‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’ (1939): The Joys of Teaching

Popcorn & Inspiration: Films that uplift the soul
September 21, 2020 Updated: September 21, 2020

Few films honor the teaching profession as nobly as “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939), the first film adaptation of James Hilton’s bestselling 1934 novella. Although this title may not be as recognizable as others from Hollywood’s “Golden Year,” it’s a classic that deserves the honors and acclaim it received in 1939.

In 1870, 20-something-old Charles Chippings (Robert Donat) arrives at Brookfield School, a centuries-old boys’ boarding school, to teach Latin. The timid young man struggles to gain his students’ respect and maintain discipline, so he sometimes leans toward harshness. He becomes a good teacher yet fails to befriend the boys and thus remains a senior master instead of a housemaster.

One summer, a fun-loving German teacher (Paul Henreid) invites Chippings to join him on his Austrian walking holiday. During this trip, Chippings gets stranded in the foggy mountains and meets another solo hiker, Kathy (Greer Garson), a young Englishwoman on a biking tour. They share provisions and get acquainted while waiting for the fog to lift. Although their holidays go separate directions the next day, they happily meet again in Vienna. There, they find romance, though hesitant to admit it. They pledge their love as Kathy’s train pulls away and decide to marry.

Promotional photograph of Greer Garson and Robert Donat for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” (Public Domain)

Kathy wins Brookfield’s heart as Mrs. Chippings, helping “Mr. Chips” befriend his students and become a housemaster. Although her untimely death in childbirth devastates the whole school, Kathy teaches Chips valuable lessons that help him eventually become Brookfield’s headmaster, guiding the school through difficult times like World War I.

The Forgotten Oscar

Although now less iconic than other 1939 releases, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” was acclaimed upon its release. Nominated for seven Oscars, it was one of ten prestigious nominees for Best Picture (then called Outstanding Production) that year. The National Board of Review and Film Daily listed it among 1939’s Top Ten Films. In May 1939, the Hollywood Reporter’s Preview Poll named it best picture. The film was financially successful, earning $1,305,000 according to The Eddie Mannix Ledger (Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study).

Many believe that Clark Gable won Best Actor at the 1940 Academy Awards for playing Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind.” David O. Selznick’s Civil War epic did sweep the Oscars that year, receiving nine wins from fourteen nominations. However, Best Actor was the only one of the “Big Five” Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing) to elude the blockbuster, instead going to Robert Donat for his performance in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”

Empire Theatre
The Empire cinema in Leicester Square, London, in 1939. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Thirty-four-year-old Robert Donat played Charles Edward Chippings over a period of 63 years by looking both younger and older than he really was. He begins the lengthy flashback as a clean-shaven young man. He begins aging by growing a mustache, which he wears from middle age onward. By the time he is 83, as at the film’s opening and ending, he has tousled white hair and a matching bushy mustache. It’s hard to believe that this lovable elder is played by the same actor as the shy youth who first goes to Brookfield. Mr. Donat said of his transformation, “As soon as I put the mustache on, I felt the part, even if I did look like a great Airedale come out of a puddle.”

Education’s Importance

“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is one of the greatest films about education. As a Brookfield School master, Mr. Chips influences generations of boys. Montages show countless students reporting their names as new semesters begin over the years. Particularly illustrative is the fact that four generations of one family attend Brookfield during Mr. Chips’s tenure. The first generation is John Colley, who is succeeded by his son, grandson, and great-grandson. All four boys are played by Terry Kilburn. It is Peter Colley III, the great-grandson, who utters the film’s title to the 83-year-old teacher, since he is the last in his family to say goodbye.

Robert Donat as Mr. Chips when he retires
Robert Donat received the Oscar for Best Actor for playing a man who ages from his 20s to his 80s. (Loew’s Inc.)

Students gain wisdom from professors who, like Mr. Chips, have taught for decades, having themselves learned from their innumerable students. Upon first meeting him, Kathy expresses how wonderful it must be for teachers to constantly live with youth:

“It must be tremendously interesting to be a schoolmaster, to watch boys grow up and help them along; to see their characters develop and what they become when they leave school and the world gets hold of them. I don’t see how you could ever get old in a world that’s always young.”

In 1909, Headmaster Ralston (Austin Trevor) pressures Chippings to retire, citing the professor’s reluctance to follow modern trends. Dr. Ralston’s eagerness to be progressive makes him ignore how much his students and colleagues love Mr. Chips. Refusing to change or retire, Chips firmly tells Dr. Ralston the importance of education over profits and modernity:

“I know the world’s changing, Dr. Ralston. I’ve seen the old traditions die, one by one. Grace, dignity, feeling for the past—all that matters here today is a fat banking account. You’re trying to run the school like a factory, for turning out money-making machine-made snobs. You’ve raised the fees. And in the end, the boys who really belong at Brookfield will be frozen out, frozen out. Modern methods, intensive training—poppycock! Give a boy a sense of humor and a sense of proportion and he’ll stand up to anything. I’m not going to retire; you can do what you like about it.”

An Example for Us

As the 2020–21 school year begins throughout America, many schools are offering some or all virtual classes. While students can see teachers on Zoom, work online, and study at home, the methods are inferior to being in a classroom.

School should be protected as one of society’s most valuable institutions. While many children flourish with home-schooling, everyone should have the choice of schoolroom education—even during trying times.

Instead of hiding during a crisis, education can encourage us to continue bravely. In “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” Chips becomes interim headmaster during World War I. During a bombing attack, he continues teaching his Latin class, helping the boys find courage and even amusement in translating “Caesar’s Commentaries.”

This film shows how deeply school and a single teacher can impact students’ lives. During his 63 years of teaching, Mr. Chips profoundly influences innumerable students. In fact, caring teachers can influence their pupils so deeply that they become surrogate parents to them. As Mr. Chips lies peacefully on his deathbed, his colleagues pity him for being childless. Mr. Chips replies:

“I thought I heard you saying it was a pity … pity I never had any children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them … and all boys.”

‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips’
Director: Sam Wood
Starring: Robert Donat, Greer Garson, Terry Kilburn, Paul Henreid, John Mills
Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Released: July 28, 1939 (USA)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Tiffany Brannan is a 19-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.