Following the success of The Sound of Music in 1965, it seemed that every major Hollywood film studio had to duplicate its success with their own big-budget musical spectacle to be released over the next decade. Among these musicals the 1969 film adaptation of James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr. Chips directed by first time director Herbert Ross is one of the most unfairly received by both critics and audiences. Maybe the lukewarm reception was due because big-budget road-show musicals were loosing their appeal, but nevertheless was enough of a reason to dislike them on the principle that "all big budget musicals had to be bad". In fact some of the most unfair reviews for Goodbye, Mr. Chips criticized it for costing too much. But the film uses its budget wisely with good taste, and succeeds in being a big movie without losing its intimacy and genuine emotions.
As a movie musical, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is not without flaws but there is something undeniably appealing and grand about this film. At its worst this film adaptation is unrelentlessly sentimental, but at its best it succeeds as both intimate drama and period spectacle showcasing two Oscar caliber performances by Peter O’Toole as Chips and Petula Clark as Katherine, his wife.
The film opens with Arthur Chipping as a Latin teacher at Brookfield, a boys' school in suburban England. Introverted and socially inept, he is dedicated to his students but unable to inspire them. In a London music hall he is introduced to musical comedy actress Katharine Bridges. They fall in love and marry, but Katherine’s extravagant background seems to collide with the conservative world of Brookfield, putting their relationship at stake. As time goes by everyone discovers that beneath the hard exterior of Chipping there is a much more gentler and caring man.
Terence Rattigan was an brilliant choice for screenwriter since his acclaimed plays, The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy, realistically portray British boarding school life. Rattigan's screenplay pushed the story forward from 1896-1933 to approximately 1925-1969 and by modernizing the action, he has made it possible for the movie to mirror more relevant changes in the English class structure during the two decades it covers. He also captures life at a British public school with accurate perfection.
The dramatic sequences in Chips are realistically and intelligently handled while maintaining the focus on the simplicity of the love story and the manner in which that love transforms everyone around them. Rattigan has crafted several scenes between Chips and Katharine that beautifully delineate their devotion to each other, and has infused some good comic relief with the over-the-top character of Ursula Mossbank, an actress and Katherine’s long time friend delightfully played by Sian Phillips.
The film was the first directorial effort of Herbert Ross, the man who staged the musical sequences for Dr. Dolittle and Funny Girl and who later went to direct himself Funny Lady and The Turning Point. Ross' contribution is competent, providing a number of strikingly memorable sequences. He highlights the film with breathtakingly moments such as the opening credits sequence, as we hear the school anthem echoing in the vast stone hallways of the school, perfectly setting the pensive tone for the film. In another beautifully staged sequence during a trip to Pompeii, director Ross captures the spectacular scenery while serving as an appropriate backdrop for the early stages of Chips and Katherine’s romance. Ross handles most of the musical sequences more or less as soliloquies or internal monologues. O'Toole talks his with incredible charm and Miss Clark belts hers in good, modified Streisand style. This approach has inadvertently enabled the film to better withstand a modern audience's lower tolerance for live-action musical films.
John Williams has called composer Leslie Bricusse “one of the best songwriting talents around ” adding that “ he's basically a romantic in an anti-romantic age.” An although the majority of the score for Goodbye Mr. Chips composed by Mr. Bricusse is mostly serviceable , the adaptation and orchestrations as arranged by Mr. Williams transform the melodies into a more sophisticated and complex score adding a distinct use of harmony, counterpoint, and instrumentation. Some of the highlights include: the beautiful school anthem “Fill the World With Love" a choral piece, that is later spectacularly reprised by Ms. Clark; O’ Toole’s melancholic soliloquy "Where Did My Childhood Go?”; the big production number "London is London," sung by Ms. Clark, filled with spectacle, costumes, dancers and many scenery changes; the evocative soliloquy, "Apollo" melodically and lyrically, one of best songs in the score; the enormous ensemble piece "When I Am Older," possibly the best developed number in the film in which we see a trainload of schoolboys returning to Brookfield after vacation; and the final sweeping torch song "You and I” in which Katherine sings about her eternal devotion to Chips.
In an Oscar-nominated performance, Peter O'Toole stars as Arthur Chipping giving one of his greatest performances ever. By abandoning his usual mechanical flamboyance, he gives Chips an air of genuine grandeur that cements the film. His performance is restrained, affecting and also comic all at the same time. Petula Clark, a veteran of some two dozen B-movies in the UK and the previous year's Finian's Rainbow, is absolutely spectacular as Katherine. Her golden voice enriches her songs and she more than matches O'Toole in their dramatic scenes together. She's especially effective in a scene during a school assembly, when her behavior onstage turns a dreary school song into a rouser. Both O'Toole and Clark are exactly right.
Also worth noting is the cinematography by Oswald Morris (Oliver!, Fiddler on the Roof) captures a romanticized but accurate view of life at a boys school and of the lush Dorset county environs near Sherbourne.
This musical adaptation of Goodbye, Mr. Chips has some flaws, but it is hardly the disaster many critics described when it was originally released. It is probably one of the most accomplished filmed musical of its time and features spectacular performances by both O’Toole and Clark. Not a bad way to spend a weary afternoon.
The film has not been released on DVD. It is available in pan and scan format on VHS at Amazon.com and a very rare Widescreen “unofficial” transfer to DVD from the original laserdisc can be found on occasion on IOffer.com under Rare_movies