After watching the 1939 version of and reading Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I discovered that there were three other versions made of this story for the screen. These are the 1969 movie musical, the 1984 television mini-series, and the 2002 Masterpiece Theater television film (there’s also a 2021 filmed opera, but that’s not accessible at the moment). This piqued my curiosity of how each of these adaptations hold up to the black-and-white movie version. So starting today, I’ll begin my 4-part series of reviewing each of these subsequent interpretations and how they measure up to the definitive 1939 one.
Part 1 will focus on the 1969 movie musical starring Peter O’Toole as the title character and Petula Clark as Catherine.
When watching this version, one will notice three major changes to the story. The first is the timeline. In the novella and the 1939 film version, the story takes place between 1870 and 1933. In this adaptation, screenwriter Terence Rattigan shifts to between 1924 and the 1960s. I wouldn’t be shocked if this was made to update the story since it was released in 1969. In addition, the flick starts with Mr. Chips fully established at Brookfield as opposed to him starting out in the black-and-white version. I suppose this was done to get straight to the point that Mr. Chips is not well liked by his students. I’m not bothered by these alterations because they don’t fundamentally change the plot.
Now, there’s the other and more obvious alteration: it’s a musical. Many reviewers and I have been confused by this since the story doesn’t really lend itself well to being sung. The podcast Musicals With Cheese and the YouTube channel Musical Hell have gone into more detailed explanation of why certain tales work better as musicals, so I’ll make this brief. Musicals deal with big emotions, feelings so huge that characters have no choice but to sing and dance. For example, Les Miserables makes for a great musical because it deals with people in depressing situations and their desires to get out of them despite the odds. The protagonist Jean Valjean especially needs to sing because he wants to prove to others that he is a person despite serving 19 years in prison and being repeatedly stalked by an officer who yearns to put him in his societal place. With Goodbye Mr. Chips, there’s not a whole lot of big emotions. The students feel these, but with the titular character, all he does is be moody and reflective. That’s not much to build a successful musical. As a result, the overall movie feels misguided, yet it’s not bad.
This film was made during the time of the big movie musicals, where they were promoted heavily in roadshows and nominated for Oscars. Well-known flicks from this time period are Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. In other words, musicals were a huge deal back then. A lot of these movies from that time period tended to be long due to the songs as well as the overture, intermission, and entr’acte music. I can see why the decision to transform Goodbye Mr. Chips into a musical was made, but again, it doesn’t really work. For a simple story about an old former English schoolmaster looking back on his life, its run time is about two and a half hours. Talk about being bloated.
Along with the songs, it alters certain elements like the romance between Mr. Chips and Catherine. In the novella, the relationship between those characters is a quick one, but Chips remembers it fondly because of his great love and appreciation for his dead wife since she helped him turn his life around and be more open and wanting to get to know the boys at Brookfield. At first, I wasn’t crazy about this decision, because while the romance is certainly an important part of the story, it’s not the core of it. That is the relationship between Chips and the students. However, the more I thought about it and after discussing the 1939 adaptation with Zita Short, it made me realize that expanding the relationship between Mr. Chips and Catherine made the latter more important to the overall story. In the black-and-white version, when she dies, she is almost erased from the plot entirely. So, I appreciate this film’s attempt at making her more involved in the tale.
While the conflict between Chips and the boys is still essential, it certainly feels more contained than it does in the 1939 version. For instance, the scenes of the bombs going off while a lesson is going on and the April Fools’ Day prank the boys pull on Chips are combined into one. It felt like the movie spent so much time on the romance that the people involved were probably like, “Bloody hell! We have to include these scenes to ensure that it’s still Goodbye, Mr. Chips!”
In addition, since this is a musical, I have to talk about the music. The songs were written by Leslie Bricusse, and the score was composed by John Williams (yes, that one). Both were nominated for Best Score of a Musical Picture at the 1969 Academy Awards, yet I don’t think they deserve it. They’re mostly forgettable. The songs usually had dull melodies with lyrics that tell more than show. The telling part is a problem that I discovered while reading the novella, yet the tunes make that aspect worse. The lyrics are vague as a result. For example, take a look at the lyrics for “You and I,” and you’ll see what I mean.
