Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Goodbye, Mr. Chips really oughtn’t to be as agreeable as it is. More still, it ought to stink. Its raison d’être is, after all, a complete bust: James Hilton’s novella reconceived as a musical. Perhaps the manner in which the songs entirely fail to take centre stage – unless the songs are diegetically taking place ona stage – saves this element; by and large, they’re solo soliloquies utilising montage or controlled choreography, rather than flamboyant budget busters. It would still have been preferable had they’d been entirely absent – and easy to see why a number of them were initially cut following the premiere – but then we would likely have been denied the pleasure of Petula Clark. It’s her chemistry with her leading man, and particularly the remarkable performance of her leading man, that rescue Goodbye, Mr Chips.
Terence Rattigan signing on apparently assured Peter O’Toole’s involvement; Richard Burton was initially attached – I could see him having hit all the wrong notes, I mean in performance, rather than tune – but dropped out because he didn’t want to play opposite a “pop singer”. O’Toole’s no great crooner; he’s hardly Rex Harrison in spoken-word terms, but you can tell he’d have come a cropper were he “going for it”. He was, however, a phenomenal thesp. Consequently, it’s almost a shame this performance is attached to a musical, because it automatically reduces its creditability as a “drama”. His immersion in fusty, starchy, disciplinarian teacher Arthur Chipping – “Ditchy, short for dull as ditch water” – whose life is transformed by love of Pet’s music hall soubrette Katherine Bridges, is supremely affecting and life-affirming: heart-warming in a manner that, due to Chips’ essential reserved nature, avoids the pitfalls of sentiment even when the songs are demanding that very quality. Sure, it’s wish-fulfilment fantasy, but the difference between the same being corny and moving is all in the playing.
It amounts to a strange choice for a musical, at that or any time; MGM’s thinking was likely that they should strike while the genre was still hot, and they’d had a treatment knocking around since the early 1950s. Nevertheless, one might argue the very nature of a tale – however “modernised”, which really means it’s been moved up a few decades, from the 1920s to the 1950s – in which Katherine states “All I ever want to be is a schoolmaster’s wife” is positively reactionary. That side doesn’t really resonate because O’Toole and Clark play an entirely complementary meeting of souls, chalk and cheese who adapt each other.
Tom Milne in Time Out called the picture “incredibly bloated” but testified to O’Toole’s excellent performance, and that his “metamorphosis from passionless pedant into loveable eccentric is perfectly credible”. Pauline Kael likewise had issues, but sung O’Toole’s praises as an “actor who can make us feel that he has ‘heart’”, “a romantic performance, not a bathetic one”. She added that he “treats that man with such extraordinary respect that Chips grows in stature as the character must grow if the movie is to succeed as romance. And when Chips stops growing, O’Toole manages, through what in an actor is heroic intelligence, not to make him an endearing, stomach-turning old codger… He plays the part from within and the externals are kept to a minimum”.
Kael referenced the source material’s “soggy gentility”, and Rattigan offers a light rain of class and mores challenging the old school’s assumptions (the novel has Katherine as a governess espousing female empowerment). A threat to their bliss inevitably arises, in the form of Lord Sutterwick (George Baker, voice of James Bond that year, well partially), who knows of Katherine’s “debauched” history.
In that sense, her popularity with the pupils is more allayed with later buckers of trends in the likes of Dead Poets Society or School of Rock. Indeed, if Goodbye, Mr Chips misses out on something significant, it’s fleshing out Chips’ relationship with his pupils. We see him incurring their discontent (preventing the junior tennis champion from competing by detaining the class as punishment for under-par exam results) and his later, easier-going manner, but there’s insufficient development there to see why he should become so beloved (as his final appearance at the school, now headmaster by default during WWII, leads to a tear-stained departure amid gales of applause).
Chips’ final reflection that he can but hope, if nothing else, he taught them “How to behave to each other. Yes. We did try to teach them that” is valid, along with the implicit recognition that all this education may be essentially worthless – Chips teaches dead languages Latin and Greek, assuming the former was ever alive, of course – but there simply isn’t enough of that side of his character and attitude (anything approaching an interrogation of the education system – à la if – is far from the picture’s remit, even if it doesn’t go quite as far as extolling an artificial sense of its sanctity). That this feels like no paramount failing rests – or rather takes flight – on the central relationship.
