To me, Mr. Chips was a dog.
The black hound of that name that I knew belonged to my Richmond grandparents, so I only saw him on the rare visits to Richmond as a child. But since we didn't have a dog at that point, he seemed like a very big deal to me.
What I didn't realize as a child was that the name Mr. Chips had any meaning beyond chocolate chips because he was a black dog.
And although I eventually increased my cultural literacy sufficiently to learn that Goodbye, Mr. Chips was a 1934 book and twice made into a film, I'd never seen either.
Then at the Criterion Theater the other night, I noticed the marquee of Movieland said that Goodbye, Mr. Chips was playing for the weekend, Wait long enough and you never know what'll turn up on the big screen. Just don't tell Pru I'd never seen it before or I'll never hear the end of it. But, hey, films shot in 70 mm are not meant to be watched on a TV, no matter how big the screen.
Maybe it was because today is the first non-rainy day since Monday, but walking over to Movieland, I had a sense it wouldn't be crowded. In fact, there were exactly five people in the theater when I sat down. It became six when an Indian man joined his date in my row and then told her that he hadn't seen this movie since 8th grade.
"I hope I like it the same now," he said. Me, I was just hoping I'd like it as much as he had on first viewing.
My first surprise came with the first frame, which read "Overture" (which caused the Indian man's date to ask impatiently, "How long is this?"). Wait, this was a musical? I had no idea. Sure enough, characters sang occasionally, but more often the songs were their thoughts. Once intermission came, lo and behold, there was a musical interlude entr'acte as well.
Just as surprising to me was that the female lead was played by Petula Clark, whom I know only from the greatest hits CD I have of hers. She acted, too?
The story of a quiet schoolmaster at a boys' school outside London in 1924 featured the kind of centuries'-old buildings, formal attire and focus on the classics that I'd expected from a story about a British boarding school, but I never saw the sweet love story that developed between the shy teacher and the ebullient dance hall star coming.
Scenes of a vacation in Greece were visually stunning - come on, we're talking about actors walking through the Acropolis and Parthenon in the '60s - with the bright blue skies everyone assures me are a constant in that country.
Peter O'Toole was his usual handsome self, but even more charming for playing such a scholarly nerd rather than a sophisticate. His chemistry with Petula was palpable.
As a word geek, I laughed aloud at an exchange abut the word "suitability," which Mr. Chips pointed out wasn't in the dictionary. A colleague corrects him, saying it's in Webster's. "But not Oxford!" he insists as proof of its unworthiness for use, especially as it applied to him and his actress wife.
He's the kind of man unused to women at all, much less to an adoring wife, but one who adapts because he's so in love with her, although somewhat lacking in romantic skills at times. When they're lying under the piano during a bombing, he tells her she still looks 18 and beautiful. "I've never seen you lying under a piano before," he adds.
"You qualify all your compliments, don't you?" she teases. It's just the way of some men.
And then, of course, my final surprise was that unbelievably tragic and sad ending after they'd been together for, what 20 years? Since when do musicals have such sad endings? Granted, the film had been made in 1969, so we'd just gotten through a particularly difficult decade with all sorts of devastating events, but is that why they decided to make such a sweet story end two and a half hours later with the audience blubbering?
I might have enjoyed it even more than that long-ago 8th grader had.