With all of that being said, it’s not all bad. The best songs are “London is London” (Catherine’s song while she’s performing in a music hall revue [yes, Catherine being a music hall performer is another change that the movie makes to the source material]), “When I Am Older” (sung by the students as they go back to Brookfield), and “Schooldays” (the ditty that Catherine performs with some of the students at an assembly). All of them are fun and have a lot of visual elements going for them. The first tune is one the producers funded the most on as it has the most extras, costumes, and setpieces. The second one contains montages of the boys performing various activities while proclaiming what they’re going to do when they get older. “London is London” and “Schooldays” are the only two numbers, in which dancing is involved. This is strange given how first-time director Herbert Ross was a choreographer. Anywho, I especially like the latter song because it feels like the kind of ditty sung at an English school assembly, and having the one kid not know the dance completely is a nice touch. “What a Lot of Flowers” has plenty of pretty visuals, yet they tend to be so on the nose that even Tom Hopper would complain about how literal it is. “London is London” and “Schooldays” contain the most effective imagery in the movie and are the least involved with the plot, so who cares about the vague lyrics. “When I Am Older” has the most specific lyrics and are sung by characters that would definitely do so, especially since they are at an English boarding school.
As mentioned earlier, this was the directorial debut of Herbert Ross, and it shows. There’s plenty of wide shots of various locations like London, Brookfield, and Pompeii. The opening and closing shots of the boys getting checked in are effective. They look nice, but they feel mostly pointless. At one point while Chips and Catherine are in Pompeii, there are so many lens flares that I thought I could go blind. The editing is fine. It cuts like it’s supposed to. However, it sometimes goes into montages with pointless images. For example, during the “Where Did My Childhood Go?” number, the film cuts appropriately to the students celebrating the last day of school, yet soon after, it transitions to adults walking and boys singing in a choir for some reason. Later on in the flick, when Chips or Catherine remember their whirlwind of a romance, it shows their time in Pompeii. This makes sense, but the first time the movie does that, it happens 20 minutes after their initial courtship. The second time occurs is more appropriate as it’s shown during the second act. Moreover, when it came to filming the musical numbers that don’t involve dancing, Ross mostly has the actors silent while a soundtrack of the song plays. I get that this is supposed to display their inner monologues. It would’ve worked more if this only occurred maybe once or twice. Doing this multiple times feels like a cop out and that the movie is embarrassed to be a musical in the first place.
However, there are likable elements in the movie. First, there’s Petula Clark. She’s the same person who sang the famous 1965 hit “Downtown.” Clark has a lovely voice even if the songs she performs are weak and has a quirk presence in the flick. She is the best singer in the film. Second, there’s Siân Phillips. She is Ursula Mossbank, Catherine’s brassy and close theatre friend. Ursula is not in the book nor in the 1939 movie, yet she’s a delight whenever she comes on screen even if she barely does anything in it besides help thwart Lord Sutterwick’s plan to deprive the school of a generous endowment due to Catherine’s past (this is not in the book as well).
Finally, the strongest and weakest part of this flick is Peter O’Toole. He plays the titular character more stuffy and aloof than Donat did in the 1939 version. The film establishes this interpretation effectively by starting off with Mr. Chips checking the students in and then preventing them from attending a tennis match due to their low scores. This makes the emotional transformation more subtle. As for the physical appearance, O’Toole has a realistic middle-age-man-and-later-older-man look with his neat brown (later gray and white) hair and less ridiculous mustache. It suits his interpretation of the character well. The most efficient scene in the film is when Chips finds out that Katherine died when a bomb dropped on a RAF concert that she was performing in. O’Toole tries to control his emotions by slowly stacking the blank letters the students gave him as part of their April Fools’ Day prank, but he has a hard time containing it.
