TCMFF Watching 1939: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult.

1939 film: Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Release date: May 15, 1939 (New York City premiere)

Cast: Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Terry Kilburn, Paul Henreid, John Mills, Judith Furse

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: Sam Wood

Long-time and beloved teacher, Mr. Chipping (Donat) reflects on his teaching career and life, looking back on 1870 to 1933. Starting out as a stuffy young man, his wife (Garson) helps bring him out of his shell and shows him how to be a better teacher, which endears his students to him.

1939 Notes:
• Greer Garson’s first film.
• This was the only film Robert Donat acted in that was released in 1939
• Paul Henreid’s only film of 1939 and he is billed as Paul Von Hernried
• Terry Kilburn was in five films released in 1939.

Robert Donat and Greer Garson in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939)

Other trivia:
• Based on a novel by James Hilton
• Myrna Loy was originally considered for the role of Mrs. Chips but, when she went to 20th Century Fox. Elizabeth Allan was also considered for the role, according to the biography A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson.
• Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was interested in making a film version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” as early as 1934, but Irving Thalberg’s production schedule put the film on the backburner. Over the years before it was made, Lionel Barrymore and Charles Laughton were considered for the role. The film idea was shelved when Thalberg died in 1936, and James Hilton was interested in Wallace Beery, according to Tryon’s book.
• Remade as a musical in 1969 with the same title starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark
• Premiered in New York City in May and London in June
• Robert Donat won the Academy Award for Best Actor and was not present for the awards ceremony. Director Victor Saville accepted the accolade on his behalf.
• Donat ages from 25 to 88 in the film.
• Filmed at MGM’s London studio

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
When it comes to the top films of 1939, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is one I would consider one of the top films.

Not only do I say this because it’s a lovely and sweet story, but also because of the career, it launched.

“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is the story of an elderly teacher at an English boy’s school looking back on his life and career. It begins when he’s 25 and starting off as a teacher with no experience. For many years, the teacher, Mr. Chipping played by Robert Donat, isn’t popular with his students. His punishments are rough, sometimes affecting the whole school, and his manner is aloof. Mr. Chipping’s attitude even causes him to miss out on a promotion. It’s not until he meets his wife, Katherine played by Greer Garson, that she teaches him to soften and joke with his students and act human. Though Mrs. Chipping passes away in childbirth, Mr. Chipping (called Mr. Chips now by his students) continues to be popular among his students. Even after he retires, he returns to help the school during World War I.

“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is a quiet film but is sweet and engaging. Robert Donat plays the role of the teacher well, from his haughty youth, shy middle age to sweet elderly years. And you also have to give kudos to Jack Dawn, the makeup artist who effectively aged Donat from 25 years old to 88 years old. Donat was already a star by the time this film was released, particularly after starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” (1935), but this was his only film released in 1939.

Donat also won his only Academy Award for this film, beating out Clark Gable for “Gone with the Wind,” Mickey Rooney for “Babes in Arms,” Laurence Olivier for “Wuthering Heights,” and James Stewart for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” This would be his last Academy Award nomination, his other came a year earlier for “The Citadel” (1938)

Though Donat was the Academy Award winner, his co-star is also notable. “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is the first film role for Greer Garson. Her biographer Michael Tryon wrote that Garson was reluctant to take the role, because it is brief. However, Greer Garson is a bright spot in the film and her character is pivotal in the transformation in the main character.

For her screen debut, Greer Garson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Her warmth comes across on screen and Garson glows as she helps Donat realize that not everything in life has to be quite so formal.

The film also showcases other new talents. Paul Henreid co-stars as a fellow teacher in one of his early film roles. We also see child star Terry Kilburn in his fifth role-playing several characters. Kilburn appears at the beginning and returns playing the child, grandchild or great-grandchild of those who came before him.

I had the opportunity to see “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” on 35mm film at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival. It was wonderful to revisit this film after several years on a 35mm print that came from the British Film Institute.

James Hilton’s lovely “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is such a heartwarming film and you may need a tissue or two to get through it. But it’s a wonderful movie and brightened even more by Greer Garson. It’s incredible to think this was her first film, as she fits in like she belonged on screen.

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