Forgotten Beauties

     1969 was the year that John Schlesinger got everybody talkin about the then X-rated Oscar winner Midnight Cowboy. Two other modern cowboys appeared in the form of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in the groundbreaking Easy Rider. Costa-Gavras raised audience's consciousness with Z. Bob And Carol And Ted And Alice took a different view of friendship. Ali McGraw captivated Richard Benjamin in the gritty Goodbye, Columbus while Jane Fonda held up her dance partner Michael Sarrazin in the brutal They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Though there were throwbacks like John Wayne in True Grit and Burton and Bujold in Anne Of The Thousand Days, the motion picture audience of 1969 seemed to want its entertainment realistic, daring, tough and up to the minute.
     On Broadway, the musical was being redefined by Hair and Your Own Thing, and though Hollywood seemed to know this, it continued to look for the big musical blockbuster that could match the success of The Sound Of Music. Many were tried, few succeeded. Barbra Streisand had a hit with Funny Girl, and a flop with Hello, Dolly. Paint Your Wagon was a disaster and Star fell. Every musical, it seemed, needed a huge budget, reserved seating showings and ballyhoo that only the strongest product could survive. Could an old fashioned love story musical make it?
     Enter Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Though it was based on James Hilton s novel and the successtul thirties film version which starred Robert Donat and introduced Greer Garson, this Mr. Chips was to be a musical and rather than a re-make, a new film to be dealt with on its own merits. To make sure this would happen MGM chose Terence Rattigan, author of The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, and Separate Tables, to do a new screenplay, with enough differences from the earlier film to keep them from being compared. This was to be one of MGMs major releases of the year, and, indeed, it did look as though it had a great deal going for it. The cast was headed by the very popular Peter O'Toole, who was riding the crest ot popularity after the previous year's The Lion In Winter, and Petula Clark a former child star who had made a stunning comeback with the song Downtown. The strong supporting cast in cluded Sir Michael Redgrave Sian Phillips, Alison Legatt and Michael Bryant. Music and lyrics were supplied by Leslie Bricusse who had recently done the scores for Half A Sixpence and Doctor Dolittle. All the music in the film was supervised and conducted by a young man who would soon become the biggest name in film scores, John Williams. The direction of the entire film was put in the hands of a new talent, Herbert Ross who, up to this time had been best known as a choreographer, but would later be known as the director of The Turning Point, The Sunshine Boys and Pennies From Heaven. So! There it was, what looked to be one of the biggest hits of the year and then . . . Disaster! The critics were brutal Variety said, "The sum total is considerably less than the parts." Judith Crist called it "old fashioned," Pauline Kael said, "An overblown version with songs where they are not needed (and Leslie Bricusse's songs are never needed.)" Leslie Halliwell called it "slushy." Doom and despair reigned at MGM. But what to do? First of all, forget the roadshow. Continuous performances from here on. Next Kael didn't like the songs? Dump as many as possible. So all at once the film, which once ran 156 minutes, now ran only 133. (One of the songs omitted, a reprise of an earlier song came at the end of the film thereby destroying the otherwise very moving finale.) When people still didn't come, the film was yanked and soon forgotten, except for rare TV showings, for which it was further truncated.
     The resurrection of Goodbye, Mr. Chips came with Ted Turner. Though many movie buffs dislike Mr Turner for his colorization of classic films, in fairness one must point to his reverence for the MGM library of films which he so carefully restores for showing on his TNT cable station and for release on videotape and laser disc. Through Mr Turner's aegis the original version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips is once again available and dealing with it on its own merits what a lovely, ill appreciated film it is!
     The laser disc opens with an overture and those of you with a good ear will catch a tongue in cheek John Williams imitating the opening of The Sound Of Music. It is a lovely overture, as old fashioned and traditional as they come and it works in creating the mood of the film to follow.
     Directly after the overture come the brilliant credits. With still shots of an empty English prep school, seemingly deserted (for the summer or forever) we hear the sounds of the boys who walked and ran down the halls and through the fields. We are led from a ghostly orchestra playing background music to the voice of Michael Redgrave asking everyone to rise to sing the school song "Did I Fill The World With Love," which is to be the anthem of the film to come. From here the still shots and the singing end and are replaced by Peter O'Toole as Mr Chipping calling the roll of his students as he seemingly has done forever before and will do forever after. The camera pulls back to show us the vista of the entire school grounds and we are told we are at "Brookfield School 1924." With so simple a beginning we are immediately involved and into the story.
     Mr. Chipping is a good teacher, but he lacks the human touch. To him Latin is all. He is a dead man teaching a dead language. Principle is everything. The boys in his classes hate him and call him Ditchy, short for "Ditchwater. . .as dull as," to quote Chipping himself. All is black and white to Chipping whose students see him as nothing but grey.
     All this changes when Chipping meets Catherine Bridges, a soubrette in a popular stage musical, Flossie From Fulham. Though he says all the wrong things to her at their first meeting he does better on his own ground as he meets her and guides her through the ruins of Pompeii. He is intrigued, she is in love.
     Back in London Catherine invites Chips, her nickname for him, to a party and the theater and soon after they marry. The rest of the film follows their lives through good times and bad, up through the Second World War. A simple story to be sure, but one which is filled with an abundance of riches.
     The acting. I do not think that Peter O'Toole has ever given a finer performance than he does in Goodbye, Mr Chips. There is none of the flamboyance of Lawrence or of The Ruling Class or of The Lion In Winter. This is 0'Toole's most introspective performance and we like what we see. There are some moments that he has as Chips that equal and better other 0 Toole moments from his more popular films. Watch O'Toole comfort a little boy who is coming to Brookfield for the first time. He shows us a hint of the humanity that is waiting to be unlocked by Catherine and we are moved by it. 0'Toole in bed with Catherine. He looks at her with not only love and adoration but with totai disbelief that this wonderful thing could nave happened to him. He pauses and then says, "Oh God you're so beautiful." These words as written on this page. or as read by a mediocre actor would be laughable, but in context with O'Toole saying them, the words are a heartbreaking affirmation of a man back from the dead and in love. Note too when Catherine answers, "So are you," 0'Toole's dry "Don't be ridiculous," is the perfect bit of lemon to mix with the honey that has just been served. Rattigan and 0'Toole go beautifully together. Note too 0'Toole s brilliance as Chips grows more confident and is more able to let his guard down and show his love for the boys in his classes. He adores Catherine. Catherine adores him, and therefore he is forced to see the quality in himself that he was never able to acknowledge in the pre-Catherine days. (It is because of this new found self worth that we see in Chips that make us feel his tragedies so deeply when they come to him.
     And what of Petula Clark? Leonard Maltin writes of her performance ". . . Clark's role as a show girl is shallow, ludicrous." Come on, Leonard. Watch the film again and this time really watch Clark. She is wonderful. Clark plays Catherine as though she is coming from just the other direction as Chips. Outwardly gay and devil-may-care, she is really someone who wants nothing to do with glamour. but would love to settle down and have a family. "My real name is Briskit," she tells Chips in Pompeii, to which he answers secretly delighted, "A good Anglo-Saxon name." As Clark plays Catherine she is both earth mother and Mother England all rolled up in one. (She actually appears as the seated Brittania early in the film. What is most remarkable about Petula Clark's portrayal of Catherine is that she becomes Catherine, a Catherine who loves her husband more than anything else. Everytime she looks at Chips we see love. It would be interesting to learn how o'Toole and Clark got along during the filming, for if they didn't like each other they immediately must be nominated for every acting award available.) The pride Catherine feels for Chips. . .the devotion. . . are tangible things. This is real. As played by Petula Clark, Catherine is the woman every man dreams of marrying which makes her perfect for the dumb-founded at his good luck Chips.
     I once saw Sir Michael Redgrave browsing through a book at Harrods and I thought to myself that his was the epitome of browsing. Indeed, from The Lady Vanishes to Goodbye, Mr Chips, Sir Michael is the epitome of a fine actor. And when a fine actor has another fine actor to play against. . .witness Redgrave dealing with Allison Legatt as his shrewish wife and then turning into a blushing speechless schoolboy when complimented by Sian Phillips.
     And speaking of Sian Phillips why doesn't this wonderful actress get more work? Audiences in America know her best as Caligula's grandmother in I, Claudius, but her work in Goodbye. Mr. Chips is a comedic masterpiece. (That she wasn't nomined for best supporting actress is a crime.) Phillips plays Ursula Mossbank a very thinly veiled take off on Tallulah Bankhead. (When Chips meets Ursula for the first time and asks who she is, Catherine answers, "She's Ursula. Just Ursula.") Phillips only has three scenes in the whole film, but she walks away with them. With cigarette holder securely in place, she "Dahlings" everyone to Chips confusion and Clark's obvious amusement. (A running gag is that Ursula keeps calling Chips "That beautiful man," and saying that she wants to marry him if and when Catherine is "ever through with him." The fact that she was married to O'Toole at the time adds to the "inside" delight of the situation>)
     For a first time director Herb Ross does a masterful lot. Though shot in wide screen and full stereo sound and though the film goes from Brookfield to locations in Pompeii and London and though he is working with a cast of hundreds, Ross finds the intimate love story and sticks with that. Many of the critics of the day found the film over-produced, but I think a re-viewing will change many minds especially when one sees how well the supposed overblown film works on television. The intimacy Ross creates has the feel of a Merchant Ivory film of today. It must have been a daunting task for a first time director to work with the likes of 0'Toole and Redgrave but Ross acquits himself beautifully getting from them and all the others definitive performances.
     The score, once vilified holds up remarkably well and can stand the test of frequent listenings. What Bricusse does in much of the film is to use his songs as interior monologues, letting the audience know through song what the characters are feeling. When songs are sung in the open, they are in character , being placed on a stage a playing field or the like. Tnis is not one of those films where the characters burst out into song at a moment's notice. The songs move the plot along while advancing the character development at the same time. (When the film first opened I can remember one critic spending a great deal of time on his unhappiness with one lyric that went,
          You smiled
          I smiled,
          And the sky smiled too
     Okay that lyric is far from profound but it does fit, in context, and with the way the character who is singing is feeling.
     But that was in 1969. Now we are almost a quarter of a century away from that time and we see things differently There will be some of you who see the film on my recommendation who will not like it. Hey different strokes. But......if you want to see a love story, overly sentimental, with all the stops pulled out, this one's for you. My guess is that if you do like the film you will find yourself coming back to it again and again as I have done over the years.
     So put the tape or the disc in, turn down the light, pull yourself close to your loved one (or a good cup of tea and a whole tin of cookies), make sure there is a full box of Kleenex handy and press the play button and let Goodbye, Mr Chips begin. May it fill your world with love. . . and may the sky smile, too.
--Jeff Laffel
excerpted from Films in Review
December 1992