I have two complaints about his performance. One involves his chemistry with Clark. In their early scenes together, O’Toole looks annoyed. I understand that maybe it’s part of the character as he plays Chips as more stern, but it doesn’t help that in the restaurant scene in Pompeii, Clark stares at her drink 4 separate times. I didn’t fully believe in their romance until Chips tells Catherine about his feelings standing up to Lord Sutterwick while in bed, and that was in the second act. In the book and the black-and-white version, their love is supposed to happen suddenly, so their delayed chemistry in this one is a major disappointment. The other caveat is O’Toole’s singing. His singing voice is weak and doesn’t contain much range. This was tolerable when he sang “Where Did My Childhood Go?” since it reflects his insecurities and need to open up more. However, when the song “What a Lot of Flowers” comes on, O’Toole still performs in his frail voice despite the tune needing more excitement and overall expression to sell it effectively. All in all, I can see why he was nominated for Best Actor for his performance at the 1969 Oscars even if it mainly feels like that was done because the last guy who played Mr. Chips won.
All in all, the 1969 movie musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips has good intentions and parts, yet it contains so many ideas to stand out from the 1939 version that it ultimately feels misguided. As a result, it falls short compared to its predecessor. Everyone involved, especially Ross, are certainly trying, yet it ends up being bloated and sort of dull. Above all, it doesn’t help that the source material doesn’t lend it well to being a musical. However, despite the flaws with O’Toole’s performance, he is the best thing about this flick. I can see why viewers might like it, especially this one is the first version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips they’ve ever seen. I would recommend it to those who are highly interested in seeing the big movie musicals of the 1960s, every Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark movie, and every version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (like myself).
Stay tuned next month when I review the 1984 television mini-series!
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5 thoughts on “Goodbye, Mr. Chips 1969 Movie Review”
Hi Emily ,I was a librarian in London ,and old enough to have see this version of Chips in the cinema in 1969 ,and I think it’s more enjoyable watching on the big screen ,Being a Petula Clark fanatic since 1966 and seen her on London stage in 2023 in her 90th year and 80th year of stardom in the U.K. (Downtown made her a star in the USA in 1965 ) and she sang with Fred Astaire in Finian’s Rainbow and was a child star in British movies .After her pop star years she continued giving concerts all over the world but also became a theatre musical star in the U.K. and USA . I agree with a lot of what you said ,but have to say “You and I” is a wonderful song but was underused in the movie .i thought Peter was a great Chips and yes he was not the best singer but it worked because it emphasised the vulnerability of the character .and yes some of the songs could have been more commercial .I went to see a screening at the British Film Institute in London of the movie a few years back and Sian Philips attended and so I got chance to say how much I enjoyed her “Ursula” in the movie . I have met Petula many times but never discussed Chips with her ,but in interviews she has said the film didn’t turn out the way that she had hoped but was worth it working with Peter O’0’Toole .
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That’s wonderful that you got to see it in cinema and meet Sian and Petula. How were they?
Only met Sian very briefly and she was very nice and acknowledged my compliments to her .Petula I have known to speak to multiple times since 1972 and seen her perform from Caesars Palace Las Vegas to the Kennedy Center and London’s Royal Albert Hall to the State Theatre ,Sydney ..in 2019 with her one woman concert ..she is a wonderful lady ,very modest about her achievements .I think she would have liked to have done more than her 28 films but at least she got to act as Maria in the Sound of music in London (breaking box office records in 1981 playing Maria ,and she played Broadway with David and Shaun Cassidy 1993/4 in the musical “ Blood Brothers “ and an American tour for a year and played Norma Desmond in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard on the London stage for a year followed by an American tour .playing the role more than any other actress ..Most recently she celebrated her 90th birthday on stage in the musical “Mary Poppins “ on the sane stage she became a child star aged 10 in 1942.
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That’s wonderful! I’m so jealous!