Monday, February 3, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969)

I warmed to "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," but very slowly.

This was one of those situations where I went into a movie expecting something, and the film I saw delivered something very different. Shortly after Peter O'Toole's death I realized I had several notable omissions in my viewing of his filmography and decided to rectify that, starting with his Oscar-nominated performances. Only "The Ruling Class" remains unseen by me, and hopefully I'll get to it before long.

Anyway, James Hilton's novella has previously been adapted to film in 1939. The story of a meek, shy British schoolmaster who gradually comes out of his shell to become a beloved institution unto himself, it had notes similar to other teacher tales, like the underrated "Mr. Holland's Opus." To wit: the focus is on the relationship between the instructor and his pupils.

Alas, "Chips" is not overly concerned with life in the classroom, containing only two sections set there toward the beginning and the end, mostly to serve in juxtaposition as to how Arthur Chipping (O'Toole) is regarded by his young charges. Which is to say: unspeakably reviled in the former, and warmly embraced in the latter.

In truth, the 1969 film version is a romantic drama, and a musical one, at that. I confess I was not aware of the movie's tendency to break out into song until I started watching it and encountered O'Toole's low-key, amateurish warbling. It registers somewhere between Rex Harrison's talk-singing in "My Fair Lady" and Lee Marvin's deep-throated gurgling in "Paint Your Wagon" in terms of cadence.

Apparently, the 1960s was a time when filmmakers thought it was a great idea to cast actors who couldn't sing in musicals.

The songs in "Chips" are mostly forgettable, and mostly sung by Katherine Bridges (Petula Clark), the London stage soubrette -- in Broadway terms, the singing ingenue -- who becomes his unlikely wife. Clark was a famous recording artist at the time but not much of an actress; Richard Burton, who was originally to have played the role of Chipping, declined to appear with a "pop star," leaving the way open to O'Toole.

O'Toole's performance is a thing of wonderment. At first, his character is so off-putting and annoying, we can't stand watching him but for a short while. O'Toole affects an air of absolute mortification whenever he encounters behavior that is off-putting, which is essentially all the time. His first meeting with and courtship of Katherine is nearly grating, as we cannot possibly comprehend what she sees in this older, sad chap.

But she soon smooths out his rough edges, making him more passionate and agreeable. He stands up to his insular school's board of governors when he is passed over for promotion, something we cannot imagine the mouse-like Chipping doing beforehand. Katherine transforms him into a better man, and their relationship deepens with the passage of time, despite their lack of children.

(My understanding is she had a miscarriage in the film's original editing, but that was taken out. "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" exists in several iterations, from barely over two hours to nearly three hours running time. Many of the songs were removed during the various culling processes.)

Katherine dies during a WWII bombing while she's performing one of her old stage numbers for the troops, which leaves Chipping devastated, but in some ways still complete. He is able to engage with his boys in a manner that is instructive and clipped, yet nurturing rather than ostracizing.

One of the final scenes shows Chipping, now headmaster of the school, giving his farewell address to the boys in their massive meeting hall. He tries to be modest and downplay his tenure, but is swarmed with their support and adoration. It's practically a one-man masters class in acting, as O'Toole underplays beautifully.

I started out rather disliking this film, but near the end it almost had me in tears. This was director Herbert Ross' first effort in the chair, going on to make wonderful and/or famous pictures like "Steel Magnolias," "The Goodbye Girl," "Footloose" and  "Pennies From Heaven."

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