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.

Night Train to Munich (1940)

Night_Train_to_Munich_Poster.jpgWe are met with the scourge of Hitler overrunning mainland Europe. It’s about that time. American isn’t involved in the war. Britain’s getting bombed to smithereens and the rest of Europe is tumbling like rows and rows of tin soldiers.

Carol Reed always proved astute at setting the stage for great human dramas and Night Train to Munich is little different. Anna Bomasch (Margaret Lockwood) wakes up to find that the Nazis are on the march for Czechoslovakia and her father, a renowned scientist, is fleeing the country. However, she’s not so lucky and gets intercepted by the Nazis ending up in a concentration camp instead of aboard an airplane to freedom.

It’s in these moments where the script develops a fairly frank depiction of the concentration camps denoting that they were hardly a day of wine and roses. But in that very harrowing climate, she meets a proud rebel named Karl (Paul Henreid) who uses his underground contacts to help them escape and promises Anna that they will find her father in England. Hope still exists.

The man they wind up reaching in the British Isles feels more like a nobody than a top government agent singing tunes at a beachside promenade. But Dickie Randle (Rex Harrison) proves to be far more than he lets on at face value. Still, he is not the only one who holds that distinction and no sooner have they been reunited then father and daughter find themselves kidnapped by Gestapo spies and carried on a U-Boat back to the Fatherland.

We know where the final act must go as Randle heads into the mouth of the lion’s den to try and pull off a daring rescue that looks like an absolutely ludicrous endeavor with not even a half chance of succeeding. He masquerades as a member of the German corps of engineers and pulls the wool over on some of his denser adversaries. Still, one man is not so oafish and they must thwart the insider Gestapo man looking to trap them.

In its day and even now the film was pitched as a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938). The connection can be attributed to several aspects including similar locales — namely a train — the same studio producing in Gaumont, the screenwriting skills of Sidney Gilliat, and even the same leading lady in Margaret Lockwood. For these very reasons, it does become an interesting exercise to juxtapose this later work with The Lady Vanishes.

In fact, Reed’s film you could say was steeped in politics more than anything dared by Hitchcock. But it might be a stride too far to surmise that Carol Reed was a political filmmaker. He was a master at creating compelling worlds planted in the realities that were already known to us such as war-torn Ireland or Post-war Vienna. They are real moments but as is explained so exquisitely at the beginning of Odd Man Out (1947), these are not the particular aspects that connect us together. It is the universal quality of the human experience that reaches us…

That Man is evil. That love leads us to make choices that others would not. That Man often makes war instead of peace. Admittedly, Night Train to Munich is not such a rich exploration in environment, character, or cinematic themes, but it still has power as a fairly frank thriller. It can be hailed along with films like The Mortal Storm (1940) and The Great Dictator (1940), for being astutely aware of the historical moment that they were embroiled in — at least more so than most.

There are innumerable jabs at the Nazis including one minor gag involving the inflection of the phrase “This is a fine country to live in.” One rascally dissident uses this precise scenario to slither his way out of an appointment with a local concentration camp. Still, a moment like this and similar gags in barb-laden comedies like The Great Dictator (1940) or To Be or Not to Be (1942) come with a certain solemnity. Because we know the vast amount of carnage such camps were guilty of.

Surprise, surprise that everyone’s favorite British comic duo Charters and Caldicott crop up again proving to be as fussy as ever. Except in such an edgy climate, they too feel oddly out of place. Because maybe the threat feels all too real and as far as characters go they are caricatures not fit for such a realistic world. They’re just not quite at home with Nazis and concentration camps and how could they be?

Still, putting them back in their element, that is, back aboard a train, it feels like all is right with the world again. But even then, they act differently. This time they stick their necks out spurred on and put in a general huff by the indecency of the Nazis. And if they can all of a sudden get patriotic then the assumption is that most any convivial bloke can.

Whereas the train acts as the hallmark of The Lady Vanishes, in this film it is more of an important stop along the way in the overarching narrative. This story boasts a thrilling cable car finale with a subsequent shootout that’s gripping despite the inexhaustible amount of bullets or maybe precisely for that very reason. Carol Reed’s films would only improve as the 1940s went on but there’s no denying the intrigue and political clout here. He deserves to be remembered among the foremost of British directors if not only for his revered masterpieces like The Third Man (1949) but also the minor classics like Night Train to Munich (1940).

