With the Curious Case of Benjamin Button walking away with the Best Special Effects Oscar last night, I thought it was time to dig out Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939) as another example of a movie where a man goes from old to young and then slowly back to very old in the space of two hours. The make-up in this movie was excellent. It wasn't until a half an hour in that I realized the actor playing Chips was the very dashing Robert Donat (The Thirty-nine Steps). He appears briefly as a young man, clean shaven, much as you see him above. Though by the time he catches up with Greer Garson, he is middle aged and wearing a shaggy unkempt mustache and some fairly convincing lines around his eyes. He spends about 75% of the movie as an old man and Donat's characterization of the spry, springy Chips is really convincing. Donat deservedly won the best actor award for his emotional transformation from a shy, tired man, always on the edge of the action to an energetic force for good. Chips' revolution is one of tea and cake and good humor, but those things were sorely lacking in his environment and they make a difference.
I have avoided this movie because it is spectacularly maudlin but I tend to forget that at its heart beats a really sweet love story. Garson and Donat are lovely together. Mr Chips meets his wife while hiking in the mountains in Switzerland. They are trapped together in a fog and the altitude allows the shy, overly-Victorian Chips to actually put the moves on her. Garson's character is very modern, a fact which the movie eases into place by labeling her a revolutionary. One of the truly delightful scenes in the movie has Chips introducing her to his stuffy colleagues at Brookfield school. Expecting a much older woman, they fall over themselves trying to impress her. It's nice to see poor Chipsy get some respect after always being the good sport in the movie.
It doesn't last long, though and the movie morphs into a wartime tale of an elderly man being useful in a time of crisis. Of course this is to be expected given the year the movie was made, but the film has a very dark take on the theme as boys who are one day in boaters and short pants are the next being referred to in a roll call of WWI dead. I was reminded of my visit to Cary Grant's school in Bristol and how there is plaque there filled with the names of dozens of former students killed in action who were just a few years older than Archie Leach.
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