Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)

I celebrated my birthday a few months ago by taking the day off and spending the morning watching LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). It had been 24 years since I had last watched it. As I marveled at Peter O'Toole in the lead role as Lawrence, I remembered that O'Toole was one of my favorite actors and he was still alive.  Sadly, four days later, Peter O'Toole would pass away at the age of 81. I became a huge fan of Peter O'Toole beginning with MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982) an enjoyable romantic comedy where he spoofed his playboy actor image. I've watched a few of O'Toole's films over the years but not as many as someone who calls himself an O'Toole fan should.

Early in his career, O'Toole played either big historical figures like T.E. Lawrence in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or Henry II in both BECKET (1964) and THE LION IN WINTER (1968) or in big literary adaptations like Richard Brooks LORD JIM (1965) based on the Joseph Conrad novel. But O'Toole did star in modern films as well like WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965), HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966), and THE STUNT MAN (1984).

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1969) is a remake of the 1939 film starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. It's a period film, taking place mostly between 1924 and 1945. Normally, CrazyFilmGuy would review both films (both of which I've never seen) but I want to concentrate on this newer CHIPS with O'Toole.  I'll review the older CHIPS in the future. The one obvious difference between the two versions is the newer one is a musical, directed by Herbert Ross (PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, FOOTLOOSE) in his directorial debut. GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS is based on the novel by James Hilton. Playwright Terence Rattigan (THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL) scripted. Instead of playing a larger than life character, O'Toole is a lonely, introverted teacher, nicknamed "Ditchy" because "he's dull as ditchwater." O'Toole may have gravitated toward the role as it's opposite the big, bold characters he had been portraying previously.

Arthur Chipping aka Mr. Chips (Peter O'Toole) is an English school teacher at Brookfield, an all boys school. It's 1924, the end of another school year. Chips is a decent but stern taskmaster, not a favorite of students. As he prepares to go on holiday, Chips reflects about his past (yes O'Toole even sings a little), at a crossroads between his youth and what his future holds. His friend Johnny Longbridge (Michael Culver) tries to cheer Chips up by taking him to London to see a musical. Johnny is in love with a showgirl in the show named Katherine Bridges (Petula Clark). Chips and Johnny meet Katherine afterward at the Savoy but Katherine is with another man Bill Calbury (Clinton Greyn). Chips first encounter with Katherine is a disaster.

Chips travels to Italy for a summer holiday. While having lunch by himself in a Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, he meets Katherine again. Her cruise ship has stopped in Naples and she's touring the sights. Katherine has quit the theater. She's on vacation.  She asks Chips to be her tour guide and a romance begins to blossom between the prude English school teacher and the West End show girl. Chips returns to Brookfield, still thinking about Katherine.  Chips receives an invitation to a London party, thrown by Katherine. Mr. Chips and Katherine fall in love. Chips surprises his peers and students by marrying Katherine.

She moves to Brookfield with Chips. Although the school's Headmaster (Michael Redgrave) and Chips best friend Max Staefel (Michael Bryant) are happy to see Chips with a wife, one of the school's patrons Lord Sutterwick (George Baker) doesn't appreciate Katherine's bohemian past and refuses to donate money for a new sports field unless Katherine's gone. Katherine retreats back to London, feeling she's unsuitable for Chips but he follows her and convinces her to return. One of Katherine's actress friends Ursula Mossbank (Sian Phillips), who had a previous relationship with Sutterwick, shows up at Parents Day. Sutterwick caves in and donates the money, wishing to avoid scandal with his old flame.

Chips marriage to Katherine changes him as World War II looms for England.  Chips softens up, begins to enjoy life . He begins taking a greater interest in his students. The students begin to like Chips more.  Katherine endears herself to the student body and teachers, performing in the school's talent show with the boys, becoming a sort of mother to all the boys as she and Chips do not have children of their own. When the Headmaster decides to retire, everyone thinks Chips will be chosen next. But Sutterwick interferes again and William Baxter (Jack Hedley) is elected instead. Chips hands in his resignation.

But the Headmaster asks Chips to reconsider. The school board doesn't want  Chips to leave.  The war nears its end but Germany continues to lob bombs at London and the surrounding area, forcing the teachers and students to occasionally duck for cover in the classroom. Baxter is offered a job with the English government, clearing the path for Mr. Chips to be offered the Head Master position. Thrilled by the news, Chips runs to catch Katherine who's off to sing to some nearby troops but she can't hear him calling to her as her jeep drives off.  But the war has one last terrible irony in store and Chips' happiness turns to tragedy.

