Greer Garson’s Elegant Entrance: ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ (Sam Wood, 1939)

mw169529

1939 was an important year for Hollywood’s film industry. Indeed, a ton of A-quality films was released and gave place to an impressive range of Oscar nominees (films and people). If we think 1939, the films that will most likely come to people’s mind are, without a doubt, Gone With the Wind (Victor Flemming, 1939), Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), The Wizard of Oz (Victor Flemming, 1939) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939). Oh, and coincidentally, I’m now writing in a café where the song “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush is currently playing. Wyler’s adaptation of Emily Brönte’s classic was also released during Hollywood’s biggest year. But that’s not all. In fact, 1939 was a good year for big productions and smaller ones as well. And Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Sam Wood, 1939) was one of them. This film remains noticeable in the 1939 agenda for British actor Robert Donat’s Oscar-winning performance. I always thought it was kind of nice that a lesser-known actor won the price (notice how the big acting winners were both British!) but, as I was watching the film again yesterday, it made me kind of agree with those who believe James Stewart or Clark Gable should have won instead. I don’t say that Donat’s performance isn’t good or Oscar-worthy, but it’s mostly sweet and touching, and perhaps not as strong and challenging as the ones of Gable and Stewart.

2a6bc025e8dbfc02ee8983c5e2a09a3e
Robert Donat in his Oscar-winning role

While Robert Donat’s presence in films was noticed earlier in the 30s in The Private Life of  Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) or The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935), Goodbye, Mr. Chips marked the first step into the movie world of another much-appreciated actress: Greer Garson. The one who later became the charming Mrs Miniver, who could charm anybody with her tender gaze and her gentle smile, began things strongly by playing Arthur Chipping’s love interest in Sam Wood’s film. And today, it is Greer Garson that we are honouring thanks to The Rose of MGM: The Greer Garson Blogathon hosted over at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies! The event coincides with Garson’s 24th death anniversary. I thought this would be a good occasion for me to watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips again since I hadn’t seen it in a long time. I must admit, this, Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942) and Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953) are the only films of hers I have seen so far (incomprehensible! – I should kick my butt to see more. Asap!), so I’m looking forward to reading all the reviews and discover more!

Edit: I actually had this post ready almost a month before the event started but because I got distracted (I guess) I actually completely forgot to post it! So I’m a litte late!

Greer Garson Blogathon 4

***

Goodbye, Mr. Chips tell the story of Charles Edward Chipping who becomes a Latin master (and then as housemaster) at a Brookfield public school in England. His journey (shown in a flashback) starts in the late 19th century and get expended through 1933. Through the years, Mr Chipping sees many generations of students (child actors playing more than one roles), becomes appreciated and respected by his peers and students, and falls in love. Chipping, now a middle-aged man, goes on a trip to Austria during the vacations with the German language teacher, Max Staeffel (played by the dashing Paul Henreid), who comes from this country. As he is alone on the top of a mountain, Chipping hears a woman calling from afar. Blinded by the fog, he risks his life to go to her, thinking she might be in danger. Turns out she’s not, and she’s just a friendly soul emerging from the mist. The young woman named Katherine Ellis (Greer Garson) offers sandwiches to Chipping which he accepts gladly, and they stay at the top of the mountain, learning more about each other and their business in Austria, waiting for the fog to go out so it will be safe for them to go back to the village. Miss Ellis is here on a bicycle trip with her friend Flora (Judith Furse).

Meanwhile, Max and Flora have gone on a search thinking their friends might be in danger. They are happy to find them safe and sound at the foot of the mountain. I don’t think I will surprise you by saying that Mr Chipping and Miss Ellis  fall in love, although this is subtle since Mr Chips is a very shy man! And Katherine is one who daydreams a lot but not in an extravagant way either. The two eventually have to go apart and continue their separate journeys. Happily, they coincidentally meet again on a boat floating on the Danube (“legend says, the Danube is blue only if you’re in love!” – Mr Chips). While the two are waltzing together in the grandiose ballroom, they catch the attention of their friends, who have guessed that they are meant for each other. At the train station, Chipping and Katherine once again have to part, and Chips asks for her hand while the train is taking her away. She accepts gladly, but Chips remains lost since he never knows when he’ll see her again. Luckily, his Austrian friend has thought of everything, and the two do get married! Now that they are men and wife, Mrs Chipping moves to Brookfield and becomes an appreciated and beloved newcomer among the school staff and the boys. Unfortunately, their happiness is destined to be short.

Mr Chipping’s nickname “Chips” is a discovery from his lively wife.

***

What I especially like about Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the Britishness of it. It’s a “small film” in a good way, like many British films at the time were. Actually, I should clarify something; Goodbye, Mr. Chips is more precisely a British-American production. But, to be honest, the only things that feel American about it is its director, Sam Wood, and one of the co-producing studios, MGM. While I was watching the film again, I thought it would make a good double feature with The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith, 1951), another British classic taking place in a young boys school, the main character, this time, being played by Michael Redgrave. However, Redgrave’s Crocker-Harris is a bit more austere than Donat’s Chipping (although he also hides a lot of sensitivity). These are both great films in their own ways. Also, always in the idea of comparison, there is a scene in the film during which the students are asking stupid and embarrassing questions to Mr Chipping on his first working day, and I wondered if the Carry On team was inspired by this scene for Carry On Teacher (Gerald Thomas, 1959)! There’s indeed a scene where the students play a similar trick to their annoyed English master played by Kenneth Williams!

Although this was Greer Garson’s first film, she could have started a bit sooner as she was offered a contract with MGM in 1937, but refused all the parts before the one of Katherine Chipping for being too small. (1) The actress had started her acting career on stage in England and was probably seeing the future in a big and bright way. And we can’t blame her! So, Greer was already around 35 when she starred in this first film, but she wasn’t popping out of nowhere. She already had good experience and training from her days at the theatre, and it shows. Not only she was nominated for Best Actress at the  1940’s Academy Awards, but she received the Oscar only three years later (Mrs. Miniver). Her acceptance speech is known to be the longest (or one of the longest) in Oscar history. Interestingly, Greer’s performance in the film is quite short (only 25 minutes out of 2 hours), but the proof that she was nominated in the Best Actress category instead of Best Supporting actress proves the old expression “quality over quantity. This is a situation that repeats itself decades after when Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs (Johnathan Demme, 1991). As soon as Greer Garson makes her entrance in the film, we know she is bound to be memorable. She charms us effortlessly and immediately connects with her screen partner Robert Donat’s, therefore creating magical chemistry between them. Her character, Katherine, is also very easily appreciable because she always has the right thing to say (that moment where she encourages Mr Chips to invite her to dance would be a good example). She acts as a guiding light for the schoolmaster and helps him showing the best of himself. Katherine is, yes, polite and well-mannered but also has a tremendous sense of fun, and all these qualities combined make her a most appreciable person.

Robert Donat’s Chips creates a good contrast with her, and, therefore, they complete each other quite perfectly. Just like Garson’s acting, the one of Donat remains modest in a good way. Modest and thoughtful. Mr Chips is the kind of teacher who has to attract our sympathy and inspire respect but not fear. I also like the relationship with his students and the complicity he shares with some of them. Aside from good chemistry with Greer Garson, he also makes a good friend team with Paul Henreid who, unfortunately, has too little screentime. But, like Greer Garson, it’s short but memorable. I love the energy and confidence that Paul has in this film. He plays a man whose motivation and enthusiasm is contagious (if it wasn’t for him, Chips probably wouldn’t have been to Austria and met Katherine). Paul Henreid had yet to play his most famous roles in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) and Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942), but the part of the German master was a promising one. Goodbye, Mr. Chips was his first credited role in a British/American production after having appeared in a few German and Austrian films. Of course, he couldn’t have been better cast as the German language teacher from Austria! The following year, Paul Henreid played a villain alongside Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison in Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 1940), and this is my favourite performance of his.

