24 May 2009

1939: THIS OLD MAN

The story of an inspirational teacher who causes his (or very seldom, her) charges to understand something new and empowering about the world, is as hoary as any old chestnut out there, and probably for a simple reason: most people who write movies went to school at some point and very likely had a teacher who inspired them to do something, else they would not be movie writers but mechanics or accountants or something like that (I may have also just accidentally figured out why so many of these films are about specifically about inspirational English teachers).

Most of these films are about students, or about the teacher in terms of his relationship with his students, or a particular year in a teacher's life and how he deals with a particular set of students. Rare indeed is the film about a teacher and his career (for most writers did not end up as teachers, for they would not then be writing, in all likelihood), and the most prominent of this narrow field is assuredly the 1939 Best Picture nominee Goodbye, Mr. Chips, or at least its 1969 remake. That later version, starring Peter O'Toole, is a fine thing, and worth seeking out, but it can't hold a candle to the original, starring the largely-forgotten British actor Robert Donat at the peak of his skills, portraying a shy, warm-hearted man from his 20s into his 80s, and doing a fine enough job of it that his fluid transition from youth to age isn't even the most immediately impressive element of his performance.

Donat is Charles Edward Chipping, who arrives at the Brookfield Public School in 1870 to teach Latin to the young boys that will someday run the British Empire. A reserved man who doesn't quite understand how to interact with the young people running around him, he quietly passes a couple of decades in obscurity, until one of his co-workers, Max Staefel (Paul Henreid, wholly unrecognisable as the man who would appear in Casablanca a scant three years later) drags him along on a walking trip to Austria and the Tyrol. There, Chipping meets a lively English tourist much his junior named Kathy Ellis (Greer Garson) when they're both lost on a mountain, and a romance quickly blossoms between the two: she nicknames him "Chips", he proposes marriage, and when they get back to Brookfield, she sets about teaching the teacher how to be a human being, and befriend the young men in his care instead of ordering them about, in the tragically short time they have together before she dies in childbirth. A kinder, gentler Mr. Chips follows, becoming a beloved Brookfield institution and weathering old age and the Great War with equal dignity.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is by no means a faultless motion picture: for a start, it has remarkably inconsistent internal chronology (Chipping is said to have been with the school for both 58 and 63 years, on what is apparently meant to be the same day, and either of those figures presents difficulties with character ages). And director Sam Wood, though by no means an incompetent - for what it's worth, he directed six films to Best Picture nominations, and was nominated for Best Director for three of those - is simply not a very interesting filmmaker, following the MGM house style without much in the way of deviation, although there are a few moments where he shows something like insight, particularly in the montages that show significant jumps ahead in time (the film takes place largely in four "periods": young Chipping, Chipping and Kathy, Chipping's retirement and the War, and Chipping on the cusp of death), where he does something different every time to suggest that a great deal of history is happening elsewhere; in the first jump particularly, he uses an aggressive series of superimpositions and dissolves that's more than a bit edgy for a prestige picture in 1939.

But no, there is a reason why Sam Wood is not cited among the great studio directors of the '30s, men like Howard Hawks, George Stevens, George Cukor and Leo McCarey. So we must look elsewhere to find the reason that Goodbye, Mr. Chips stays interesting, 70 years later. A big part of it, as I've hinted, is just that Donat is That Damn Good: 33 at the time of filming, he is shockingly credible as an 83-year-old man, although it helps a great deal that Chipping is explicitly defined as the kind of old man who seems a lot younger than he is because of his youthful spirit. Perhaps Donat's Chipping moves a bit fast, and talks a bit too clearly; but this is not meant to be a portrait of dotage and infirmity. At any rate, the makeup - as good as any other old-age makeup from the same time I can think of - does a perfectly fine job of making Chipping seem elderly.

There's much more to Donat's performance than that, though. The arc of Chipping's life isn't that he gets old, after all: it's that he is drawn out of his shell through love, loses that love, and yet continues to live the way his lover taught him. There's a lot of subtle psychology in that brief description, and Donat, one of the few truly subtle actors of the 1930s, hits every note of the complex transformation of stuffy Charles Chipping into grandfatherly Mr. Chips.

The other thing that keeps Goodbye, Mr. Chips as moving today as it was upon its premiere is its fulsome nostalgia; nostalgia that sometimes even lapses into awkward conservatism, it must be confessed. This is a story that recalls with unabashed love the good old Victorian Age, when propriety was the most important thing and nothing was more valuable than uninterrupted tradition. Brookfield is important because it is hundreds of years old; Chips is important because he's been at Brookfield as long as anyone can remember; a public school education is valuable because it teaches things they way they have been for generations. A headmaster is ridiculed by both Chipping and the film for promoting a newer, better way of pronouncing Latin; of course if it's newer it can't be better, is the film's all-but-explicit argument. The film and I don't see eye-to-eye on this, I must admit.

But recall, won't you, that this film came out in 1939, a moment in history when it seemed like all the beautiful old ways of European life were about to be changed forever - as indeed they were. Much as the same year's Gunga Din (reviewed) presented an elegiac love letter to a British Empire that was about to fade away, so does Goodbye, Mr. Chips pay tribute to the more domestic elements of an English culture that was under constant threat from looming Nazism - and like Gunga Din, presents a plot in which the same element of British life it was eulogising was under attack. One needn't subscribe to the particulars of Victorian and Edwardian society to agree that it is a sad thing when a way of life comes to an end, and that is clearly what Goodbye, Mr. Chips is documenting - if Chipping is the embodiment of those generations, it bears noticing that the final seconds of the film bear witness to his death.

It's therefore not as much an attempt to pretend that all this wasn't happening as Gunga Din was; it's more like taking an old friend by the hand and saying farewell. Which brings me back to Chipping himself, who becomes someone we like a lot by the end of the movie, whether we especially agree with what he stands for, and whose passing - unmistakably though elliptically expressed - is one of the most genuinely moving deaths of 1930s American cinema. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a weeper through and through, one aimed at men instead of women, but loss hovers around it constantly. And yet, unlike so many melodramas meant to send the audience to Hell and back (such as Dark Victory, which we looked at last month) this film suggests that death is sometimes kindly and quiet: it takes an old man at the end of a rich life, giving him a chance to truly understand what kind of legacy he leaves behind. A sad ending it might be, but few sad endings indeed have ever been this uplifting.

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