Everything begins somewhere. Sidney Poitier's "To Sir, With Love"; Robin Williams's "Dead Poets Society"; Kevin Kline's "The Emperor's Club"; Peter O'Toole's 1969 musical version of "Chips"; the various TV interpretations of James Hilton's novel. They and a hundred more like them all got their start with Robert Donat's Academy Award-winning performance in Sam Wood's 1939 production of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." As fine as some of some its successors are, none of them equals the original.
Hilton's Charles Edward Chipping, known affectionately to friends and pupils as "Chips," is everyone's idealized teacher. He's a master at Brookfield, a private boys' boarding school in the heart of England. Starting his career in 1870, Chips is kind, gentle, shy, soft-spoken, caring, fair, but firm, and he remains that way his entire career. He wins the respect of his students through his patience and good humor. He is the teacher we'd all like to have, and the teacher we'd all like to be. In the hands of actor Robert Donat, Chips is quietly convincing as the actor ages through the better part of a lifetime, his character struggling through good times and bad, happy times and sad. Although in terms of an Oscar win I've never agreed that Donat should have beaten Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind," there is no doubting that Donat's performance is the single most important contribution to the film.
The story is told in flashback as an aged Chips looks back on his career, from the time he first enters Brookfield as a totally inexperienced teacher of Latin. The boys needle him no end, taking every advantage of the new guy in school, their hijinks finally getting so out of control the Headmaster has to come in to establish order. Chips is on the verge of quitting before he even gets started. But persevere he does, and he continues at Brookfield for the next sixty-odd years, becoming as much an institution at the school as the school itself.
Still, there is something missing from his life. In middle age, while traveling one summer in the Alps with his good friend, German master Max Staefel (Paul Henreid, billed here as Paul von Hernreid), Chips meets a beautiful young woman, Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson), and falls in love for only the second time in his life. As he explains, the first time was when he was fourteen and it hardly counted. Chips is amazingly old-fashioned and reserved, but their friendship develops into romance and then marriage, the best thing that ever happens to the man beyond his becoming a teacher. His demeanor and even his appearance change as a result of his love for Kathy. She gives him the nickname "Chips" and helps to bring him out of his self-imposed seclusion. But tragedy ensues as Kathy and their baby die in childbirth, and Chips remains unwed for the rest of his life and the rest of the movie.
And so, the years pass. The Boer War. The First World War. The senseless loss of so many young lives that Chips has nurtured and moulded snuffed out in the instant of a shot.
It's true that because of his reticence, Chips seems to come by things, as the Wife-O-Meter observed, almost by default; but this is not to suggest that he is without willpower or self-assurance. As he watches times change and old traditions die, he steadfastly clings to the methods and values he holds most dear. "Give a boy a sense of humor and sense of proportion," he tells the newest Headmaster, "and he'll stand to do anything." When the new Head asks Chips to retire, thinking him hopelessly passé and out-of-touch, Chips refuses, much to the delight of his friends and students.
It's easy to criticize and find fault with a film like this. Nitpickers would claim that it's maudlin and sentimental. That anyone can be a good teacher with good students. That the story tries to cover too much ground for its 115 minutes, while there are stretches in the film that seem to go on forever. That the ending is prolonged, while the final deathbed scene appears rushed. That the acting comes across as dated, overly dramatic, by today's more realistic standards, and that Greer Garson, especially, seems too aloof, too distant from Chips, to be truly in love. That much of the action, filmed at MGM studios, seems stage bound, detracting slightly from the verisimilitude of the outdoor shots in particular. And that nobody wants to watch an old black-and-white picture, anyway.
All of which fades into petty nothingness as the movie proceeds and places one under its spell. Unless the viewer is very cynical or very young, it's hard not to find oneself choking up on more than a single occasion; throughout most of the movie maybe, at least for me. "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" is a classic in every sense of the word, a film that has stood the test of time remarkably well and should continue to provide pleasure for as long as people value characterization and heart above plot contrivances and technical effects.
The picture quality in this black-and-white standard-screen transfer is hit and miss. When it's good, it's as good as B&W gets on disc. Sometimes the picture is crystal clear in the manner that only the best B&W photography reveals. At other times the picture is a bit grainy and soft. B&W contrasts, which are so important to the visual impact of the film, are usually quite striking but at other times somewhat faded. There are very few age marks, so the master print appears to have been in good condition. In all, the picture quality should not detract from anyone's enjoyment of the movie.
Not much to discuss here. The soundtrack is reproduced via Dolby Digital in its original 1.0 monaural. While the audio's most notable characteristic is its quietness most of the time, the softest passages do contain a noticeable if faint background noise. Frequency response, dynamic range, transient impact, and other qualities associated with modern sonic reproduction are conspicuously but understandably limited. Like the video, the audio does its job in a manner that every viewer should expect and does not in any way detract from one's appreciation of the film.
Uh, none, actually. WB usually find something of value to include with their older classic films, but this time I guess they just couldn't find anything. There are thirty-three scene selections, which is generous; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles, but that's about it.
I write this as I come to the close of my own thirty-eight year teaching career, so perhaps the film affected me more than it would others. Plus, I'm naturally sentimental. Yet who can resist those closing lines, sentimental or not? "Pity he never had any children," says a friend at the teacher's deathbed. Overhearing him, Chips replies, "But you're wrong. I have, thousands of them, thousands of them. And all...boys."