The importance of first impressions seems to be especially true with motion pictures. When I see a bad picture for the first time under favorable circumstances, it’s likely that I will happily overlook its faults and then continue to have warm feelings for it long after I’ve become fully aware of its overt, unmistakable crumminess. For instance, it strikes me that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” apart from Audrey Hepburn, Givenchy, the fantastic opening song (“Moon River”), and the extraordinarily well staged party scene, has little else to recommend it, and plenty to despise. Yet the first time I saw it, I was eleven years old — exactly the right age for it — and it got me so crazy in love with the idea of New York City that I continue to love the picture, even though I can’t remember the last time I was able to sit all the way through it. George Peppard makes me almost physically ill, as does Mickey Rooney (though I confess I find his racist turn as Mr Yunioshi at least as funny as it is offensive). Buddy Ebsen actually does make me physically ill; the sight of him makes me recoil in horror and disgust. But none of this is enough to make me stop loving “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; that first impression went so deep that I am still pleased to be reminded of how sophisticated it made me feel when I was eleven. I also like the kittycat.
“Goodbye, Mr Chips” (Metro, 1939) belongs to a similar, yet quite different category. For one thing, it is not remotely what I’d call a “bad” picture, though there are many things about it that I disapprove of and dislike. It is sentimental, coy, manipulative; structurally, it’s awkward and badly made (it’s what a clever brother of mine has called “a heap”); in some parts of the picture, the years hurry forward too precipitously; in other places, episodes linger too long; in other places still, scenes cut off abruptly when a point (not necessarily the most interesting one) has been made. Experience has taught me that when I am not entirely in the mood to have my emotions trifled with, the story’s emotional pull is eminently resistible — risible, too: the more insistently it jerks at my tears, the more it provokes my scornful laughter. As a rule, however, the picture wins me over, and very quickly; I find it to be a deeply satisfying emotional experience, even though I nearly always feel as if I’m being had.
Remembrance of Things Past
What the picture has in common with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is that I first happened to see it at the precise moment in my life when it had the best chance of making the deepest impression; moreover, as with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the affection I have for it goes far beyond the bounds of its actual merits. No matter how many times I see “Goodbye, Mr Chips,” it never fails to bring to mind the memory of the first time I saw it, and the extraordinary number of ways it moved and delighted me. To this day, its ability to release an almost overwhelming flood of reminiscence is uncanny.
I first saw “Goodbye, Mr Chips” back in 1978, under ideal circumstances — stupendously ideal circumstances, in fact. It was on a double bill at a charming revival house in Seattle called The Harvard Exit. I saw it on a beautiful Thursday evening exactly one week before I moved to New York City. Seattle is a place that invites feelings of nostalgia (at least it did back in the seventies, when it was still a reasonably sleepy, charmingly shabby backwater), and my awareness that I was a week away from leaving my hometown presumably forever intensified each experience during that final week with the anticipation that, in the years to come, it would be the subject of nostalgic reflection. Throughout the preceding year, I had gone to The Harvard Exit, just a few blocks from my apartment, at least three times a week, and had already accumulated a load of nostalgia for the place, even while it was a pleasure still being enjoyed, and long before it had become a memory. I went to see “Goodbye, Mr Chips” with the knowledge that it would be the last picture I’d see at The Harvard Exit, and my emotions were exceptionally lively that night. And there was something else, too: Of all the anxieties I felt about moving to New York, the sharpest was about making a good first impression — or at least, not making a seriously bad one. The fear of making a bad first impression had preyed on my mind for several months. As I was soon to learn, the importance of first impressions is a key element of “Goodbye, Mr Chips.”
I particularly like the school song that Richard Addinsell wrote for the picture. You’ll hear it under Robert Donat’s dialogue in his first scene (shown below), but here it is, at the end of the opening credits. The words are almost impossible to understand without help, so I’ve included them immediately below the clip.
Let the years pass, but our hearts will remember
Schooldays at Brookfield that ended too soon.
Fight to the death in the mire of November,
Last wicket rattles on evenings in June.
