‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ (1939) Robert Donat, Greer Garson
D. Sam Wood
The Oscars ended last Sunday and in doing so, brought the month of Smarch to a close. Smarch is that 31 day month (with lousy weather) between February and March. While February is famous for St. Groundhog’s Day, when thousands of lovers emerge from their winter burrows to see if they are going to have 6 more weeks of sex; and March is famous for killing Caesar, Smarch is famous for 31 days of Oscar on Turner Classic Movies.
This event is greeted with much rejoicing in the Baconcat household. Both Mr. and Mrs. Baconcat are rabid fans of the classics. Every Smarch the DVR quickly fills up with oft-quoted and much beloved favorites like Casablanca, The African Queen and The Lion in Winter.
Most of these films count as a fond trip down memory lane for us, but just occasionally there will appear a classic (Oscar worthy no less!) in the list that we haven’t seen. These moments of newness are precious things. They are special one-time only events like the birth of a first child or a Male-Male-Female threesome.
This year TCM’s crop produced a doozie for us: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) based on the novel by James Hilton. Not only was this a film neither of us had seen, but it was a bona-fide Oscar powerhouse, not one of those ‘Oscar’ films TCM tends to barf up as space filler with dubious Oscar claims like a solitary nomination for best film editing (I’m looking at you On The Beach). No, here was a film that was nominated for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Actress in a Leading role, and a film that won Robert Donat the Best Actor statue over a field that included Jimmy Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Sir Laurence Olivier (Wuthering Heights), Mickey Rooney (Babes in Arms) and Clark Gable (Gone With The Motherfucking Wind). To top it off it had the delicious and fun Greer Garson as second billing.
The plot is pretty simple: Via flashbacks it tells the story of Mr. Chipping’s (‘Chips’) life as a teacher at the prestigious English Brookfield Institute. From his first arrival at age 22 to his death, the movie chronicles his struggles, loves and losses within the walls of the venerable institution. Over the years he teaches the kids, who grow up and their kids come to Brookfield and so on for several generations. It was for this portraying of a Mr. Chips in the spring, summer and autumn of his life that won Robert Donat the academy award. And there is where my problem with the film began.
In the film Donat portrays Chips at four periods of his life: 22, mid 40’s, mid 60’s and mid 80’s. He does fine with Chips as a young man, and also with Chips at 40 (since he was roughly the same age) but Donat’s idea of acting old is putting on a mark twain mustache, mussing his hair and shuffling around muttering the same phrases over and over again in a high-pitched codger voice. He’s one flatulence joke away from being an Eddie Murphy character. Unfortunately, most of the movie is from this period.
As I watched, I kept thinking ‘When is Greer Garson gonna show up’? The answer is not until a third of the way through the film (and a third of the way up a mountaintop). She then proceeds to marry Mr. Chips, make him trim his mustache and teaches him that children will like him more (and come over to his house unescorted) if he bribes them with cake. Then, she dies during childbirth. It was at this point that I turned to Mrs. Baconcat and asked:
“When did she have time to get pregnant?”
“Perhaps it was the one time they kissed?” She replied. “That’s how Victorians got pregnant you know.”
So that’s it for Greer Garson. The excellent and underused Paul Heinreid has more screen time than her. But this fits a disturbing theme I noticed about the movie: this is a sausage fest. There’s a creepily high level of man on boy spanking and caning. There are also heartfelt, tender handshakes and prolonged eye-gazing amongst the men. Plus lots of butch men in uniforms.
Mark Twain once famously said: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco watching ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’.
The rest of the film is basically Chips learning that though his wife was fun and all, he really, really loves the boys of the school and he is meant to instruct them. And then the movie ends, except it doesn’t. Like a successive level of baddies in a Bond film that must be killed before you can get to the final credits, Chips goes through level after level of events that would qualify for most filmgoers as end-worthy: First, he retires. Then he comes back to be headmaster for the duration of WWI. Then he retires again in 1918. Then he wakes up in 1933 and has a talk with a young student named Colley (the 4th such Colley kid to come through the halls of Brookfield), and then, FINALLY, he dies in bed.
But even his death isn’t the end. First, we have the death itself which ends with him fading out whilst mumbling a very NAMBLA-esque ramble about how he had ‘thousands and thousands of boys’, and then if that wasn’t enough, we get to experience his last fleeting memory which is literally a parade of young boys capped off by young master Colley in more eyeliner than a Bollywood star pulling off a ‘cheesecake’ turn and bidding Mr. Chips adieu.
Even this was not the end, because they remade this film three more times. I think in an alternate universe I am still watching this film.