Quite what it is that attracts Katherine to Chips remains elusive, other than his being the antithesis of everything that is her life, but I don’t know that you need this underlined; the playing between Clark and O’Toole communicates in abundance the tug between the interiorised, stifled duffer and the open, expressive chanteuse. Their initial meeting following her performance in Flossie from Fulham, in which his brief review clumsily lays ruin to the musical while attempting to say she was very good, finds her immediately curious of him, so different is he to all those confident men in her midst. Their later chance meeting in Pompeii – maximum production value here from cinematographer Oswald Morris, during a run of musicals that included Oliver! and Scrooge – is wonderfully staged amid the acoustics of a ruin as they discuss egg sandwiches. If the quiet life of a dutiful wife seems an in surmountable ill fit, Clark conveys it as a choice of endless opportunities for expression, and the picture affords them more time together than the novella’s couple of years (fifteen) before she is boshed by a WWII bomb (O’Toole’s playing of the news of her loss is incredible).
Like Kael, I found the age between the two something of a distraction, and it has to be said the hair and makeup department wasn’t exactly running at full strength (her perm doesn’t seem very 1920s to me). Chips is 48 when they meet in the novel, so is presumably not so far from that here, but both leads were the same age (37 or thereabouts). When we first see them, they don’t look dissimilar in age, and the references to Chips being old and Katherine being young are consequently distracting. So too later, when Chips tells her she hasn’t aged at all while he’s sporting a lightly talced hair and tache, it seems more like the departments praying desperately O’Toole will convey the years by sheer power of will (he still seems remarkably capable of running at a pace, all gangly arms and legs while knocking on sixty).
The supporting cast mostly leave you wishing for more, which is generally a positive. Michael Bryant is Chips’ fellow master Max, destined to return to Germany at Hitler’s behest and a ready companion for comparing word usage (Webster does not curry favour). Michael Redgrave is the kindly headmaster, Jack Hedley his not so much replacement Baxter. Michael Culver (The Empire Strikes Back’s Captain Needa) is the good loser when it comes to Katherine, Clinton Greyn (The Two Doctors’ Field Marshall Stike of the Ninth Sontaran Battle Group) the less-so suitor. The magnificent Jack May appears, uncredited, as animal-sanctuary master. Best of all is Siân Phillips, then Mrs O’Toole – making the line “I adore this man, when you finished with him will you lend him to me” a nice in-joke – as Katherine’s super-luvvy friend; she’s a ready source for delightful outrage and memorable lines (“Darling, I revel in early English perpendicular”).
The musical was far from over at this point – Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret would be released in the next few years – but the expense/profit ratio was beginning to miss more often than it hit. Hello, Dolly! was just tooexpensive, however much Streisand was a guarantee of bums on seats. The likes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Finian’s Rainbow, Sweet Charity, Paint your Wagon and Scrooge either bombed or cost too much in the first place, regardless of receipts. Arthur P Jacobs, who score big time with Planet of the Apes (and sequels) took a bath with Doctor Dolittle, and then did the same again with Goodbye, Mr Chips (undeterred, his final productions would be Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn musicals).
The Oscars that year mainly took notice of Hello, Dolly!, with O’Toole getting an acting nod (he wuz robbed). As did the “Score of a musical picture”, illustrating why the category was ditched the following year; you could just make up numbers, regardless of merit. Anthony Holden suggested, had O’Toole won, it would have been a “sentimental injustice” but I’d argue otherwise; it’s a magnificent performance, unfairly obscured by the picture’s musical shortcomings.
You’ll find a lot of reviews slating Goodbye, Mr. Chips. On musical grounds, that’s entirely justified. There are those taking shots at Herbert Ross – never my favourite director, particularly once he hit the 1980s – and some of those digs are also fair. Although, by and large, I think his work is fine here, and I even quite like the contrasts in execution – Vincent Canby’s “the zoom, the boom and the helicopter” – and canvas. As a romance, though, the picture is heartfelt and winning, delivered by two leads who shine together.
First published by Now in Full Color on 22/06/22.