I don't know if I've ever seen a sweeter ode to romantic love than GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS except for maybe A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1984). Katherine appears to be loved by men who only love her because she's an actress. Chips hasn't been in love since he was a young man and he may have had his heart broken, retreating beneath his cap and gown ever since. Chips is tall and educated. Katherine is short and seemingly low class. Once again, Italy symbolizes where romance may flourish and Chips and Katherine begin their courtship at Pompeii and the Greek ruins at Paestum.

At first, I wasn't crazy about Petula Clark as Katherine but she really grew on me as the film went on. Katherine's love and adoration for Chips is so pure and genuine. O'Toole is masterful as the stiff, awkward academic who comes out of his shell when Katherine shows him what life and a relationship have to offer. It's never made clear if Katherine can't have children but the boys of Brookfield School, all 283 students, become her adopted children each year. One would think O'Toole and Clark might have fallen in love making this film their chemistry seems so real but Sian Phillips who plays the naughty Ursula Mossbank was actually married to O'Toole at the time. O'Toole and Phillips acted together in a few more films. More a singer than an actress, Clark did more television than films but her performance in GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS is surprising and she's not intimidated by O'Toole.

Usually in a film about a teacher, one or several students have prominent supporting roles. GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS is not one of those films.  Except for a brief school boy crush toward Katherine by one student and Chips not letting young Sutterwick (John Gugolka) leave class early to play in a tennis final, no other students are really showcased. CHIPS is all about Chipping and Katie's romantic journey. With all the boys dressed in blue jackets and wearing straw hats, I couldn't help but think these boys are the precursor to the boys and girls from Hogwarts in the HARRY POTTER series, all wearing the same school uniforms.

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS is at the end of the Golden Era of Musicals.  Like the western, the musical was beginning to fade away into the sunset by the late 1960's.  FUNNY GIRL (1968), HELLO DOLLY! (1969), and GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS were swan songs to that golden age, a melancholy goodbye to one of the staples of cinema.  CHIPS is a funny kind of musical. Although both Petula Clark and yes, even O'Toole sing at times on camera, many of the songs are sung over montages like their courtship in Italy with the actors just walking around as singing plays over the soundtrack.  Only FUNNY LADY (1975) was director Herbert Ross's true musical but several of his films had musical backgrounds like 1977's THE TURNING POINT (music and ballet) or 1984's FOOTLOOSE (dance and 80's music). Ross started out as a choreographer which may explain why he directed many musical/dance themed films. Ross would also direct several Neil Simon comedies such as THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977) and CALIFORNIA SUITE (1978).

Director Ross and his cinematographer Oswald Morris (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and OLIVER!) incorporate the camera techniques of the late 60's with plenty of long zoom in and outs that were all the rage.  They also make good use of helicopter shots, opening up CHIPS during some of the musical sequences with aerial shots of the English countryside, the school's grounds, and even the Greek temples in Italy. Director Ross may have wanted to prove he was more than just a choreographer with how he used the camera for his first feature film.

Screenwriter Terence Rattigan had some experience with showgirls getting mixed up with polar opposite male characters beginning with THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957) which he wrote based on his play. In that film, Rattigan had the amazing combination of Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. But I think GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS is a better screenplay and the relationship between Chips and Katherine more believable. If GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS was made today, the showgirl would probably now be a stripper and Adam Sandler would be the male lead. But this CHIPS is just an old-fashioned love story. Petula Clark is no Marilyn Monroe who oozed sexiness. But Clark is just so darn sweet and bubbly. Her Katherine is still a strong enough character to play off Chippings prudish, dour soul. I've always loved stories where polar opposites attract and CHIPS succeeds with this pairing.

A year and a half ago I had traveled to Italy and visited both Pompeii and Paestum. I had never seen either location ever used in a film before.  So imagine my delight when I watched GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS and those temples and amphitheaters and streets that I got to walk around had been traversed before by O'Toole and Clark. Screenwriter Rattigan even incorporates the God Apollo into the love story. Chips and Katie fall in love at the Temple of Apollo at Paestum. Besides being the Sun God, Apollo is also the God of Prophecy. Katie makes a wish to Apollo which comes true. Later at Brookfield, Katie gives Chips an expensive Apollo figurine which Chips treasures. It's a nice touch by Rattigan.

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS is a different kind of Peter O'Toole film.  Not as flashy or epic as some of his previous work but a challenging, subtle performance where he gets to age throughout the course of the film and experience both love and loss. The big loss for us is that Peter O'Toole has left the theater but we will always have a multitude of his films and performances to enjoy over and over again.

No comments:

Post a Comment