Saturday, August 21, 2010

You say goodbye, and I say hello

Coming up early tomorrow morning on TCM, at 6:00 AM ET, is the great, and family-friendly 1939 version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Robert Donat stars as the title role, a teacher at a British boys' school whose real name is Chipping, but who got the natural nickname "Mr. Chips". It's the early 1930s, and Chips is by now an old man whom the other teachers would love to pension off, if only because he's too stodgy and won't accept new methods of teaching. The students, however, love him, as he's become an institution. It's also the first day of a new school year, and Chips is under the weather and unable to attend the opening assembly, so we see him curled up by a fireplace, where it's obvious what's going to happen next: the inevitable flashback....

Chips started his career in the middle of the Victorian era, unsure of himself. But, as we see, he learns that you need the right mix of kindliness and discipline to become a great teacher. Along the way, he's at first overlooked for headmaster, takes a trip to the Continent where he meets the love of his life (Greer Garson), only to lose her eventually. And, he goes on teaching, and teaching, for decades on end, through all sorts of historical changes. Those changes are deftly handled through an interesting technique: scenes are shown of boys on the opening day of a new school term, talking about one or another big historical event of the day. "It will be funny to have a King", for example, is the way the death of Queen Victoria is handled. But, it's always the same boy actors in these scenes, indicating a timeless quality to Chips' teaching.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is Donat's movie all the way and, with a bit of help from the make-up department, he does a brilliant job aging from the young new teacher to an octogenarian. Despite being up against serious competition at Oscar time (after all, 1939 is generally considered Hollywood's greatest year), Donat walked off with the Oscar and richly deserves it. The story is, for the most part, warm, but without the Margaret O'Brien level of treacle. As such, it's good for the whole family.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips has been released to DVD, but make certain you're getting the 1939 movie: it was remade in the late 1960s as a musical, and that's a movie that pales badly in comparison.

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