What I probably regret the most about the casting of Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the too ephemeral appearance of John Mills! I didn’t remember that he was in this film and was thrilled with delight when I saw his name in the credits, but, unfortunately, his role is a matter of minutes. He plays one of Chips’s former students, Peter Colley, as a young man enlisted for the war. Mills has played leading roles prior to Goodbye, Mr. Chips so his too-short appearance isn’t due to the fact that he was a newcomer.

1177334ba2459db8b426b93bf1e001c8
A young John Mills!

Goodbye, Mr. Chips displays beautiful settings all along the story. The exterior scenes at Brookfield were filmed at Repton School, in the Derbyshire, England. (2) It’s an old and majestic building from the 16th century that fits perfectly the history of the fictional Brookfield. The interiors and the scenes in Austria were filmed at Alexander Korda-founded Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire. (3) Although none of the scenes was truly shot in Austria, I love the idea that a part of the story takes place there. You see, I’ve been to Austria twice so far, and I must say, this is by far one of my most favourite countries. I spent Christmas with friends in Bad Aussee, a charming little village in the state of Styra, not far from Salzburg, and surrounded by snowy mountains. As I was watching the scenes and seeing Paul Henreid observing the mountains from his balcony, it created beautiful memories in my head. The fact that the mountains are first seen from afar and then in the fog during the closer shots gives a good illusion, and it doesn’t show too much that it was filmed in studios.

Talking of visual beauty, I also greatly admire Greer Garson’s costumes. I tried to find information about the designer or costume supervisor, but he or she doesn’t seem to be credited. Anyway, those fit perfectly the elegant spirit of Garson’s character. My favourite one is more precisely the gown she wears during the ball in Austria (we assume they are either in Salzbourg or Vienna at that point).

Goodbye, Mr. Chips was based on the novella of the same name by James Hilton and published in 1934. 30 years after the 1939’s version, a musical remake directed by Herbert Ross and starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark was released. This one takes place from 1920 to the break of the 2nd World War, and Katherine and Chips meet at the Savoy in London instead of Austria, and then again during a trip in Pompeii. I would not say that this version is superior to the original, but it’s a good remake, and Petula Clark and Peter O’Toole’s chemistry was beyond perfect, perhaps even more convincing than the one of Donat and Garson.

MV5BMTAyNzA3MDk3NTReQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU2MDg2NTkzNg@@._V1_
Petula Clark and Peter O’Toole as Mr and Mrs Chipping

On its released, Goodbye, Mr. Chips was praised by the critics and received one Oscar win (Best Actor) plus six other nominations (including for Best Picture). It was later positioned at the 72nd place of the BFI Top 100 British Films. (4) It also did fairly good at the box office.

***

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is not only a film with memorable performances, the occasion for Greer Garson to make her screen debuts, but it is also a film that shares beautiful values and a great feeling of nostalgia. It, therefore, has many ingredients to make it worthy of our time, so, if you haven’t seen it yet, you are certainly encouraged to.

Many thanks to Laura for hosting this wonderful blogathon! Make sure to read the other entries here.

See you!

tumblr_mgono2Z9wf1qfyjtpo1_500


Notes:

(1) “Goodbye, Mr. Chips: Trivia.” IMDb. Accessed March 12, 2020. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031385/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv

(2) “Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939 film).” Wikipedia. Accessed March 12, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodbye,_Mr._Chips_(1939_film)

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

3 thoughts on “Greer Garson’s Elegant Entrance: ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ (Sam Wood, 1939)

  1. 1) Are you in Maddy’s Robert Donat blog-athon later this summer?
    2) As a major Groucho Marx fan, every time I hear the name Sam Wood, I m reminded of how much they hated each other. Their most famous exchange began with Sam Wood saying something along the lines of “Nobody can make an actor out of Marx!”…to which Groucho replied “Or a director out of Wood!”

    Like

  2. I have to confess, the only part of this movie I’ve seen is when Greer Garson kisses Robert Donat in the train station, but your review makes me want to see the rest of it. It looks like a wonderful story.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s