Grey granite walls that were gay with our laughter,
Green of the fields where our feet used to roam;
We shall remember whate’er may come after
Brookfield, our mother, and Brookfield, our home.
The lyric is nothing if not banal, but that’s in the nature of school songs. (I’m not persuaded that it is wise or appropriate to include the word death in a school song, but the lyric is hardly Addinsell’s fault.) Addinsell’s music adds greatly to the exquisite adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” (or “Scrooge,” to use its original title), starring Alastair Sim. His music is less evident in “Goodbye, Mr Chips,” but it’s used to great effect; the school tune is used repeatedly as the years fly forward and we see parades of boys go through roll call and touch the brims of their ever-changing hats. Addinsell’s score for this non-musical version of the story, when compared to the ghastly Leslie Bricusse score for the 1969 musical adaptation, begins to sound like something approximating genius.
The picture begins very well. As you will hear, Headmaster Marsham (Frederick Leister) and the young Mr Jackson (David Tree) both have beautiful, interesting voices that are a pleasure to listen to for their own sake. I particularly like David Tree’s voice, which conveys intelligence, charm, youthful exuberance and a very becoming politeness. And like all good actors, he listens well. In the second half of the scene, notice how he listens to the Headmaster’s speech to the boys. Instead of fixing his eyes directly on the Head, he casts his gaze downwards; you can see that he is clearly listening and appreciating what he hears; the Head has his full attention, but he gives his attention modestly. It’s a small matter, but it is out of such small matters that first rate performances are born.
Wonderful David Tree! “Brookfield School: One can almost feel the centuries . . . Grey old age, dreaming over a crowded past.” It’s not every actor who could speak such a line and get away with it; Tree does more than get away with it: he makes it wonderful. He avoids the mistake of going for realism, and doesn’t try to sneak it past us in a hurry: the line works because he emphasizes its poetic artificiality; he lingers over it, even allows a bit of old-fashioned tremolo to color the word “age”; yet he’s also amused by his oratorical extravagance. He means what he says, but he also sends himself up for the sentimentality he cannot hide. Mr Jackson is a tiny part, but he sets the tone for all the rest.
David Tree’s personal history is almost unbearably moving. His mother was Viola Tree, a highly regarded actress of the Edwardian Era; his grandfather was Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who was, along with Sir Henry Irving, one of the most impressive actor/managers of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. (It was about Beerbohm Tree’s Hamlet that Oscar Wilde (or W.S. Gilbert, depending on your source) famously remarked, “Funny without being vulgar.”) David Tree’s first big success in pictures came a year prior to “Goodbye, Mr Chips,” in 1938, when he played Freddy Eynsford-Hill in the Leslie Howard/Wendy Hiller “Pygmalion.” The last picture he made was “Major Barbara,” after which he joined the Royal Artillery. In 1941, he was wounded while on duty and subsequently lost one arm to the surgeon’s knife. After the War, he did not attempt to return to acting, but took up farming instead. He did, however, make one more picture several decades later — he played a small part in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 thriller, “Don’t Look Now.” (The beginning of that picture was filmed at Tree’s cottage.) Of course, I knew nothing of David Tree when I saw “Goodbye, Mr Chips” for the first time, but I do now, and the knowledge makes everything he does seem tremendously poignant. I shake my head and sigh his loss. A really wonderful actor.
Immediately after the opening scene, we meet the main event, played by Robert Donat. I’m bound to observe that Donat’s elderly gentleman is decidedly more adorable than I think necessary or advisable, but there are so many praiseworthy things in his performance that I’m willing to accept his semi-excruciating quaintness. If you agree that he’s just too cute for words, you may be sure that he more than makes up for it in later scenes. I was not bothered by anything he did the first time I saw it; my first impression was one of unreserved admiration and affection.
