Goodbye, Mr. Chips, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Robert Donat, Greer Garson. Directed by Sam Wood. B&W, 114 minutes.
For the first time in 58 years, the Brookfield school’s opening assembly is lacking one important participant, former headmaster and beloved teacher Mr. Charles Chipping (Robert Donat). While he’s been ordered to rest in bed, Mr. Chipping manages to sneak out, but the door to the assembly is locked. He starts up a conversation with a new boy to the school, and shortly thereafter recalls his time at Brookfield through a series of flashbacks.
One of the most important of those memories is his holiday in Austria as a young man, where he met the lovely Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson), a self-sufficient British suffragette who is bicycling through the country with a friend. Over the following weeks the two fall in love, and that fall the staid and shy Mr. Chippings surprises his colleagues with the introduction of his beautiful bride.
Kathy brings a joy to Chips, as she calls him, and draws out his dry humor. He is a changed man. The two plan a family, but tragically, Kathy and their first baby die in childbirth.
But Mr. Chips still finds joy in his boys at Brookfield.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress (Greer Garson) and won one, Best Actor for Robert Donat. It was up against Gone With the Wind in all seven categories and lost five of the other six awards to that film.
Director Sam Wood made some wise decisions in the details of the film, including having the same young actor play four generations of boys from the same family. A decade to decade continuity is also shown with tea and cake, a perennial favorite of Mr. Chips, his colleagues and students. Some things change, some things stay the same, and the devotion of one teacher never waivers.
This was Greer Garson’s film debut, and her performance was widely lauded. Variety wrote, “In Greer Garson the picture introduces an attractive young English actress of outstanding talent and charm. She plays her romantic assignment as the wife of Mr. Chips with rare understanding and tenderness. The reticent love scenes are masterpieces of emotional power.”
The film is based on the popular 1934 novel of the same name. In the opening credits, producer Irving Thalberg, who had died a few years before, is noted for his inspiration in the character of Mr. Chips. Affection for these two favorites is clearly seen throughout the movie.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is unabashedly sentimental without being maudlin. It is the story of the teacher we all remember fondly as well as the tale of one man’s journey to contentment. It spans a lifetime — and more, for some of the boys — yet is timeless in its heart.