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.

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Teresa Wright

We continue our series chronicling the career of classic Hollywood stars with 4 films. This week our subject is Teresa Wright a genial actress with a high degree of success throughout the 1940s at MGM.

If memory serves, she remains the only performer to have received Oscar nominations for her first three roles. Her later career stalled mostly impart to her willingness to challenge the rigid structures of the studio system.

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the often unsung talent of Teresa Wright!

The Little Foxes (1941)

What an auspicious way to begin a film career not only playing opposite Bette Davis but being directed by William Wyler in a spectacular ensemble including Herbert Marshall and Dan Duryea. Wright more than substantiates her reputation as a wholesome ingenue amid an otherwise treacherous menagerie. Mrs. Miniver would do much the same to uphold her image.

The Pride of The Yankees (1942)

There’s not a better choice to play Eleanor the wife of the Iron Horse, Yankee legend, and ALS casualty Lou Gehrig. The chemistry between Wright and Gary Cooper is genial and playful from the beginning. This is what makes the hardship even more devastating. In her lady years, I heard Wright was quite the avid Yankees fan, and after this film you can see why.

The Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

This is arguably the pinnacle of Teresa Wright’s career pairing her with Alfred Hitchcock and giving her top billing across from Joseph Cotten as her treacherous uncle and namesake Charlie. It’s the height of rural noir where the darkness of the outside world seeps into idyllic Santa Rosa as the wanted widow murderer seeks refuge. Her own is quickly thrown into jeopardy when he begins to suspect she knows…

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

If I’m correct, this is the film that first introduced me to Teresa Wright, and I was immediately smitten with her charms as the grown daughter of Myrna Loy and Frederic March. She finds herself caught up in a romance with a returning G.I. stuck in a loveless marriage (Dana Andrews). What makes it so powerful is the fact this is only one relationship in the patchwork William Wyler creates out of the Boone City community.

Worth Watching:

Mrs. Miniver, Pursued, The Men

Random Harvest (1942)

220px-Random-harvest-1942There’s not a mean bone in Ronald Colman’s body. He’s the perfect gentleman and Greer Garson is his perfect counterpart. Theirs is the story of Paula Ridgeway and Smithy, or Charles Rainier and Margaret Hanson, or closer yet, both of these stories together. But there’s need for some explanation.

A man (Colman) returned from the great war with no memory to speak of, barely able to talk, and no family to vouch for him. His life is one of isolation in an asylum. Until the day he escapes and happens to run into Paula (Garson), a compassionate stage performer who never lets him alone again. She sees it in his eyes that he’s a good man, and watches over him rather like a guardian angel. His war injuries inhibit his speech, but Paula’s vibrant personality is the best possible therapy he could ever receive. She brings him out of his shell, making him feel like a man again. Marriage comes soon after and they are deliriously happy with a child on the way soon enough.

Then comes the fateful day that “Smithy” visits Liverpool to inquire about a new job. But a street accident leaves him shook up once more, and this time around he has no recollection of his last 3 years of life. Paula is forgotten and all he can recall are the trenches and his old family name, Charles Rainier. His relatives are all in a hubbub upon his arrival with his young step-niece Kitty (Susan Peters) taking an especially great interest in her uncle. He tries his hand in the family business and finds himself very handy at the work while young Kitty continues to correspond with him as she goes through school. She pleads and coaxes him to marry her, and since he is genuinely fond of her, he agrees. It seems like ages since we’ve thought of Paula, but this is the true tipping point of the film.However, at the last minute, Kitty calls off the marriage realizing it was always a dream. It would never work out.

In this stage of his life, Ronald begins to confide in his secretary who is strikingly familiar to the audience. But he has no idea who she might be,  except for Ms. Hanson, a highly competent, very beautiful woman. She doesn’t dare reveal her identity but here lies the portion of the film that tugs at the audience’s heartstrings. Paula or Margaret (whatever you want to call her) is caught in such a delicate and maddening predicament. She wonders if her love even has the capacity for happiness now. There’s little hope of getting out of this cycle, and yet as we would surmise from the very beginning, love wins out.

This film hinges on these faint wisps of memories and near deja vu moments that Rainer encounters. They are what separate him mentally from the love of his life who he isn’t even capable of knowing anymore. Their tragedy is not of their own doing or even due to human depravity. It is fateful circumstances outside of their control that keeps them apart, reminding us that oftentimes the world is unjust for no apparent reason.

Ronald Colman is always a wonderfully restrained actor who nevertheless is a pleasant lead. He’s even more muted here, and it works beautifully in juxtaposition with the vivacious energy of Greer Garson. In her own right, Garson is photographed in such a way that is so pure and unblemished with softened features that captivate the screen with true Hollywood glamour.

You can easily toss around words like sentimentality or schmaltz with a love story like this, but sometimes it’s better to let all the emotions of the film pervade your mind and overwhelm your senses. It’s an easy film to give in to and an easy film to forgive, because it’s main players are generally so likable. If modern actors tried their hand at such a masquerade, more likely than not, we would scoff at their attempt and then throw them out with not so much as a second glance.

But not so with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. It’s not a waste of time giving them a couple hours because in that time they make us believe in love. True, it is an over-trod cliche, but in a cynical world that edges more and more towards a worldview of self-preservation and pessimism, maybe Random Harvest is what we need. It undoubtedly pumped invigorating life into wartime viewers and if you give it a chance, it can do the same today.

4/5 Stars

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Teresa Wright, and directed by William Wyler, this film tells the touching if not sad story of an English family. We follow their life from the happy moments before World War II to the hardships in the midst of it. Through it all Mrs. Miniver is a quietly strong wife and mother who holds her family together. Whether she is waiting in a bomb shelter, capturing a German parachutist, or simply taking care of her family, she exhibits amazing courage and fortitude. She is a testament to those fighting on the home front  Mrs. Miniver is not a part of Dunkirk like her husband. She is not flying like her son but her role is just as important. Even in the closing when tragedy has hit Britain, the country and its Mrs. Minivers stay resilient. First used as a propaganda device in the 1940s this film is till moving today. When you see any of these people rejoice or suffer you too are moved.

4/5 Stars