Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939): Championing Education

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“Chips” of Brookfield School is a bit of a human institution. Now over 80 years of age and retired from his esteemed post at the school, he still is afforded a decent bit of celebrity. The years have not slowed down his wit nor the warmth behind his words. His full life has been a testament to both.

Thus, in his waning days, as he sneaks onto campus for convocation, against doctor’s orders, or takes a restful snooze in his parlor, there’s little sense of regret. The world around him is full of traditions and lineage. After all, Brookfield is a boys’ school with a certain classiness and pedigree. Reflected by the fact the professors dress in the garb we now only wear once in our scholastic career. They can be found in a cap and gown every day.

Likewise, the students are held to a certain standard of dress and expected to address their teachers in a manner customary in such environments. Still, the trilling voices of a boys’ choir hearken back to those days of yore when I was afforded the opportunity to enter such rapturous cathedrals as Canterbury, York Minster, and Lincoln. The impression they left on me is indisputable.

If we were to be critical, we might label it one of those stodgy, medieval institutions of a bygone era best forgotten in the contemporary world. Even Repton School, which served as a filming location, demonstrated long-ingrained toxic traditions of discrimination and bullying.

However, with all things, there is good to be gleaned and chaff better left on the threshing floor to be disposed of.  To be sure, the world depicted is open to such criticism, but if there is any form of antidote or satisfying counterargument it would be our unsung hero.

Because the disarming allure of this story is indebted to Mr. Chips (Robert Donat) and how he reflects all that is admirable about education. He singlehandedly removes it from a context we can never know first hand and makes platitudes and lessons universally understood. Progeny like Dead Poets Society are much the same. The time period does not matter so much as the message being preached.

The narrative succeeds in running the course of the years from his first day as a master at Brookfield up until his last, and this fluidity of time and space allows it to tell something as close to the scope of a real-life as is possible, within the time frame of two hours.

We come to realize Master Chippington was not beloved overnight. It was an arduous process full of failures and missteps. However, he does end up gaining the admiration of the boys in his stead, who were initially drawn to gags and partaking in their favorite blood sport — the undermining of their betters.

From the outset, as antiquated as these forms of British education are, we can immediately draw a bisecting line cutting straight through to the present. Because as long as there have been students and pupils, a war for supremacy has always been waged until the day where some form of mutual respect is settled upon. The struggle hasn’t changed so much as it’s evolved within new contexts.

In this age, it’s a world defined by caning for bad behavior and the promising glories of cricket cups, making all boys want to ditch their arithmetic and pointless studies for something of real substance – bragging rights out on the pitch.

Down the road, further still, he has a fresh mustache and years of experience under his belt. The boy he once consoled on the train years before is now a grown man returning to the stomping grounds of his youth; he is more an equal than a pupil. However, even someone as beloved as Chips is passed over for a promotion for housemaster. It’s the closest thing to an impediment in his career.

Gearing up for the second half, Goodbye Mr. Chips could very easily be a stuffy old drama under the watchful, if often moribund eye of Sam Wood. With leads so winsome and spry as Robert Donat and the ever effervescent Greer Garson, there’s little danger of such a grisly fate.

It’s true you only need one or two stellar pictures to have a career worth remembering for the ages. So it is with Donat. Despite being plagued by terminal asthma and dying fairly young, he stringed together several prominent roles, including Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, all but canonizing him as one of Britain’s finest leading men of the 1930s.

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Meanwhile, Greer Garson still boasted a scintillating career ahead of her all through the 40s and 50s. The key to her enormous allure is on display front and center in Mr. Chips. She’s likable in any manner of speaking, gaining the immediate endearment of the audience, and never doing anything to alienate them thereafter.

But one is led to ask, in all of this vocational work in a boys’ school, where is one to happen upon Ms. Garson? The Alps, of course. What a lovely treat to have them both together propped up in the foggy mountainside sharing an amicable chat. There is still a certain propriety upheld when a man happens upon a woman. This is maintained and yet Katherine at the same time manages to be highly enlightened. Heaven forbid, she rides a new-fangled bicycle contraption in a dress (not side-saddle) and even holds aspirations to vote one day.

Regardless, she is a sanguine spirit who injects Chip’s vocation with a newfound idealism (even bestowing him with his apt nickname). She makes it exciting and heroic, breathing new life into his seemingly humdrum position, and it bleeds into the entire institution.

But first, there is the hesitant romance born while dancing the Waltz in Vienna. With Greer Garson in arm, any man would fly at the chance, and Chippington does his due diligence, dusting off his college dance moves. The marriage proposal in the wake of a departing train is the delightful capstone to the courtship. There are more joys to come.

The newly minted Mrs. Chippington brings the teachers’ room to a standstill with her utter radiance. In fact, it seems to happen just about any time she walks into a room or interacts with anyone. Garson leaves you glowing just being in her mere presence. They’re stupefied Chipping could have such good fortune, and yet they deeply deserve one another. She grants his life a newfound warmth and levity…

What a life it is — even in the cinema — where times at once so vibrant can be so unceremoniously quashed by adversity. It’s affecting in a very concrete manner. What’s even weightier is how time marches ever onward without much fanfare.

The indiscriminate carnage of WWI is felt within the halls of the school — it’s youthful ranks all but decimated by the bloodshed. One also recognizes Chips has witnessed so much. Generations, entire families, having passed under his tutelage. It is one of the wonders of education because I had the pleasure of having such a teacher in my life.

Being the youngest of three siblings, not everyone knows you as an entity connected with family. He might as well be our Mr. Chips, teaching at our high school for well nigh 50 years. The institutions of education have changed, but the merits of them have not. They become far more than facts and figures. They are a place to mature, cultivate character, and encourage individual thinking and fresh ideas to impact the world for the better.

Can we claim all of this is directly connected directly to education? I’m not sure, but I do know quality teachers have an immeasurable impact even as mediocre ones kill the same fertile grounds of knowledge. As the world changes, the need for excellent teachers is no less vital for the upkeep of our society at-large.

In his final hours, the frail Master Chippington is pitied for the lonely life he had. It’s true he lost loved ones. He beget no children of his own, and yet he peacefully asserts he engendered thousands of children. Because every lad from the ubiquitous Colley family (all portrayed by Terry Kilburn) and every other Tom, Dick, and Harry, whoever came through the halls of his school, was like a son. It’s not a mere sentiment. In his heart of hearts, he knows it. They do too. A life only has consequence based on how it is able to bless others. Mr. Chips understood this fact only too well.

What an amiable movie Goodbye Mr. Chips is championing pleasantness over any strain of abrasive negativity. It’s hardly fashionable, provocative, or radically cutting-edge. Then again, maybe a dose of chipper, idealistic entertainment goes against the grain in this often disillusioned world of ours. It has the power to melt your heart in the best possible way. In its place is left a warm smile.

4/5 Stars

Note: Goodbye Mr. Chips features a special dedication to producer Irving Thalberg who died suddenly in 1936. His impact on pictures such as this one cannot be understated.

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