Author James Hilton
While best known for creating Mr. Chips, the quintessential English schoolteacher, James Hilton was less a Lancashire lad than a Hollywood insider. After early success as a novelist, he made his mark during the golden age of the movies, penning scripts for Frank Capra and Greer Garson and collaborating with Frances Marion, the most successful female screenwriter of her day.
Hilton's formative years and schooling contributed the details for his most famous story. He attended elementary and grammar school in north London until June 1914, when he won a scholarship to Haileybury College. When his father, himself a headmaster at the Walthamstow School, discovered that Haileybury possessed both a rifle range and an Officer's Training Corps (OTC), Hilton withdrew. Instead he was allowed to choose a public school for himself. Touring England's finest schools alone, he settled on the Leys School in Cambridge after an impressive interview with headmaster Dr. Barber (and despite its rifle range and OTC). Relying on the fact that his father was both forgetful and unobservant, he joined his class at Leys halfway through the summer term in 1915.
Hilton's schoolmates spoke of the thrill of being in class with him. Although often asked to read out his essays, he was generally quiet. He would go to evensong at Kings College Chapel, cycle to Grantchester on half-holidays for tea at the Orchard tea rooms, and to Epping Forest to see his girlfriend, without the knowledge of his housemaster. Among his early papers was a short novelette in a school exercise book that detailed the romance between a boy and girl who met while cycling in Epping Forest.
Though he spent World War I far from battle, Hilton published several stories in the school magazine, The Fortnightly, that were preoccupied with war. One story concerned a Zeppelin raid over London that he experienced while on summer holiday. Another, "The Bayonet," told of a night spent in a shell crater by a British and a German soldier. His schoolwork was overshadowed by thoughts of war. He wrote: "The careful assessments of schoolmasters were blotted out by larger and wilder markings; a boy who had been expelled returned as a hero with medals; those whose inability to conjugate avoir and être seemed likely in 1913 to imperil a career were to conquer France's enemies better than they did her language; offenders gated for cigarette smoking in January were dropping bombs from the sky in December. It was a frantic world; and we knew it even if we did not talk about it. Slowly, inch by inch, the tide of war lapped to the gates of our seclusion."
In 1918 Hilton won a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he joined the University Officer Training Squadron. Before he saw any action, the war ended. He was able to continue his studies uninterrupted, performing well enough to earn a research scholarship for a fourth year. Hilton published his first novel in 1920, while still an undergraduate. Catherine Herself describes the relationship between a woman pianist and her teacher, a character he based on his father.
After Cambridge, he became a freelance journalist, writing chiefly for The Manchester Guardian and reviewing fiction for The Daily Telegraph. Under a pseudonym, he wrote the detective novel Murder at School, set in a school called Oakington that was modeled on Leys. A job with the Dublin newspaper The Irish Independent secured his financial independence and enabled him to produce several more novels during the twenties.
In 1931, he enjoyed his first popular success with And Now Goodbye and was able to take up writing fiction full time. But it was Lost Horizon (1933) that secured his reputation. The novel told the story of British diplomat Robert Conway and a small group of civilians who crash land in the mysterious, Eden-like valley of Shangri-La. Protected by mountains from the world outside, where the clouds of World War II are gathering, Shangri-La provides a seductive escape for the world-weary Conway. The book won the Hawthornden Prize and was made into a successful 1937 film directed by Frank Capra and starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt.
On the coattails of this success, The British Weekly commissioned a 3,000-word short story to be published in its Christmas edition. Finding himself without inspiration, Hilton went for a bicycle ride in Epping Forest until "suddenly an idea bobbed up and [he] saw the whole story in a flash." In four days he had "banged out" the 17,500-word story of a beloved schoolmaster entitled Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Hilton based the main character on many real-life sources including his father; his Latin, history and English at Leys, a Mr. Toplis; and a master at Leys called "Chops" for his prodigious whiskers. But the chief inspiration was W.H. Balgarnie, a retired master at Leys. Hilton later wrote to the head of the school, "Balgarnie was, I suppose, the chief model for my story. When I read so many other stories about public school life, I am struck by the fact that I suffered no such purgatory as their authors apparently did, and much of this miracle was due to Balgarnie." On December 7, 1933, The British Weekly published the over-long Chips as a special insert, with illustrations by Bip Pares. The story was then sold to The Atlantic Monthly, proving popular enough to warrant a hardcover edition, published in England the following October. Hilton had become a best-selling author.
In 1935, after the success of Goodbye Mr. Chips, Hilton was invited to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter. Before leaving, he married his live-in girlfriend, Alice Brown, a secretary at the BBC. As Hilton was by now becoming a public figure, they traveled to Eastbourne to avoid any scandal over their previous illicit living arrangement. The American press awaited their arrival in New York, where husband and wife gave interviews before continuing on to Los Angeles, where again they were given a tremendous reception. The glittering Hollywood lifestyle would prove disastrous for Hilton's marriage, which ended in divorce in 1937. Only seven days later he married Galina Kopineck, a young starlet (who he would also divorce eight years later).
While Hollywood undid Hilton's personal life, his career thrived there. He won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Mrs. Miniver (1942); actress Greer Garson also earned a Best Actress Oscar in the title role. Directed by William Wyler, the film depicts a middle-class English family's life during first months of World War II. Hilton also wrote screenplays for Camille (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Forever and a Day (1943), The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943), The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942) and We Are Not Alone (1939). Other screenwriters adapted his novels Knight Without Armour (1937), Lost Horizon (1937), Rage in Heaven (1941), and Random Harvest (1942). Robert Donat won a Best Actor Oscar for the title role in Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), but Hilton could not entirely take credit for the success of this film; Eric Maschwitz, C. Sherriff, and Claudine West had adapted his novel for the screen. During his Hollywood years, Hilton continued to write novels, including Nothing So Strange and Morning Journey. He was a member of the governing board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and vice president of the Screen Writers Guild.
Possessing an imposing voice both on and off the page, Hilton served as the narrator for Madame Curie (1943) and the adaptation of his novel So Well Remembered (1947), in addition to hosting CBS Radio's Hallmark Playhouse from 1948 until 1953. The following year, Hilton died of liver cancer with his first wife Alice by his side. They had not only been reconciled, but reunited as man and wife when they learned that their Mexican divorce had not been legal.
While Hilton's work has fallen out of fashion in recent years, his contributions to popular culture are undeniable. "Mr. Chips" and "Shangri-la" have become part of the common vernacular, and the success of his other books and screenplays confirms his role as master storyteller.
Essays + Interviews:
Author James Hilton | A history of Goodbye, Mr. Chips
An interview with the producers | How to age an actor
Essays + Interviews | Who's Who/Cast + Credits
Story Synopsis | Novel to Film | Russell Baker
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