3.5/5 Stars

Casablanca (1942): 75th Anniversary Review

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When someone inquires if I consider Casablanca one of my favorite movies, I don’t quite know how to respond. Yes, I do love this film passionately but I feel as if Casablanca is more deeply America’s favorite classic movie. It is not for me to call my own and I will gladly share a joint appreciation for it. Because it’s a film for all of us. As it should be. It’s the perfect articulation and expression of that former Hollywood that existed during the studio age as brought to us by Michael Curtiz.

When we are finally allowed to enter into Rick’s Cafe Americain, it almost feels like hallowed ground. It’s a mythical place that never existed in reality and yet feels so immersive to us as an audience. Curtiz moves through the space with such intent that it makes us completely involved with every person his camera settles on. This is a picture for romantics and sentimentalists to be sure but it caters to those with a cynical edge too. It suggests a deceitful world of pickpockets, unscrupulous officials, and of course, Nazis.

The political tides of the times are reflected in that cinematic bastion of a man Rick Blaine (Bogart). His foreign policy is that he sticks his neck out for no one. But that’s only on the surface. That’s the beauty of the character. There’s a sensitivity and a sacrificial nature that wells up deep inside him, hidden from view. Tortured and embittered as he is, that is not the last word.

There’s also an undeniable undercurrent to the film. Yes, this is not reality. As enveloping as it is, this is wholly a Warner Bros. aesthetic but moreover there’s a sense that the emotions that deluge over Casablanca are very real.

Aside from Bogart and the lovely, incomparable Ingrid Bergman, our cast is made up of a plethora of emigres, men and women, who fled the Nazis for this reason or that. Whether they were Jewish or had different political affiliations or just couldn’t bear to live under such an oppressive regime.

Director Michael Curtiz was originally from Hungary and in him, we find someone who totally understood the plight of those fleeing and the context of the moment where Casablanca was only a pitstop for America. Because take the picture out of its context and something would be lost. Firmly plant it in the era and you have blessed the production with something enduringly special.

Furthermore, in the scene where Lazlo (Paul Henreid) calls on the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German’s proud merrimaking it ceases to be a mere scene in a film but becomes an event that swells with real emotions. You can see it in the very body language, the tears in the eyes, and the fervor that comes over everyone. Madeleine Lebeau (the film’s last surviving cast member who passed away last year) singing defiantly, with the tears freely flowing. No longer acting but pure feelings incarnate.

When so many other minority characters make me cringe in pictures of the 30s and 40s, Sam, the piano man (Dooley Wilson), remarkably rarely does. That’s because he’s endowed with a certain autonomy attributed to him in part by Blaine. They are partners, friends, and they watch out for each other.

His singing holds the love story together. Like many of the film’s greatest faces, he’s not a mere sideshow attraction. There’s a necessity to his characterization that adds another dimension to the world that has been conjured up on the Warner Bros. lot. What would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sazall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, etc.? It would lose so much color — so much definition.

Another joy of the picture after you see it too many times to count is the continued relish of the script, waiting for your favorite lines only to be taken with new quips that you never picked up on before. For me, most lines of this nature come from the wonderfully amoral and yet completely personable Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But there’s also so much going on around the edges of the frame. One of my favorites involves the young woman who fled from Bulgaria with her husband. The young lady is played by Jack Warner’s step-daughter Joy Page.

Here we see a relationship that mirrors that of Rick and Elsa in a way that only becomes apparent later on. Because she is a woman desperate to get to America with her impoverished husband. He is trying to win money gambling but it’s a desperate even futile situation.

She loves him so much, she is willing to try and use her own beauty and the influence of another man, Inspector Renault to help the man she truly loves. There’s so much subtext to the scene written with the production codes in mind and the sincerity is immediately evident even if some of the import can be lost on us. The same can be said for the foreshadowing.

Part of what makes the picture’s final act work is the fact that Lazlo is such a decent human being. He loves his wife so much, he’s willing to have Blaine take her to safety by using the Letters of Transit if need be. Thus, this dichotomy is set up and Rick must make a decision. He must do the thinking for both of them but that request from Lazlo saves Rick’s reputation no matter the decision that he makes. We know that either might be right. Even though deep in our hearts, there’s only one denouement we want.

Did I even need to write this review? Certainly not but it’s more for my sake than anyone else’s. Casablanca is a dear friend of mine and after 75 years it still comes up smelling like roses. Its themes are timeless in the sense that it allows romance to be its guiding light while still tempering it with the disillusionment and licentiousness that often is so prevalent in this world of ours. That makes its bittersweet interludes ring with a certain deep-seated truth that never comes off as fake. It’s as evocative and witty now as it was in 1942. Perhaps even more so.

5/5 Stars

Review: Casablanca (1942)

It was over 70 years ago that Casablanca hit the silver screen for the first time. All the main players are dead and gone now. The Golden Age of Hollywood, where pictures were being churned out with factory-like efficiency, has given way to a modern era of blockbusters. To borrow a quote from the movie, it doesn’t seem that one little film would “amount to a hill of beans” in our present world. Still, somehow Casablanca is beloved to this day, despite the numerous other films that have undoubtedly entered the black hole of film oblivion. It seemingly will not die and for good reason.

Considered one of the greatest films of all-time, this well-loved classic deserves to be here. It is the hallmark of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s careers. It also has one of the greatest scripts of all time, and it has achieved legendary status over the years. Many consider it purely the best film ever made and in all honesty, I would never try to refute that.
The film opens quickly and we are immersed in a world that is at the height of the Nazi terror, and many people are fleeing Europe by way of Casablanca. It is a treacherous place full of pickpockets, corrupt authorities, refugees, and naive tourists as well. Two German couriers have been murdered and some invaluable letters of transit have been stolen. That’s when we are first introduced to Rick’s Café Americain and its cynical proprietor Rick Blaine (Bogart).
A shady fellow named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) comes to Rick with the letters and asks Blaine to keep them for him. However, later that night Ugarte is taken into custody, and things begin to get even more complicated. Wanted resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is now in Casablanca, however, a Major Strasser has arrived from Germany to take him in. To top it off, Laszlo’s wife Ilsa (Bergman) was Blaine’s old flame in Paris and, needless to say, it didn’t end well.
Laszlo desperately needs the letters of transit to escape, and he inquires about them. Soon he is led to Blaine, but as Rick often admits he sticks his neck out for nobody. Knowing all too well that he is in danger, Laszlo still shows his defiance against his enemies by leading the people in a round of “La Marseillaise” and as a result, Rick’s is shut down.
All the memories of Paris begin flooding back, and then Ilsa confronts Rick in order to get the letters. This is possibly the most critical point in the film because this tense altercation ultimately renews the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. Rick asks her to trust him, and he begins to take things into his own hands. The results of his actions created one of the great romantic and cinematic moments in the history of film. The whole film leading up to this point hints at it, but Rick truly is a sentimentalist at heart. He can live with the notion that they will always have Paris and that leads him to commit a selfless act of love.
This film holds such a tremendous presence in movie history, and upon seeing the movie it makes complete sense what all the hype is about. What more could you want than Bogey, Bergman, Casablanca, and some of the greatest quotes ever uttered? Do not forget the corrupt, but nevertheless lovable French Captain Louis (Claude Rains), who delivers some terribly witty lines. Honestly, he may be my favorite character in the whole film, and that’s saying a lot!  Then, of course, there is the immortal tune of “As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson which will forever be ingrained in film lore.
However, you also gain an appreciation for the other interesting characters of Casablanca, some comical, some sympathetic, and others despicable. We have a rogue gallery of everybody under the sun from Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, German soldiers, various guests, and all the staff at Rick’s Place. This movie has conflict and the uncertainty of war in practically every scene because at the time World War II was in full force. There are a broken romance and a forlorn hero who shows his courage in the end. As an audience, we come to realize the transformation of Rick into a truly great man. Ilsa on her part has the most radiant face I have ever seen.
 It is wonderful that Casablanca succeeds as entertainment despite the fact that it is not modern. In fact, part of its charm is the black and white cinematography that helps make Rick’s Café so atmospheric. It effectively makes each interior shot moodi34 and every romantic scene even more striking. I am very doubtful that they would ever be able to pull this film off in color. It just wouldn’t work.
You do not need explosions and violence either, only great characters and a story with both drama and humor to reel the audience in. Up until the final moments of the movie you are captivated the entire time. Then, fittingly, you are left with the two men walking off into the night with the words, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
In fact, with this film, my thoughts always go back to the script. Lines like “Here’s looking at you kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Round up the usual suspects” are so rampant that you cannot possibly remember them all, and I doubt there will ever be another film that is so immersed in American cultural lexicon. Still, many of my favorite lines in the film are those that get overshadowed by the more famous ones. That is the sign of an amazing film that never grows old. Even those who have not seen this classic film like to think they have, because the influence of Casablanca reaches everywhere. I guess I’m rather an idealist myself so I would like to think that even if 70 more years pass, we’ll always have Casablanca.

