Last year, I reviewed For Whom the Bell Tolls the movie – a film adaptation that was so faithful to the novel of the same name that it was dull and barely cinematic. It made me realize that there are ways to keep to the spirit of the book while adapting it to the big screen. A good example of this is the 1939 movie adaptation of Goodbye, Mr. Chips starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. It captures the warm, somber, and sentimental spirit of the 1934 novella of the same name, while making the necessary changes to make it cinematic through the screenplay, the costumes, the music, and the performances.
The screenplay was written by R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, and Eric Maschwitz. All of them are British. Since the book is quintessentially English, it makes sense to have British people adapt it due to their knowledge and experiences with schooling in England. This definitely comes through in the movie.
As for the screenplay itself, Sherriff, West, and Maschwitz expand and alter certain elements of the book for the movie. For starters, in the beginning of the novella, there are mentions of Mr. Chips disciplining his students at the beginning of his tenure at Brookfield to show them who’s boss, especially how the first boy he punished was one named Colley. These get turned into a couple of scenes in the film. Some of them involve Chips failing to keep the boys in line on his first day at the school due to their unruly and chaotic behavior and then later punishing them by keeping them in the classroom while a cricket game is going on. As for Colley, child actor Terence Kilburn plays every generation of said character who came and went to Brookfield to symbolize the families that Mr. Chips remembers and influences at the school. These expansions help to reinforce the evolution of the relationship between the title character and the students.
As for the alterations, the main ones come at the beginning and the pivotal scene where Chips meets Katherine. The book starts off with the retired teacher sitting by the fire at Mrs. Wickett’s place, reflecting on certain things, and then dozing off. It doesn’t really do much to establish his character. I sense that the writers felt the same thing because the flick begins with an assembly commemorating the new fall term at Brookfield and a new teacher getting a brief tour of the school. The headmaster mentions that Mr. Chips is ill, so he won’t be present. However, the film quickly cuts to the title character as he old-man sprints to the assembly, and he picks up a lost student along the way. Later on, he greets the returning and new students by remembering how their fathers and grandfathers were, and the latter warmly receiving him. My favorite part of that scene was how he points out that one student named Morgan was wearing trousers that are 3 inches too short just like his grandfather did. This is more effective in establishing who Chips is in a nutshell.
Additionally, the scene, in which Mr. Chips meets Katherine for the first time, plays out slightly differently in the movie. In the novella, he goes to the Lake District in England with a colleague named Rowden during the summer. While climbing a mountain, he encounters Katherine in a misunderstanding that she needed to be rescued, but he proceeds to injure his ankle while trying to get to her. After getting to know each other, Katherine and her friend help Chips get down the mountain.
In the film, a German teacher named Max Staefel (played by Paul Henreid of Casablanca and Now, Voyager fame) takes Chips on a trip to Austria during the winter break. Max is briefly mentioned in the book when it’s revealed that he was killed during the Great War while fighting for the Germans. His character is expanded in the flick as being a nice guy who wants to help Mr. Chips to get his mind off of not getting the housemaster position (side note: it’s interesting having a sympathetic German person in an Anglo-American film from 1939). Then, while Chips and Katherine get to know each other in the mountains, a search party is organized to find them. Both are eventually discovered. I bet these changes were done to consolidate certain characters and make it less on-the-nose on how Katherine’s entire purpose in both the movie and the book is to rescue Mr. Chips from his old ways.
If I had to nitpick on the screenplay, it would be that it could’ve ended several times throughout the movie. In one scene, Mr. Chips and Katherine have a dramatic parting at the train station that’s reminiscent in many romantic movies. As Katherine leaves, Chips looks despondent until Max shows and says that he and Flora (Katherine’s friend) have arranged a church for them to be married in when they get back to England. Talk about things getting resolved quickly!
Granted this may also have to do with the editing as well. Almost every scene ends with a blackout, which may confuse viewers into thinking that the movie is over. Other than that, the film is well paced.
Now, let’s move onto the costumes. Even though the clothes worn in the film are not as spectacular as other flicks released in 1939 (*cough Gone With the Wind), they are effectively used in the story. The outfits worn by Robert Donat as Mr. Chips subtly emphasize how eccentric the character is. When the flick introduces a younger version of Chips in 1870, he is dressed with a coat with the top two buttons buttoned and that barely fits. Since the movie establishes how odd the character is with his unkempt hair, Airedale-like mustache, and how unfiltered he could be, this is a simple way of showing how he was not like other teachers. At one point, Chips’s raggedy wardrobe gets pointed out when Headmaster Ralston confronts him about his old-fashioned habits. The way that Donat looks down at the worn robe makes it clear that the character didn’t notice the garb in that way until that moment.
The wardrobe in the movie also reflects Mr. Chips’s memory. During the time he spent with Katherine, people are seen wearing outfits common for the 1890s and 1900s even though it’s supposed to be around 1888 after Headmaster Wetherby dies. Normally, I’d be confused, but because Chips later admits that during his retirement speech before the war, he would only be able to remember the boys as they are now. And, since he’s recalling his life in the 1930s, he’s likely forgetting certain details like the clothes outside of the uniforms the students wear. All he can recollect is the emotions and how Katherine looked to him during his years with her.
