When speaking of great stars from the golden age of Hollywood, one name is often conspicuous by its absence: Robert Donat. Yes, he was British, but he also worked in Hollywood and the year that Gone With The Wind swept the Academy Awards he walked off with the Oscar for his performance in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, an MGM movie made in England.
I recently rekindled my great fondness for Donat when I chanced to see the last half-hour of The Citadel on Turner Classic Movies. It’s a wonderful film, directed by King Vidor and adapted from a novel by A.J. Cronin. The leading role, a crusading doctor who temporarily loses his way, is perfectly suited to its star—supported here by Rosalind Russell and a scene-stealing Ralph Richardson.
But if I were trying to sell Donat to an audience completely unfamiliar with him I would show The 39 Steps (1935), one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films. Donat had a beautiful speaking voice, rivaled only by fellow Brit Ronald Colman and Welsh-born Roger Livesey, and he is perfectly matched by leading lady Madeleine Carroll in this witty, still-gripping thriller. In some ways it is the archetypal Hitchcock movie, focusing on an innocent man who is thought to be a murderer and a spy. He spends a good portion of the film handcuffed to Carroll, who wants no part of him and asks him how and why he pursued a life of crime. Their witty badinage has seldom if ever been equaled.
Donat took up acting in his youth to overcome a stutter and never looked back. He had small parts in a number of early talkies but had his first leading role in an American production of The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Dashing and completely credible as Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling hero Edmond Dantes, he was announced as the star of Warner Bros.’ upcoming adventure yarn Captain Blood, but returned to Great Britain instead, never to set foot in California again. (Warners was obliged to find an unknown to take his place and chose a recent arrival from Tasmania by way of the U.K. named Errol Flynn.) Other studios repeatedly offered him plum parts but he turned them all down; apparently he hadn’t enjoyed his brief stay in California.
A lifelong asthmatic, Donat’s output was relatively small, but he made each film count. When filming of Knight Without Armor (1937) was interrupted by a two-month hospital stay, his costar Marlene Dietrich welcomed him back to the set and dubbed him “our knight without asthma.” She had refused to continue working until he was well enough to resume filming.
He is best remembered—when he is remembered at all—as the self-sacrificing teacher in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), like The Citadel an MGM production made in England. (These and such other films as A Yank at Oxford and Haunted Honeymoon were part of a settlement between U.S. studios and the British government whereby the Hollywood companies agreed to spend a portion of the huge profits they made in England in England.)
Based on a novel by James Hilton, whose other movie-friendly books include Lost Horizon and Random Harvest, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is an unabashedly sentimental story of a man who looks back on his fifty-eight year career as a Latin teacher which began when he was 25 years old. Charles Edward Chipping earns his nickname only after years of unyielding strictness in his classes. His seemingly cold demeanor is thawed by the charming woman he meets and marries, played by Greer Garson. Near the end of his life he looks back with great affection at all the surrogate sons he taught and sent on their way. Donat doesn’t mug or condescend to the audience in his portrayal of the elderly Mr. Chips. He is utterly sincere, which is one reason the film is still so well-loved.
Even minor films like The Adventures of Tartu (1943) and Vacation from Marriage/Perfect Strangers (1945) are made worthwhile by his presence. And while an all-star cast dots the story of The Magic Box (1951) it is Donat, as the unheralded English inventor of motion pictures, who commands the screen from start to finish.
I wish I had been around to see him on the London stage in such plays as The Devil’s Disciple, Heartbreak House, Much Ado About Nothing, and Murder in the Cathedral. But I must reconcile myself to revisiting his work on screen and marveling at his seemingly effortless charisma. He deserves to be better known by a new generation of film buffs and scholars.