Casablanca (1942)

 

Considered one of the greatest films of all-time, this well-loved classic deserves to be here. It is the hallmark of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s careers. It has one of the greatest scripts of all time, and it has achieved legendary status over the years. Many consider it purely the best film ever made and in all honesty, I would never try to refute that.
The film opens quickly, and we are immersed in a world that is at the height of the Nazi terror, and many people are fleeing Europe by way of Casablanca. It is a treacherous place full of pickpockets, corrupt authorities, refugees, and some tourists as well. Two German couriers have been murdered, and some invaluable letters of transit have been stolen. That’s when we are first introduced to Rick’s Café Americain along with its cynical proprietor Rick Blaine (Bogart). A shady fellow named Ugarte (Peter Lorre) comes to him with the letters and asks Blaine to keep them for him. However, later that night Ugarte is taken into custody and things get even more complicated. 

Wanted resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is now in Casablanca, however, a Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) has arrived from Germany to take him in. To top it off Laszlo’s wife Ilsa (Bergman) was Blaine’s old flame in Paris and it didn’t end well. Laszlo desperately needs the letters of transit to escape and he inquires about them. Soon he is led to Blaine but as he often admits Rick sticks his neck out for nobody. Laszlo shows his defiance against his enemies by leading the people in a round of “La Marseillaise” and as a result, Rick’s is shut down. 

All the memories of Paris begin flooding back, and then Ilsa confronts Rick in order to get the letters. This is possibly the most critical point in the film because the tense altercation ultimately renews the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. Rick asks her to trust him and he begins to take things into his own hands. The results of his actions created one of the great romantic and cinematic moments in the history of film. The whole film leading up to this point hints at it, but Rick truly is a sentimentalist at heart. He can live with the notion that they will always have Paris and that leads him to commit a selfless act of love.
This film holds such a tremendous presence in movie history it is quite extraordinary. Upon seeing the movie it made complete sense what all the hype was about. What more could you want than Bogey, Bergman, Casablanca, and some of the greatest quotes ever said? Do not forget the French Captain Louis played by Claude Rains or the immortal tune of As Time Goes By sung by Dooley Wilson. However, you also gain an appreciation for the other interesting characters of Casablanca, some comical, some sympathetic, and others mysterious. We have a rogue gallery of everybody under the sun from Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, German soldiers, various guests, and all the staff at Rick’s place. 

This movie has conflict and the uncertainty of war practically in every scene because at the time World War II was in full force. There are a broken romance and a forlorn hero who shows his courage in the end. As an audience, we realize the transformation of Rick into a truly great man. Ilsa, on her part, has the most radiant face I have ever seen! If you take into consideration when this movie was made, it truly is wonderful to watch. You do not need explosions and violence, only great characters and a story with both drama and humor. Up until the final moments of the movie you are captivated the entire time. Then, fittingly you are left with the two men walking off into the night with the words, “Louis I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

 In fact, with this film, my thoughts always go back to the script. Lines like “Here’s looking at you kid,” “We’ll always have Paris,” and “Round up the usual suspects” are so rampant that you cannot possibly remember them all, and I doubt there will ever be another film that is so entrenched in American culture. Many of my favorite lines in the film are those that get overshadowed by the more famous ones. That is the sign of an amazing film that never grows old. Even those who have not seen this classic film like to think they have because the influence of Casablanca reaches everywhere.

5/5 Stars