Tonight: Robert Donat and Greer Garson with Paul Henreid and John Mills in Goodbye, Mr. Chips—a true classic.
During the Great Depression, England imposed trade barriers on foreign films. In response, MGM established a short-lived, pre-war production company in England that made A Yank at Oxford with Robert Taylor in 1937. The success of that film was followed by The Citadel with Robert Donat a year later.
Donat was already a star, having made such unforgettable films as The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and Hitchcock’s 39 Steps (1935).
Donat’s powerful performance in The Citadel made him a natural choice for Metro’s third annual British production, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. He wasn’t the only choice, however. Charles Laughton had originally been announced for the role. And author James Hilton had actually suggested Wallace Beery.
The author of Lost Horizon and Random Harvest, Hilton wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips as an assignment for the Christmas issue of a British magazine.
It was published in book form in 1933, the same year as Lost Horizon. But it received little attention in America until a favorable review by Alexander Wolcott on radio turned it into a best seller. Irving Thalberg bought the property for MGM, but he died before the film was made.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the poignant story of a lonely, middle-aged, very British schoolmaster, whose life is changed by the love of a woman—Greer Garson, in her film debut.
Garson got the role by default when Elizabeth Allan, who had appeared in David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, had a falling out with the studio over the casting of The Citadel.
Louis B. Mayer put Garson under contract after he saw her in a London play. She sat around Metro doing nothing for more than a year, until director Sam Wood saw a test she had made for the studio.
She would become one of MGM’s biggest stars in the 1940s, with starring roles in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Miniver, Random Harvest and Madame Curie.
Her name—Greer—was a contraction of her Irish mother’s maiden name—“McGregor,”
Supporting actor Baron Paul Von Henreid shortened his name, too—before starring in Now, Voyager and Casablanca.
Many of the scenes were shot on location at an authentic 382-year-old, elitist school in England named Repton. Two hundred students passed up a week-long holiday to appear as extras in Chips.
Greer Garson was almost 31 when she made this movie.
Donat was 34. In the film, he ages from 25 to 83—in a remarkably powerful performance.
The inspiration for the role, one of author James Hilton’s teachers, actually died at the same age—83, in Wales, in 1951.
Donat died in 1958—at the age of 53.
A sensitive, but insecure man, plagued by ill health, Donat never embraced Hollywood. He turned down major roles—including Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood—that made Errol Flynn a star.
When he died, he was virtually penniless.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips opened in New York on May 15, 1939 and went into general release on July 28.
It was a major critical and commercial success.
In 1939, the most memorable year in Hollywood’s history, Goodbye, Mr. Chips received seven Academy Award nominations—including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay.
Gone With the Wind swept the Oscars that year. But Clark Gable’s “Rhett Butler” lost to Donat’s heart-warming portrayal of Professor Chipping.
So now, from 1939, Goodbye, Mr. Chips.