In 1939, Donat’s performance was so universally admired and beloved that when he won that year’s Academy Award for Best Actor, absolutely no one grumbled that Clark Gable (in “Gone with the Wind”) or James Stewart (in “Mr Smith Goes to Washington”) had been robbed. Gable himself approved of the Academy’s choice; no doubt Stewart did, too. Donat’s performance is certainly very likeable, but his sentimentality, in several scenes, can be awfully sticky. Yet even with the mawkishness, I still enjoy his sprightliness, and I find that his performance grows on me as the picture progresses, especially when cocktails are being served. His hamming has a paradoxical naturalness to it. His rather high, muzzy voice is grateful to the ear, and then there are those eyes of his! They communicate deeply felt emotion more clearly and precisely than pages of dialogue could hope to do, and they shine with a benevolent sagacity that has never been equalled by any other actor. Donat was adored by his colleagues; nobody ever had a bad word to say about him. John Mills agreed to play a tiny part in “Goodbye, Mr Chips” simply for the opportunity of working with his idol.
Here’s Donat’s next scene, in which he offers advice to David Tree. Once you’ve seen this clip, you’ve seen Tree’s entire performance.
Some years later, Donat observed, “As soon as I put the moustache on, I felt the part, even if I did look like a great Airedale come out of a puddle.” He does, at that. Far more importantly to me, he also looks a lot like my dear old friend, Marvin Einhorn, who died this past April at the age of ninety-three. Now whenever I see Donat in his false whiskers and greasepaint decrepitude, I’m reminded of Marvin, a man whom I adored. He was far more debonair and urbane than Donat, but their faces were remarkably similar. Through much of the eighties, Marvin was nearly a second father to me, and now the memory of him, as soon as Donat skips into view, gives the picture a tremendous emotional hold on me — a hold which it certainly hasn’t earned. But then, in the movies, no holds are barred.
Forgive me, but I really must digress for a moment. A long time ago, Marvin Einhorn directed me in a Noël Coward comedy, in which I had to tie a bow tie onstage, without the benefit of a mirror. I’d never tied one before, so Marvin, being the excellent father figure he was, took the responsibility of teaching me. As it happened, he favored bow ties, and I’ve never forgotten his exact instructions: “First, you make like you’re tying your shoelace — let the front flap be longer than the one in the back. Now fold the back in half . . . and then, God willing, there’s a hole. Push the front through the hole, pull it tight and there it is.” To this day, whenever I tie a bow tie, I say aloud, “And then, God willing, there’s a hole.” I bring all this up because in some scenes, Donat looks so much like Marvin, that whenever he pauses for effect, I say: “And then, God willing, there’s a hole.”
A Bad Start to an Illustrious Career
After our introduction to Chips, most of the story is told as a flashback. The well-beloved, ancient schoolmaster, Mr Charles Edward Chipping (in the book, his first name is Arthur), dozes by his fireplace and recalls the events of his generally happy and almost entirely useful life. From his recollections, however, we learn that Mr Chipping’s early career was not a success. On his first day of teaching, he loses control of his class, and makes a very bad first impression.
Lyn Harding, resplendent in his storebought whiskers, is the superbly funny actor who plays the terrifying Dr Wetherby, Headmaster of Brookfield School. Harding possessed first-hand knowledge of formidable authoritarians. He was descended from a long line of rigorous Welsh Congregationalist preachers. His father, the Rev. Richard Harding, expected him to enter the church and was duly appalled by his son’s idiotic, wicked choice of profession. Many years later, the Rev. Harding finally saw his son perform on the London stage. After the performance, the old man emerged from the theatre ashen-faced and murmured, “I have been in Hell tonight.”
The solitary misfortune of having made a bad first impression leads Mr Chipping, for the next two decades, to go against his kindly impulses and to turn himself into a martinet. Here we see him some twenty or twenty-five years later. His loneliness is terrible. He has played the martinet for so many years that his natural kindliness has become somewhat strangulated. What was once his natural inclination has become stiff, brittle and self-conscious. He’s clearly a well-meaning fellow, but he fails to please the boys and his colleagues, and he seems destined to drag out his days in a waste of unhappy mediocrity and solitude.
My God, Donat’s suppressed look of grief as his doom is pronounced: Wilkinson, a less senior man, is to be housemaster! It is but one of a few dozen similarly exquisite, nuanced moments in his performance. He’s best in his middle aged scenes before geriatric quaintness begins to fill his diapers.
I Lost My Heart High on an Indoor Alp
Then, by a happy turn of fate, he is offered — and bullied into accepting — an invitation by Paul Henreid (then known as Paul von Hernried) to go on a walking tour of the Tyrol. A few moments later, we see Mr Chipping, who has gotten himself lost in the mist, high upon an indoor Alp, when he hears the call of a woman’s voice. At great risk to himself, he clambers up the muslin and plaster crags until he comes upon the owner of the far-off voice: a charming, headstrong young woman named Katherine (Kathie) Ellis (Greer Garson). The alpine mists are especially fraudulent looking: you can practically see the stagehands just outside the frame, in their clothcaps, boiler suits and hobnail boots, pumping away at their smoke-filled leather-and-oak bellows. The artificiality of the stagebound Tyrol is, I think, so berserk as to work in the picture’s favor. Overt artifice removes the scene from reality to romantic fantasy, elevates it from Meet Cute to Fairy Tale. Here in this world of unreality, Chipping makes yet another strong first impression, but this time it’s a favorable one. Miss Ellis likes what she sees and hears. She’s a Modern Woman, so she’s happy to tell him so.
Kathie’s little extempore encomium on the Teacher’s Life is a wonderful piece of writing of the “In a Perfect World” school of thought. I find it very moving indeed. And as she speaks it, you can see the moment that Mr Chipping begins to lose his heart to her — completely, irretrievably. By the time they descend from the thin soundstage air, they are deeply, but timorously, in love. The waltz they dance together in a later scene brings them closer still, and then, at their tongue-tied parting at the Viennese train station, before you can say: Was ever match clapp’d up so suddenly?, they are engaged — I promessi sposi.
This was Greer Garson’s first Hollywood picture, and she was furious when she discovered that the role was actually very small. In the years immediately prior to Garson’s association with Metro, Greta Garbo had been making a nuisance of herself, even while her popularity had been steadily declining. Louis B. Mayer was therefore looking for another Grand Lady actress who could take Garbo’s place, so when he saw Garson in a London stage play, he was impressed by her regal bearing and promised her the moon in order to get her to sign a long-term contract. Then a full year passed before he found this role for her. (Quite apart from all other considerations, it seems that Garson didn’t photograph well: it took a long time for the makeup and lighting departments to figure out what to do with her. Once you’re aware of this, you may find, as I do, that any time she’s badly lighted and she gets up on her high horse — her favorite mount — she doesn’t look like an imperious marchioness, but an uppity Polish laundress.) It’s a striking coincidence that Greer Garson and Greta Garbo share the first three letters of both their first and last names, but the similarity between the two ends there. How Mayer thought Garson could possibly be any sort of Garbo replacement is a mystery that has never been explained to my satisfaction.
Greer Garson has been irritating me for so many years, I always have to remind myself that the first time I saw her in this, I thought she was wonderful. She’s just as artificial, prim and supercilious as always, but in this one picture, I quite like her. Almost certainly this is largely because in this one, she looks very much the way a friend of mine named Colleen looked in 1978. Colleen had moved to Manhattan the previous year. When she came back to Seattle for the summer, she suddenly looked like Greer Garson as Kathie Ellis Chipping. Colleen was and is a first rate singer, a fine actress and a tremendous friend. Garson only looked like Colleen in this one picture, and Colleen only looked like Garson in the summer of 1978, but that summer they could have passed for twins. At my first sight of Greer Garson simpering through the manmade mist, I let out a gasp. This is yet another way in which the picture has emotional claims on me that it didn’t really earn, except by coincidence.
Though Kathie is indeed a small part, she has the single largest effect on our hero’s life; without her, there would be no story, for she quickly identifies his central problem: he is too full of the skim milk of human kindness. With warmth and vigorous churning, she soon turns thin liquid to cream. Here is how James Hilton describes Kathie’s effect on Chipping in the novella:
But most remarkable of all was the change she made in Chips. Till his marriage he had been a dry and rather neutral sort of person; liked and thought well of by Brookfield in general, but not of the stuff that makes for great popularity or that stirs great affection. He had been at Brookfield for over a quarter of a century, long enough to have established himself as a decent fellow and a hard worker; but just too long for anyone to believe him capable of ever being much more. He had, in fact, already begun to sink into that creeping dry rot of pedagogy which is the worst and ultimate pitfall of the profession; giving the same lessons year after year had formed a groove into which the other affairs of his life adjusted themselves with insidious ease. He worked well; he was conscientious; he was a fixture that gave service, satisfaction, confidence, everything except inspiration.
And then came this astonishing girl-wife whom nobody had expected — least of all Chips himself. She made him, to all appearances, a new man; though most of the newness was really a warming to life of things that were old, imprisoned, and unguessed. His eyes gained sparkle; his mind, which was adequately if not brilliantly equipped, began to move more adventurously. The one thing he had always had, a sense of humor, blossomed into a sudden richness to which his years lent maturity. He began to feel a greater sureness; his discipline improved to a point at which it could become, in a sense, less rigid; he became more popular. When he had first come to Brookfield he had aimed to be loved, honored, and obeyed — but obeyed, at any rate. Obedience he had secured, and honor had been granted him; but only now came love, the sudden love of boys for a man who was kind without being soft, who understood them well enough, but not too much, and whose private happiness linked them with their own.
It’s fair to say that this is the best passage in the book, which is far more maudlin than the picture. And this passage is beautifully played out in the picture, with great subtlety and distinction.
Hæc Olim Meminisse Iuvabit
At some other time, I’d like to discuss the use of Latin throughout the story, but for now, I’ll confine myself to a single example. This next clip is Chips’ farewell address to the school upon his retirement. There are many other scenes that I like as much as this one, but this was the scene that meant the most to me when I saw the picture for the first time.
The moment that meant the most to me came the end of his speech, when he spoke the words, “. . . hæc olim meminisse iuvabit. I need not translate, of course.” That the quotation was in Latin was all I knew about it. I didn’t know what it meant or where it came from. And yet, the sound of the words brought tears to my eyes and made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I took “I need not translate” as a reproach: I was supposed to know the line, but didn’t. The moment was over so quickly, I had already forgotten the words as soon as they’d been spoken. So I sat through the picture a second time, but this time, I had my pen out, and wrote the words down on a copy of the monthly schedule that I had picked up in the lobby.
Following the example of many revival houses of that era, somebody from The Harvard Exit’s staff always made a brief introductory speech before each picture. When I was leaving the theatre after the showing, I spoke to the guy who had done the introductions that evening and asked if he could tell me anything about the Latin quotation. He was pretty sure it was from “The Æneid.” The next day, I went to the main branch of the public library a few hours before I had to be at work, and went through “The Æneid,” line by line, until I came across a line that looked similar to what I’d written down the night before: “HEC OLEM MEMMUNISSEE JOOVABIT.” It was my good luck that the line occurs in the very first book, on line 203. Roughly translated, it means “it may be that in the future you will be helped by remembering the past.” But that is a very rough translation, and even Robert Fagles, whose translations of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were bestsellers in the nineties, spoke to a reporter from the New York Times about the extreme difficulty of translating the line. “Forsan et hæc olim meminisse iuvabit. One of the most beautiful lines in Latin, and also one of the most famous. I know the translation police will be looking, as well as good readers. ‘A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.’ It is about loss, about overcoming the worst, but the word ‘perhaps’ is important. It may not be a joy to remember. It may be a bloody misery.” Fagles certainly gets the sense right, but the sound of his line is all wrong, alas. If Robert Fagles can’t render it into beautiful English, what chance have the rest of us got? John Dryden translated it so freely that it hardly approximates the original: “An hour will come, with pleasure to relate/Your sorrows past, as benefits of Fate.” Oh, for heaven’s sake, Jack!