CRUMBLIES, thousands of them. And all boys…
Let the years pass but our hearts will remember,
Schooldays at Brookfield ended too soon.
Fight to the death in the mire of November,
Last wicket rattles on evenings in June,
Grey granite walls that were gay with our laughter,
Green of the fields where our feet used to roam.
We shall remember, whate’er may come after,
Brookfield our mother and Brookfield our home.
BROOKFIELD SCHOOL SONG…
This is old Jack’s favourite film. Got that? Having palpitations? Get over it.
This is also pretty much old Jack’s 100th review on Movie Blether so buckle up, I’m under no obligation to be objective.
Goodbye, Mr Chips is simply wonderful. I have loved it since the first time Grandpa Gus and I trundled off to a season of black & white films at the local flea-pit. Old Jack was young Jack at the time, just entering the miseries of adolescence, proud as punch to be allowed into Grandpa Gus’s secret world of high-class (okay, schmaltzy) cinema. He knew what he was doing, for it tempered my adolescent grumps with proper heart.
That was the afternoon I first saw Robert Donat at work. And the man won the Oscar (the 12th) for this astonishing turn – flicking the nose of Gone with the Wind and its excessive wins. From arrogant young teacher, to pained middle-aged teacher, to profoundly changed and Greer Garsonned teacher, to the sweetest, gentlest of old teachers with – during the cruelties of war – the hardest of jobs to do… Donat is brilliant. For Goodbye, Mr Chips is the story of us all: clumsiness, becomes knowledge, becomes love and loveliness. Well, you’d hope. I like to think it’s the journey I took to the care home.
Incidentally, this is Donat’s tenth film. It’s 1939 and he is a full-on star following The 39 Steps, The Ghost Goes West (1935) and The Citadel (1938). He is big in British theatre, massive in British film and only thirty-four years old. Thirty-four. You’d need to look to Beulah Bondi‘s career for an equal at playing old folk forty years early. Honestly, Donat pulls out all the character-building skills of the theatre and out-classes every other winner of Best Actor ’til Bogart goes to Africa in 1951 or the Duke makes those sons of bitches fill their hands in ’69.
So there. Now – before this gets spoilery – go and watch the film. If you’re a cold soul, have a heart of stone or can’t control your sociopathy, you’re about to join the human race… Take a hanky. I’ll wait.
To the story: we join ancient Mr Chips in his home, greeting a boy who pops up in various guises throughout the entire film. He is at the end of his career, now retired, and full of memories. Young Peter Colley, scared of his first days at Brookfield, is calmed by tea, cake, and the best of stories…
Arthur Chipping is a good man with limited social skills. He has got himself a job at Brookfield Public School (filmed at Repton School in Derbyshire, here and in the film’s needless remakes). It is 1870 and he doesn’t know what he’s doing. The kids are little shits, the Head is a beardy and shouty old stick of pompous (Lyn Harding is terrifying as Wetherby), and Chips is lost in a sea of practical jokes and rage. But he finds his way to deal with the young: be a bit of a shit as well. And here’s our lesson: ain’t we all a tad too serious when we’re young?
Two decades pass. Chips has developed a middle-aged shell. He is not popular. Not hated, you understand, but lack of favour brings him isolation and loneliness. He is barely acknowledged by the boys as they head off for their hols and loses out on a next-in-line appointment as housemaster that popularity and charisma could have won him. Oh dear. But! He has one friend on the staff: Paul von Henreid (yup, Casablanca ahoy) as Staefel the German master. And Staefel persuades him to take a walking holiday through Austria…
This stuff is lovely. Richard Addinsell‘s score is beautiful, supporting moments of emotion and lifting the flow of boys registered at the school door (Pearson, Pringle, Glendennis, Stewart, Ellison, Edgington, Steadington, Bickerstaff, Colley, Colley Primus, Colley Secundus and on…). It carries us through the pains of Chips, and the sense of tenderness Donat gives us as the teacher loses his energetic youth and ploughs on through a weakened, disappointed middle-age…
The walking tour! Austria by way of Denham studios. And Greer Garson. Grandpa Gus told me she’s very pretty; young me thought she’s wonderful. A couple of years shy of Mrs Miniver (1942), Garson’s Kathy is everything the fuddy-duddy Chips needs. In a few scant scenes she gives us warmth, flirtiness, jollity and ultimately love – the movie love that resonates through generations. They meet on a mountain, each lost as the mist falls. When it lifts, they are in a kind of romance. Sigh.
Old Jack is tearing up thinking of the loveliness of it all. Chips and Staefel, Kathy and Flora nearly party back at the lodge. Chips retires early, ever the timid one, and hears Flora (Judith Furse) and Kathy talking on their balcony. Kathy understands: “he’s just shy, Flora, and a little difficult to know perhaps. I’m sorry for shy people. They must be awfully lonely sometimes…” Chips listens from the shadows of his heart…
Fate intervenes and they all meet again in Vienna…and Chips and Kathy dance a waltz – Strauss’s “An Der Schönen Blauen Donau”. Smile, film fans, for Chips tells Staefel that people in love believe the Danube to be blue; elsewhere Kathy thinks the Danube is, well, blue…
Ever dreamed of love in middle-age? This is how to do it. Music, characterisation, the gorgeous contrast of sluggish Chips and lively Kathy – I wish it for you, dear reader. But not what happens next, for things are not to last. The couple marry and head back to Brookfield – tick. Kathy is a spectacular hit with all the boys – tick. She warms Chips and makes him a star – tick. And then…
You’ll need that hanky for what happens next. Donat deals with scenes of loss with a delicacy that isn’t scared of enduring a laugh or two. Echoing the start of the film, when the little shits make his life a misery, they do so again as he sits in shock. Cruel, funny…ahhhhh… here Donat wins his Oscar, for he takes Chips into a dignified old age, a picture of Kathy at his side, keeping the school going as 1914 and World War destroys lives of old pupils and old colleagues and one, bravely announced, old German master.
Through all of this runs young Terry Kilburn as generations of Peter Colleys, cheeky and boyish. John Mills plays one of the more mature versions (and very Britishly so), but Kilburn’s honest performance sticks in old Jack’s head as much as in Chips’ memories. He is the archetypal schoolboy: tousled hair, insolent, scared, proud and oddly noble – and a multi-generational miracle of DNA. He’s still out there somewhere and I hope he looks back with affection in his 90s at a rôle he got so right when just 12.
Look, old Jack here watches Goodbye, Mr Chips every year. It’s an old friend of a film: sentimental, beautifully written (R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West and Eric Maschwitz translate James Hilton‘s lovely novella with pens of gold), directed (Sam Wood), shot (Freddie Young) and cut (Charles Frend) by technicians who knew their art from their craft.
But more than the quality of what the film is, it offers sentiments that matter at every stage of life. For the young, enjoy it; for the middle-aged, make it fun and live; for the old, treasure your memories and honour your losses. For when the moment comes and it’s Goodbye, Mr Chips, the echo of those memories will sing you to your rest.