Tonight, Kat and I watched another nominee from the 1939 Best Picture race...
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West and Eric Maschwitz
(based on the novel by James Hilton)
Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Paul Henreid, Terry Kilburn, John Mills and dozens of schoolkids
1 win, for Best Actor
Spanning over sixty years, the tale of Mr. Charles Chipping is indeed an epic one. He's a bashful yet amiable man who begins a teaching career at an English boys school. On his first day, the students get the better of him and, as time goes on, he suffers from a lack of popularity amongst the students and staff. Still shy, he reluctantly tags along with a colleague on a walking tour of Austria, where he meets and falls in love with Katherine, a modern woman who helps to break him out of his shell and who also bestows on him the nickname "Chips". Upon return to the school, his newfound confidence translates into a newfound teaching style, one to which the students really respond. Years come and years go, and he teaches sons and grandsons of past students, ultimately becoming a much-loved and integral part of the institution.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a charming and often funny film that, like Wuthering Heights, sometimes suffers from its attempt to cram everything from the book into the movie. However, due to its more limited focus on one character, it doesn't feel quite as rushed as the Brontë adaptation. Most of the haste occurs in the latter half of the film. It's almost like a series of vignettes. One 30-second scene, and then we skip five years. Another 60 seconds, and we move forward ten years. But the first half is very well-paced, especially the Austria sequence. And despite its later briskness, by the end, there is a sense of fond familiarity with this man's life.
The script is genuinely funny at times, but perhaps Latin puns aren't everyone's cup of tea. Still, there are several April Fool's jokes that are sure to elicit a chuckle, as will the scene in which Mr. Chips proposes to Katherine while running alongside the accelerating train in which she is sitting.
Robert Donat won a much-earned Oscar for playing Mr. Chips, a role which required him to portray the character at several stages in his life. Donat's measured performance renders each stage in a starkly distinct manner, even if he relies slightly on a caricature for the old man version (pictured). There is a clever consistency to his portrayal even as Mr. Chips evolves, so he manages to elicit pity at the character's initial timidity, without making his later camaraderie with the students seem contrived. I'm a big fan of Greer Garson as well. A very natural actress for her time. She plays Katherine with such charm and intelligence, it's hard not to fall in love with her yourself. Child actor Terry Kilburn is refreshingly versatile as at least four generations of children from the same family.
It was not lost on me that this is now the third of three 1939 nominees that ends with the main character's death. But, at least in this film, there is less of a tragic sentiment. As Mr. Chips passes away, one is left with the feeling that his was a life well lived. I almost had the urge to whisper to the screen, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." ... Almost.