Saturday, January 21, 2017

...And Mrs. Salsa, too

Film: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Was there a reason I decided to watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips tonight? Really, I felt like sitting down with Peter O’Toole, a man nominated for eight Oscars and who got a goose egg for his troubles. There are multiple times when I think O’Toole was rightfully nominated, but I have trouble understanding this particular nomination. I guess more than anything I was surprised to find this a musical. I probably shouldn’t have been since Petula Clark is his costar.

This does more or less follow the story of the original version of the film from 1939. Arthur Chipping (O’Toole) is a stuffy professor of Latin at an all-boys school near London. He’s not a favorite of the boys, who find him dull and officious. He actually agrees with them in general; he is officious and stuffy. He’d like the boys to like him, but he also doesn’t see any reason to change the way he is. We get a good sense of the sort of man he is as the film opens. His students have performed poorly on a test, so he keeps them after class to go over their work despite one of his boys being in a championship tennis match. The boy is forced to miss the match thanks to Chipping keeping him in his seat.

Things change for him when he encounters Katherine Bridges (Petula Clark), an actress in musical comedies and the object of affection of one of his colleagues. He makes an interesting impression on her. Later, while Chipping is visiting Pompeii during a school break, he meets her again. The two are inexplicably drawn to each other, perhaps because both are actually rather sad and lonely. She is talented, but wants to be off the stage. He, well, he’s simply lonely. Back in England, she arranges a party for him and decides that she’s in love with him. Before you can say “doodly-doodly-doop,” they are married, and this creates its own brand of chaos at the school.

See, Chipping, who is dubbed “Mr. Chips” by his wife, wants nothing more than to be the headmaster. But she is considered something of a scandal initially, particularly with her checkered past as an actress. Chipping gets into a battle of wills with Lord Sutterwick (George Baker), who wants Chipping fired because of his wife. Chipping stands up to him, but it’s Katherine who gets her real revenge, bringing in her friend Ursula (Sian Phillips), another actress who has a long association with Sutterwick, to get him off the case.

Ah, but I’ve jumped ahead a touch. At one point, Katherine overhears Sutterwick degrading her and saying that she will be the ruination of Chipping, which makes her run off without talking to her husband. Naturally, he tracks her down, they sing a bit, and everything is right with the world. And, of course, the talented and beautiful Mrs. Chipping because inordinately popular at the school and also softens Chipping himself, which causes the boys to like him.

Yes, it’s a bit maudlin, and it goes for the tears when World War II comes into the picture. Goodbye, Mr. Chips likes to jump forward in time quite a bit. Chips and Katherine are evidently married for a good 20 years, but on screen, they’re together for something less than an hour. The narrative is odd that way.

Actually, there’s a lot here that doesn’t make sense. Goodbye, Mr. Chips was undoubtedly turned into a musical to benefit from the tremendous talents of Petula Clark, who could sing with the best of them. But the songs don’t make a lot of sense, and most of them aren’t really full songs. They sing a few lines or for a minute, and everything drops back into being a regular film again. It desperately wants to be a musical and also wants to be a romantic drama, and it can’t really pull off either. It doesn’t help that in this, O’Toole essentially tries to do an impression of Rex Harrison, talk-singing his lyrics. I love Peter O’Toole, but Rex Harrison was the only person who could do this effectively.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips is also desperately long at 151 minutes. This is a story that could have been told much more quickly. In fact, the 1939 version of the story is a mere 114 minutes, and it never felt boring or overblown. In trying to shoehorn in the musical numbers, this ends up as bloated and far too long for the story it is telling.

Finally, I don’t buy the romance. The movie wants to be sweet, and there are moments where it is, but most of the time, I simply don’t see the attraction Katherine has for Arthur Chipping. It’s a poor romance that can’t make the romance work. It’s a poor musical that can’t pull off being a musical. Goodbye, Mr. Chips fails on both counts.

Why to watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969): Petula Clark really could sing.
Why not to watch: It’s too long and it’s not very effective as a musical.


  1. This is one of those movies where you go "Well I liked it well enough but...! I approached it with a caution because of the running time, I'm no huge fan of the original and thought even it was a bit long for the story it told. But because of Peter O'Toole, even with his miscasting, and Petula Clark the film turned out to be genial, it just never seemed to know when enough was enough.

    This fell victim to Roadshow-itis coming as it did in the wake of The Sound of Music and the Hollywood mania for overproduction and overlength (with entrance music, intermission, exit music & reserved seating) that ultimately killed the classic musical. There's a very good book about the phenomenon called Roadshow! by Matthew Kennedy where this film is discussed.

    1. Yeah, it's a really overblown production for the story it tells. It certainly didn't need all of the bells and whistles of a major musical production or an epic film. The intermission felt like a waste of time. It's far too much for a story that is this small.