It is the task of biographers to tell the why’s, how’s and wherefore’s of a person’s life, but how do you sum up a life? How do you get to the person and learn how his journey affected his soul? James Hilton did an exemplary job in his novella, Goodby, Mr. Chips (1933), telling the progress of a British boys’ school teacher from a second-rate teacher in a second-rate school to beloved icon.
Like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips was a recent literary work, a product of the 30’s. Another of the Class of ’39, Goodbye Mr. Chips is unlike GWTW. Goodby Mr. Chips was not grand in scope nor in size, it didn’t aspire to present an epic tale, merely the memory of a life that seemed small, but touched many.
Hollywood has told this story twice: once in 1939, starring Robert Donat as Mr. Chipping, and a second time thirty years later, with the great Peter O’Toole as the title character. Both were nominated for Best Actor Oscars. Mr. Donat received the award in ’39; O’Toole had the misfortune to be nominated the same year that John Wayne was nominated for his role in True Grit. While True Grit is an excellent film, it is pretty much acknowledged that Wayne was a lock for the Oscar, as he was the sentimental favorite of the Academy because of his many years in Hollywood.
Robert Donat’s portrayal of Mr. Chipping over the 63-year span of the film is a wonderfully sensitive look into the transformation of a life through times of joy and sadness, love and loss. Mr. Chips, as the boys of Brookfield call him, starts the film as a “rookie” teacher in the British school system, but over time, is transformed as time the the movie progresses into a beloved institution, through no fault of his own.
A sentimental movie, a sentimental story, Goodbye Mr. Chips is a loving look back at a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore, but deserves to be remembered. The only decent clip I could find shows how the timid Chips actually professes his love to Miss Kathy, a woman he met on holiday, and who would instigate his transformation: