that studio to mega-profits as the place where there were “more stars than there are in heaven”.

It also contributed to his death at the scandalously young age of 37 in 1936, but his towering reputation was such he was still being publicly commended for this creative input years after.

This film – produced in the UK by MGM’s British arm – has a tinge of cruel irony to it, toying in plain sight with notions of longevity, vigour (both physically and academically) and mans’ legacy. Leaving the recently departed Thalberg aside, it is tantalising to think what the well cast but professional neurotic Donat – who also died relatively young – made of the storyline before, during and after production.

In real-life Donat – who made only 20 films during his 26 year cinematic career – was a worrisome, fretful fella who never fulfilled his potential as a big screen sensation, despite much early promise.

Plagued by self-doubt and other insecurities, his fragile mental state impacted on his physical health. Frequent flare-ups of debilitating (and quite possibly psychomatic) asthma riddled his career and meant he either lost plum roles or had to turn down choice opportunities that could have advanced his career.

He died of a heart attack in 1958, aged only 53 and cinema was robbed of one of the most humble and endearing of stars who was always the least ‘star’ like actor going. He was the least desperate for recognition and appraisal, but who got it with such ease. Alas, he never saw it as such.

All of this makes him a perfectly unpretentious choice to play Chips. It’s no wonder he impresses at each stage of the man’s life with effortless charm and humour.

From a lonely and gauche newbie, to the established Mr. Unpopular amongst the lads, adored man after he finds true love and finally a beloved educational legend, Donat brings a tear to the eyes more than once.

The Best Actor for 1940 was expected to go to Clark Gable for his performance as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind – well, it won most of the other awards that year – but surprisingly Donat won.

Hankies at the ready people, for there are some seriously ‘blubtastic’ moments that director Wood – an established hand with such fare – wrings out the drama in the melodrama with consummate skill.

Garson, imbued with a perfumed purity, inhabits an angelic pedestal in her scenes as his wife Katherine. She is the catalyst for his emotional maturity, easing Chips away from stale curmudgeon to a man who lives for fun and frolics, hosting inimitable, laughter-filled salons at his campus digs for the boys.

She is visually styled as a breath of fresh air and talks in much the same way, in silken, whispery soundbites that hang on the air as if her existence was as light as a breeze. Given what happens to her, it’s no surprise her character is ephemerally beguiling, perpetually existing in the moment as if she was always just a memory.

Actor Terry Kilburn plays four generations of boys from the same family and a young John Mills appears as one of Chips’ grown-up charges.

Cast & credits

Director: Sam Wood.

Producer: Victor Saville.
Writers: R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, Eric Maschwitz.
Camera: Freddie Young.
Music: Richard Addinsell.
Sets: Alfred Junge.

Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Terry Kilburn, John Mills, Paul Henreid, Judith Furse, Lynn Harding, Milton Rosmer, Frederick Leister, Louise Hampton.

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