Moreover, the music is really good in capturing the cozy and nostalgic vibe of the flick. The school song sounds like something that was probably written centuries ago because of how choral it is. The voices exude a warmth tone, which suits the film very well. The melody is just as good when the instrumental plays during the background in various scenes. Also, “The Blue Danube” is exquisitely utilized throughout the flick. It’s first used during a ball in Vienna, where Chips and Katherine waltz. Afterwards, whenever he recalls his time with his late wife, “The Blue Danube” plays. Not only does it symbolize the happiness he had with Katherine, but it also further emphasizes how he best remembers the feelings that he had whenever he looks back.
It’s the decisions with things like costumes and music that make director Sam Wood effective. He directed the film adaptation of For Whom the Bell Tolls but this one is much better for many reasons. Wood is faithful to the source material, but he’s able to make things cinematic more successfully like the first meeting between Mr. Chips and Katherine than the film I discussed prior. He also infuses plenty of humor that mainly come from how eccentric Mr. Chips is, but Donat plays it like he’s in on the joke. Furthermore, the scenes involving some form of chaos are well done. This includes Chips’s first day of teaching and how that goes awry very quickly. I especially love how there are closeups of the kids having a mischievous grin on their faces before messing with their schoolmaster.
If I had to complain about one thing about Wood’s direction in this flick, it’s how calculative it can be. It tugs at viewers’ emotions at many occasions, and a lot of those moments are well executed. However, there are times that it’s doing so just to get a reaction out of the audience. It’s most apparent when Katherine dies, and a maid who hasn’t appeared in the movie until then starts crying upon hearing the news. I know that there are people who have said that you’re heartless if you don’t feel something during that scene. It’s not that I didn’t since there were other scenes that tugged at my heartstrings. It’s that I knew what Wood was doing with having the maid as a surrogate for the audience at that time. If she was established as a character much earlier in the film, then that moment would’ve been more effective.
Finally, I have to talk about the performances. Let’s start off with Greer Garson. She plays Katherine in the movie. Even though the character is essentially an I’m-not-like-most-bicycle-riding-Suffragettes plot device that turns Mr. Chips’s life around (this part is more apparent when Chips and Max are looking for Katherine and Flora, and they encounter another set of female bicyclists), Garson embodies her cheekiness and motherly kindness. She also has good chemistry with Donat. It helps that she has a memorable entrance where she emerges from the mist when Katherine and Chips meet for the first time in the mountains. On top of that, it was Garson’s debut film. Although she’s clearly supporting, I can see why Garson got nominated for Best Actress at the 1939 Academy Awards.
Next, let’s talk about the kids. The boys as the students at the school act like any other kids who get amusement by messing with their teacher. And when they’re punished, they act like the world is ending even though it’s not. This is true when they have to stay in the classroom while a cricket game is going on. At the same time, they share a warm report with Chips, especially when he starts inviting them to tea on Sundays. They always seem to greet him warmly whenever they see him. I also have to give time to discuss how Terence Kilburn who plays every Colley Chips encounters at the school. Kilburn plays every generation with a different kind of personality. The first Colley starts off as mischievous, and they evolve until the last one Chips sees is timid.
Finally, I need to talk about Robert Donat and his performance as the titular character. On paper, Mr. Chips is eccentric, but unremarkable. Given the appearance mentioned earlier as well as the Latin-related puns, a lesser actor would’ve played him one note. Donat doesn’t fall into that trap. Instead, he grounds Mr. Chips with warmth and sincerity. The emotional transformation of his character is believable because Donat establishes very early on that he wants to make a difference in his student’s lives. A younger version of Chips attempts to console a young boy on the train to Brookfield with little success, but later on, that boy, now a man, thanks the more aloof and stoic teacher for helping him out. Of course, I have to comment on the makeup. It’s the only time a movie directed by Sam Wood contains legitimately good makeup. Although Donat’s comes off a little clown-like at the beginning, it becomes more fleshed out as the flick progresses. Overall, I can see how the physical and emotional evolution of the character landed Donat the Best Actor Oscar at the 1939 Academy Awards.
All in all, the 1939 film adaptation of Goodbye Mr. Chips captures the spirit of the novella of the same name while altering it for cinematic reasons. The decisions made for adapting the book are successful in maintaining the warm, somber, sweet (but not sappy), and humorous vibes. The biggest strength of the adaptation is the performances, especially Robert Donat’s. I would recommend it to those who love black-and-white movies and not just to those who are obsessed with the Oscars as well as to those who love films about teachers and how much they can make a difference in people’s lives. This flick proves that one can be faithful to the story while making the necessary adjustments for a different medium.
I made another appearance on The 300 Passions Podcast with Zita Short this week to discuss this film, the novella, and the other adaptations and why the movie failed to make AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions List. Check it out here!
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