I’m resigned. You’re growing on me. I’ll tow the line with you.
— William Mossop (John Mills), Hobson’s Choice
I fell in that cellar. I slept in that cellar. And I woke to this catastrophe!
— Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton), Hobson’s Choice
Hobson’s Choice opens on a cobbled, rain drenched, recognisably English street. The wind whistles as a great boot swings from a shop front, ominously back and forth; the creaking signage adding to the daunting aural impression. We jump to the interior of the deserted shop and at once the camera spins round alarmingly to the show the chiming of a clock, confirming to us that we have entered proceedings in the small hours of the night.
After panning across rows of boots to establish our setting, there is a flutter of activity and the door is thrown open to reveal a huge shadowy figure filling the doorway. Immediately the tension evaporates with the might of Charles Laughton’s anomalous introductory belch, followed by his undirected apology, “Beg’ pardon” at which point the film announces itself unashamedly as a comedy, and a gruff Northern one at that.
Turning his hand for only the second time to the comedy genre, the director of Hobson’s Choice, David Lean, toys with the audience’s expectations with regards to his well-established directorial style; the opening sequence for example, if one omits the punchline of sorts, has something of the macabre drama of his earlier adaptations of Great Expectations (1946) or Oliver Twist (1948).
Based on a stage play scripted by Harold Brighouse in 1915, the title is a pun on an archaic British idiom. A “Hobson’s choice” is described by The Chambers Dictionary as “the choice of the thing offered or nothing”; meaning, in other words, that it is no choice at all.
The film is set in Salford, Manchester in the late 19th century. In it Laughton plays Henry Hobson, proprietor of the eponymous boot shop Hobson’s. He is a great, portly, lumbering hindrance of a man, who tramples down his love for his three daughters under the weight of his grotesque self-interest, so that it barely even troubles his heart. Hobson is not only a man of despicable hubris but also an ingrate and an almost pathological drunkard who plays no part in the affairs of his business or his home and is totally dependent on the young women he domineers and publicly derides.
His eldest, Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), cuts a contrastingly straight figure. Heroically, boisterously, perhaps terminally sensible, Lean venerates women like Maggie, finding great decency in her pragmatism; portraying it as quality to be revered and justly rewarded. From early on it is clear that Maggie’s story will be privileged with inexorable momentum; it is her ambition and endeavours that drive the plot forth. Her father writes her off when he comments, “You’re a proper old maid Maggie, if ever there was one”. However, it is quickly apparent that Maggie is a woman to be underestimated at one’s peril.
Despite Henry’s grand size and cavernous pie-hole, he is no match for his adamantine progeny. Since, as her father so crassly observes, there are no suitors forthcoming (or that are visibly Maggie’s equal) she sets about creating herself a man as fine as the boots their lowly employee William Mossop (John Mills) so immaculately stitches. In fact it is William who she, seemingly mischievously, sets her sights on.
The truth is that she alone amongst her class recognises the value of acquiring the heart and skills of a simple, earnest boot-maker. After romancing him in an unconventionally no-nonsense fashion (set against Lean’s characteristically unglamorous, industrial locations), they set up a rival business together funded by the patronage of a wealthy admirer of William’s work. Though theirs is a relationship with an absence of passion, they seem destined to achieve a heartrending symbiosis.
Henry Hobson is at first shown to be a popular character in his local boozer. However, after news travels of his daughter’s burgeoning success he is incensed to find himself subjected to social contumely at the hands of his fellow inebriates. His spiralling misfortune, authored in part by his own flesh and blood, sets him tumbling onto a path where his hand will be forced into not one but two “Hobson’s choices”.
One of the film’s most apparent themes is female emancipation. It is set, and the original play was conceived, against the backdrop of the long, hard-fought British movement for women’s suffrage (which achieved prominence during the late Victorian era through to early Georgian period). Although this is not explicitly depicted, Maggie’s character — a capable, driven, self-possessed woman living in a deeply misogynist society — is clearly an amalgam of the courageous, determined women of the time. She tells William, “You’re a business idea in the shape of a man” and puts forward the idea of a partnership.
With some reluctance, I’ve docked Hobson’s Choice a couple of marks since it is not wholly successful as a comedy. Though the script is witty, Lean’s fastidious direction hardly creates an atmosphere of easy hilarity and it certainly compares unfavourably with the best of the more eccentric and anarchic Ealing comedies of the era; particularly the sublime Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection
Somewhat like his severe, practical heroine, Lean lacks a light touch but he tweaks his Romantic, Impressionist recognisable style to confound his audience to occasional humorous effect. Laughton is certainly well cast and launches himself with gusto into his role, yet despite this it is not amongst his most successful comic performances (try Witness for the Prosecution — 1957), and although Brenda De Banzie is exceptional as Maggie she is playing the straight man, so to speak. Notwithstanding all this, it remains an entertaining diversion and is immensely sophisticated film-making.
An excellent technical director, Lean deftly combines filmic elements in proud, efficient harmony. His exquisitely managed compositions exploit the cinematic potential of the themes. For example — as Alain Silver and James Ursini point out in the film’s enlightening commentary — the increasing isolation, degradation and subjugation of Henry Hobson is reinforced by Hobson being repeatedly sidelined and physically positioned at a disadvantage within the frame.
Furthermore, the film is beautifully presented in a new high-definition digital transfer from a restoration by the British Film Institute National Archive. This was the last of what the duo on the commentary term Lean’s “indigenously English” films and is a fitting swansong to this period of his oeuvre.
Although the extras aren’t bountiful they are a trio of aces. Once again Criterion has delivered a fitting package to accompany a cinematic gem. Alain Silver and James Ursini, collaborators on “David Lean and His Films”, provide an admirably educational, largely technical, commentary which puts Hobson’s Choice in the context of Lean’s body of work and draws attention to his expert staging and wonderful auteurship.
Armond White, film critic for the New York Press, has contributed an essay, entitled “Custom Made”. It is an interesting, well-researched piece though I must disagree that Hobson’s Choice ranks “with the best Ealing Studio features of the period” and was disheartened to read Maggie described as a “proto-Margaret Thatcher entrepreneur” (Since unlike the monstrous Thatcher, Maggie is depicted as having nothing but compassion toward and respect for the working classes).
Also included is an hour-long 1978 BBC documentary entitled “The Hollywood Greats: Charles Laughton”. Presented by British TV favourite Barry Norman it is an insightful profile of the tempestuous, tortured actor. It boasts interviews from close friends and collaborators and in particular from his widow, Elsa Lancaster; in her own right a superb actress, who speaks frankly of Laughton’s much published homosexuality and of their unconventional but highly affectionate relationship.
Poignantly she reveals that, with regards to Laughton’s adultery, “we didn’t sit and talk about it. I wish we had.” Also featured is the magnificent Billy Wilder who enthuses about Laughton’s ability and professionalism saying, “He was just fabulous, absolutely fabulous. I was in awe.” Such significant contributors make this a worthwhile, fascinating inclusion. The film’s trailer also features.