“Goodbye Mr. Chips” won an Academy Award for Best Lead Actor Robert Donat and was nominated in six other categories.
Robert Donat's ‘Chips' may seem a bit melodramatic today, but the nuances of his performances as a man aging from twentysomething straight into frail old age are still quite remarkable – one of the reasons his work endures, in spite of appearing in comparatively few films over a lengthy career.
Based on the popular novel by James Hilton, “Goodbye Mr. Chips” is a highly romanticized tribute to the English boys school system, with the titular ‘Chips' functioning as an amalgam of every good professorial attribute: kindness, generosity, strictness for the good of character building, and an unwavering sense of fairness, as ‘the old ways' are cast aside by newer headmasters, and the world's morals slither down the drain.
The film's screenplay is very mannered, and ‘Chips' remains for the most part an over-humble, intimately shy creature (which makes this slice of Anglophilia ripe for parody), and yet key scenes still bristle with power. The brief romance between Donat and Greer Garson (in her feature film debut) is a bittersweet emotional ascension, placing the two lost souls on a misty mountain (a rather Hiltonian trait that recalls the author's mountain mythology hoodoo in “Lost Horizon”), and their waltz in Vienna is a great moment where the shy boy finally steps out from his grey shadow.
Boasting an early screen appearance by John Mills and a lively performance from Paul Henreid, the film also uses a very odd conceit to illustrate Chips' historical anchorage to the community: the next generation of attendant sons are played by the same actors; so while Chips ages, his character remains as resilient as the school's place in building men for a better community. Using a WW I episode later in the film, it's clear “Goodbye Mr. Chips” also functioned as a morale booster not only for England, but the colonies subsequently drafted into the WW II effort.
Photographed by Freddie Young, the source print has some visible wear around the reel changes, but the transfer maintains excellent depth, and shows little compression during mist-enshrouded scenes. The mono soundtrack remains relatively clear, and Richard Addinsell's score is a major highlight of MGM's prestige production.
Melodrama notwithstanding, James Hilton's novel was revisited in a 1969 musical version starring Peter O'Toole, and a pair of TV productions.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan