Saturday, March 14, 2009

Herbert Ross' "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969)

"It's 'Guys and Dolls,' Jerry, not 'Guys and Guys'!" -George Costanza (Jason Alexander) defending his birthday gift of theatre tickets to a "lavish Broadway musical" to Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) on "Seinfeld"
It's no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I love film musicals.

The musical - inarguably - is the definitive movie genre, encompassing as it does every possible craft and art, and I personally resent the shabby treatment that it's received at the hands of people who don't understand it, don't want to understand it and don't have the capacity to appreciate it.

There!

Over the past 50 years or so, the film musical has been abandoned, ridiculed, mindlessly associated with gay men almost exclusively, and half-heartedly - and almost begrudgingly - appropriated by insincere filmmakers who just don't get it. And exacerbating matters, critics who should know better, have operated like bullies, waiting around the corner to sabotage and bludgeon any attempt at reviving the form.

These are professionals who have convinced themselves that the last great musical was Donen-Kelly's fabulous "Singin' in the Rain," who have embraced abberations that are esssentially anti-musicals ("Cabaret," "Moulin Rouge!") and who have exhibited little patience with either the joyful "traditional" film-musical format or those scattered titles that have attempted to redefine and experiment with the genre.

All of this is in preamble to honoring Herbert Ross' overlooked 1969 musical remake of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" which popped up on Turner Classic Movies yesterday (in its roadshow incarnation, natch) and which is a fine example of a veteran musical showman experimenting with the form with incredible style and sensitivity.

In its day, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" was an attempt to stand apart from the "Hello, Dollys" of the era, opting instead for a lean, clean simplicity and sophistication that might make it more palatable for moviegoers who, jaded by big-studio bigness, were turning towards something different, less predictable, more artful.

Based, of course, on James Hilton's 1934 novel (also the source of the 1939 Sam Wood film with Robert Donat and Greer Garson), "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" is an incredibly sad tale of a man, a reserved teacher at a boys' boarding school, who was fated to be alone. For one brief moment, a woman comes into his life, igniting it, but her presence proves to be wrenchingly brief. Mr. Chips' life ends the way it began - in solitude.

Hilton aptly described his tale as "a long short story."

Ross's vision of this fable is elegiac, warm and pervasively mournful - qualities that are brilliantly abetted by Leslie Bricusse's romantically yearning songs, scored here to perfection by John Williams.

Not all of the songs are sung outright; in fact, most of them are moodily presented as thoughts. We hear what the characters are thinking - and they think in song. Ross did his own choreography for the film, which he wisely kept sparse, and he was assisted by his wife Nora Kaye.

In the lead roles, Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark are respectively introverted and extroverted. O'Toole brings immense dignity and feeling to his reading of Terence Rattigan's dialogue and Bricusse's lyrics.

Clark, meanwhile, demonstrates that she was made to be a leading screen soubrette. Alas, that never happened. "Chips" and Francis Ford Coppola's version of "Finian's Rainbow" (1968) are the only two major studio film musicals that she made. Another missed opportunity.

1 comment:

Beth said...

A lovely film. It always overwhelms me. Peter O'Toole's performance is achingly beautiful, one he should have received more credit for. Bravo.