“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1967)
Directed by: Sam Wood
Starring: Robert Donat
Robin Williams, step aside. Your “Captain, my Captain” was outclassed 12 years before you were born.
In the 1939 British film “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” uptight and fastidious Charles Chipping arrives at the all-boys Brookfield Public School in 1870 to teach Latin, that fustiest and dustiest of all subjects. Poor Chipping’s serious countenance makes him the butt of practical jokes, his students raucously targeting him while his inability to be flexible costs him a promotion.
Chipping seems beyond help until his friendly colleague Max, who teaches German, takes him to Austria on a hiking trip where he meets, of course, the woman who will change his life – lively Kathy Ellis (Greer Garson). The two marry, of course, and his new vivacious love teaches Chipping – now Chips – how to relax and take more out of life, making him a favorite among students and an established figure at Brookfield.
Chips’ popularity keeps him happy, even though his wife is tragically taken from him in childbirth. During his teaching career, he teaches the son and grandson of one of his former students, the masses of whom ebb and flow with as much tender treatment as any teacher-pupil movies have ever succeeded at since.
Probably one of the best aspects of “Goodbye” is that it manages to track the change of time (over thirty years) with careful and deliberate pacing, aging Donat with expert hands and following his rapport with his students without falling into the trap of oversentimentality.
Inexorably, time intrudes, and Chips finally steps down when a younger headmaster takes over Brookfield, leaving a full career behind him. But problems of the world finally invade the academic idyll of boys in uniforms as the school’s teachers and former students alike leave to fight the Great War. Max, Chips’ old friend, is fighting too – for the Germans.
The lack of teachers prompts Chips to return to his old school, where he becomes interim headmaster and leads the boys everyday in saying prayers for their fallen comrades, even for fallen Max. And even from the other side of the screen, viewers will feel the story as keenly as Chips obviously does, and we can’t help but feel that twinge when Chips quietly bids farewell.
Donat’s outstanding turn as Chips snagged him the Best Actor Oscar for that year over Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler. Easily the best part of the film, Donat plays Chips with sensitivity and style. Best of all, he’s believable. Everyone’s had that teacher – or at least, everyone wishes he’s had that teacher. Chips works his way into the viewer’s heart with as much ease as he does his students’, and director Sam Wood manipulates his black-and-white medium well, capturing both the timelessness of the story and the affection of the characters. And Kathy’s death will just break your heart.
“Goodbye” anticipated many later tropes that movies like “The Emperor’s Club” and “Mona Lisa Smile” tried to do. But it was better. Chips didn’t fight the man or raise a ruckus. He simply did his job, and by doing so, captured the hearts of his students over his 50 year career. Mr. Chips was Mr. Chips, and that just makes us love him all the more.