Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)


  • directed by Sam Wood
  • starring Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Paul Henreid
  • A former teacher and headmaster of a boarding school recalls his career and personal life over the decades.

“You cannot judge the importance of things by the noise they make.”

I was struggling to characterize this film while watching but that quote above, a blink and you’d miss it line delivered by Chips to his classroom towards the end, did a great job of summing up what I was watching. In the scene Chips was referring to loud explosions happening outside, but it could just as well have been his personal motto throughout the 60+ years that he we see him age on screen. It was an unusual film as Chips is by nature a guy that stays even-keeled throughout all of life’s hurdles. Time after time I waited for him to lose his cool with the students or break down from personal misfortune so I could descend along with him, but steady Chipping leads us down no such dark paths. Instead we are let in on a life that, while rich in integrity, personality, and purpose, didn’t have too much going on from a typical cinema perspective. That’s really the best way to sum it up: being let in on a life. Simplifying the tale only slightly, Chips misses out on a promotion, gets married, loses his wife, goes back to work, gets the promotion, and then dies of old age. No backstabbing, no having to win over the lady, and if there was ever a stereotypical rock bottom for him, it happened during one of the jumps in decade.

Donat plays the character as steady and unassuming not just professionally but also during the tragic circumstances that Chips is forced to overcome, the loss of his wife and baby during childbirth and being tormented by a war that was robbing Brookfield of its alumni. It’s heartbreaking to have all of these things happen yet watch Chips process them behind the curtain, no doubt swallowing any sense of agony to remain a beacon for his students. The one sequence that stuck out from the routine of it all was the surreal environment in which he met Katherine. There goes Chips looking like Mr. Magoo in his Sunday best, getting lost from his walking tour and following a woman’s voice to the top of a mountain. He almost falls off a cliff a couple of times, but not even that gets the guy sweating. The two get to know each other literally in the clouds, eating sandwiches and having a gay old courtship in a locale that seemed like it was designed to appear as heaven.

I think my biggest problem with the film was that it skated around moments that were so ripe for philosophical exploration. The fact alone that it spanned so many years of his life automatically brought concepts of legacy and mortality to mind, but the film never pushed those buttons with conviction. Not to sound cold, but I was looking forward to the Chips death scene because I expected him to say something that would inform or add a little heft to the meandering behavior he carried with him through life. I wanted him and the story to graduate from on the nose and by the book to finally claim some kind of depth. Chips was at peace in the end but unfortunately it continued on with the sap, full of smiling student flashbacks, retreads of past scenes, and a set of final words and sentiments that, while nice, were obvious. It’s a shame but I still enjoyed the film for what Donat was able to accomplish. I almost want to say that the makeup department did a great job of transporting Chips through the ages, but without Robert Donat’s expert shifts in mannerisms and flourishes no amount of cosmetics would have sold the character. Donat won an Oscar for this film, completely transformed himself at times, and ended up with a career arc that added an extra poignancy to the story for me. Here we have Chips, so keen on reflection and the potential of his students and himself, played so beautifully by an actor whose career was severely limited and cut short by chronic asthma.

The film reminded me quite a bit of a great book I once read, Stoner by John Williams. Like Goodbye Mr. Chips, the novel spans a lifetime of a teacher, this time a Midwestern American college professor, who must deal with personal loss and the changing times from behind the desk. Both touch on similar themes, the difference being nobody thought much of Stoner though his intentions were always pure and considerate. Anyway I’d more recommend the novel than this film but it still is worth a watch if only because there’s no better place to go to see Donat at his best.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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