…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
Released in what is known in movie history as the “golden year” for cinema – 1939 – Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a darling film that inspires reminiscences and appreciation for favorite teachers and mentors from years past. It was the year of The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and a great big film with the word Wind in the title that quite literally blew all of the other competitors out of the water (and in my own opinion, it didn’t fully deserve to; it’s not one of my favorites). To this day, however, this little film about a teacher who develops a dynamic, encouraging, and even at times humorous rapport with his students joins the ranks of the ‘best of the best’ of 1939 (it was even up for Best Picture).
The film chronicles the adult life of Professor Charles Edward Chipping (Robert Donat) who looks back on his life at the age of 83 in 1933 to the year 1870, when he joined the faculty of Brookfield Public School in London as a teacher of Latin. Awkward and shy at first, Chipping is almost taken advantage of by his students, and he reacts to practical jokes in his classroom by imposing strict discipline (despite his obvious soft spot for the boys he teaches). Over time, he gradually gains respect, but feels discouraged at not being as effective with his students as he would like to be. When a colleague invites him to enjoy a sabbatical in Austria, he takes him up on the offer. While mountain climbing, Chipping stumbles upon the woman who would eventually become his wife – the adventurous and straight-forward Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson) – who is on a bicycle holiday with a friend. The spunky Katherine beguiles Chipping, who is almost painfully shy. After their marriage, she fervently encourages Chipping to pursue his ultimate dreams of being the school headmaster – an aim which is frequently shot down by the school, much to his despair. She also opens the doors of their home to the students – inviting them over frequently for tea, cake, and conversation; a move which only endears the students to Professor Chipping and his lovely wife even more. Kathy also christens her husband with the nickname “Chips”.
Sadly, their dreams of happiness together are short-lived, for Kathy loses her life in a stillborn childbirth. Chips is devastated, but forges on in the wake of the lasting inspiration Kathy has impressed upon him. As the years pass, Chips endures more loss of friends, students, and colleagues – mostly due to World War I. He even finally becomes headmaster, but only after he retires from the school and the current headmaster enlists in the war. Despite the sad losses in his life, he ultimately reflects back upon his many blessings as the end draws near. When he overhears a comment that it was a pity he was childless, Chips empathically states on his deathbed: “I thought you said it was a pity… pity I never had children. But you’re wrong. I have thousands of them … thousands of them … and all boys.” While perhaps a predictable wrap-up to the story, it nonetheless seems fitting and touching.
Greer Garson is luminous and inspiring in this, her first Academy Award-nominated role as Katherine. Her performance, however, takes second fiddle to Robert Donat’s – who, in fact, deservedly took home the Oscar for Best Actor of 1939. The film moves at a rather quick pace, and Garson doesn’t make her first appearance until nearly 40 minutes into it; enjoying only about 20-30 subsequent onscreen minutes total. Though our acquaintance with Katherine is brief, Garson portrays her with enough honesty, sincerity, and compassion that – as she lingers like a poignant memory for the rest of the film – we can understand why Chips was so enamored and changed by her for the remainder of his life. Donat, who was 34 years of age at the time this film was made, was aged gradually over the progression of the film to nigh on 80-some years. He plays Professor Chipping brilliantly in every frame, never once betraying his youth as he plays Chips in his older years; it’s a performance that rings very true. He is quite endearing, and certainly watching him in this film is a trigger for personal memories of inspiring teachers and mentors in one’s own life.
Although it is about my take on Greer Garson’s performance, I would like to dedicate today’s blog, in conclusion, to my father – not only because it is Father’s Day weekend, but primarily because I am so proud of his work as a teacher. I personally have always held that teaching is one of the truly noblest professions (also, sadly, one of the most under-appreciated and underpaid). Like Mr. Chips, my father really became a legend in his own time at my high school – and now I cannot venture out in public back home with him without a former student gratefully calling out “Hey Mr. Neufang!” and encouraging a few minutes’ chat. What a powerful legacy truly good teachers share with all of us – as their students, family, and colleagues. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a moving testament to those hard-working, dedicated souls who have shaped all of us into the successful individuals we have become, each in our own lives. Thanks, Dad.
The year’s Best Actress win was almost a no-brainer: Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Garson would win the Best Actress award three years later for playing the title role of Mrs. Miniver, and she would secure nominations for 5 other films. Look for my blogs on The Valley of Decision (1945) and Sunrise at Campobello (1960) very soon.