Release Date(s)1939 (January 24, 2023)
Studio(s)MGM (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C-
The last and only time I had seen Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) before this Blu-ray edition must have been c. 1986-87, via an MGM/UA Home Video VHS release whose plastic clamshell case was crudely designed to resemble the leather binding of a weighty book, as it was part of their “Great Books on Video” series. Seeing it again all these decades later, I was struck by how well I had remembered so much the film considering that I’ve completely erased from my brain all memory of other movies watched as recently as six months ago.
This reflects, I suppose, the very high quality of the film. Sentimental in the good sense of the word, Goodbye, Mr. Chips has none of the sickly-sweet, bludgeoning sentimentality of most MGM productions of the era. There are several possible reasons for this, including its fidelity to James Hilton’s 1934 novel, the fine script by R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, and Eric Maschwitz, and/or maybe because it was filmed entirely in Great Britain, far from MGM head Louis B. Mayer’s direct influence. The film is partly dedicated to Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM until his untimely death in 1936. Surely this had to have been the last film in which he had some influence, Thalberg having purchased the screen rights some years before.
In flashbacks, retired schoolmaster Charles Edward Chipping, nicknamed “Mr. Chips” (Robert Donat), reflects upon a 58-year career teaching Latin and other general studies at Brookfield Public School (a private school in American parlance), founded in 1492. In 1870, with no prior teaching experience, at age 25, Chips first finds the unruly boys in his charge difficult to handle, he imposing strict discipline that earns their respect but not their friendship.
Twenty years pass and the lonely, solitary Chips is befriended by gregarious German teacher Max Staefel (Paul Henreid, in his first English-language film), who all but drags Chips along on a walking holiday tour through Austria. There, Chips meets proto-feminist Kathy (Greer Garson), on a bicycling vacation with her friend, Flora (Judith Furse, later of Black Narcissus). Despite their age difference and her progressive attitudes—Chips is initially appalled at the mere thought of a woman riding a bicycle—they fall in love. After marrying, she brings out qualities in Chips he never knew he had, which in turn completely transforms his relationships with his boys. Within a matter of months, Chips is beloved and trusted by the boys as well as by his fellow teachers at Brookfield—indeed, he becomes the very heart of that institution.
Still quite emotionally powerful, Goodbye, Mr. Chips was a huge critical and commercial success when it was new, its impact still felt today. What else to call the much-loved Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) if not an unacknowledged remake? Even The Twilight Zone got into the act, the Rod Serling-scripted 1962 episode The Changing of the Guard (with Donald Pleasance) another shameless steal of Chips.
Such stories work because they’re rooted in themes not commonly found in films or on television: the inevitable passage of time, the gradual and sometimes sudden changes to the world around us and the unavoidable steady stream of small victories and big tragedies and the loss that entails. Friends, lovers, and colleagues age and die off; one becomes older as well, inching ever closer to our own mortality. We question the worth of our life’s endeavors and whether we are leaving anything of value behind. And, ultimately, we endure as best we can because, well, no other option is available, really. All this and more are expressed with honest emotion throughout. For instance, at the onset of the First World War, new graduates rush off to join the service, only to have their names read as killed-in-action at later school memorial church services.
In high-def, one appreciates the Oscar-winning performance of Robert Donat all the more. He ages 60-some years over the course of the story, yet is entirely believable at every age. Partly this is due to the superior make-up (by Jack Dawn) which is technically excellent but also aesthetically impressive insofar as it never once suggests putty and spirit gum but part of the actor’s face. Donat himself contributes to its effectiveness, in scenes of the older Chips acting primarily through his voice and eyes. In the 1969 musical remake, Peter O’Toole’s aging Chips is far less convincing, though his performance is likewise excellent.
There are no antagonists. The closest the film comes to that is one of the headmasters trying to implement unnecessary changes to generate revenue, and through Chips even he comes around to embrace Chips’ wisdom. The boys themselves are mostly a sea of faces, though in a clever device Terry Kilburn plays four generations of boys from the same family. (Kilburn, whose credits include the cult film Fiend Without a Face, is still with us at age 96!) Late in the film, a young John Mills plays an adult version of one of these characters.
The film cost just over $1 million, top-tier for a Hollywood production in 1939, and it’s all there on the screen, with lavishly appointed sets and lots of extras, all beautifully photographed in black-and-white by legendary cinematographer Freddie Young (billed as F.A. Young, as he usually was at this point in his career).
Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of Goodbye, Mr. Chips is an excellent encoding, presented in black-and-white, 1.37:1 standard format. One can certainly appreciate both details of the production design as well as the subtleties of the performances better in this high-def version. Resolution, blacks, contrast, all good. The English DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is also above average, and the Region-Free disc is offered with optional English subtitles.
Surprisingly, the only extra is a trailer, a rather odd one framed as a kind of one-reel adaptation of drama critic-writer Alexander Woollcott’s Town Crier radio show. The 4:05 segment cuts between Woollcott effusively praising Goodbye, Mr. Chips, punctuated with film excerpts and quotes from other prominent reviewers.
Thanks especially to Donat’s central performance—Garson’s fine, too, but she’s only in the film for about 25 minutes—Goodbye, Mr. Chips holds up remarkably well. Highly recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV