Hobson's Choice

Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Wynyard Browne, David Lean, Norman Spencer (based on the play by Harold Brighouse)
Stars: Charles Laughton (Henry Hobson), John Mills (Willie Mossop), Brenda De Banzie (Maggie Hobson), Daphne Anderson (Alice Hobson), Prunella Scales (Vicky Hobson), Richard Wattis (Albert Prosser), Derek Blomfield (Freddy Beenstock), Helen Haye (Mrs. Hepworth), Joseph Tomelty (Jim Heeler), Julien Mitchell (Sam Minns), Gibb McLaughlin (Tudsbury), Philip Stainton (Denton)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: U.K.
Hobson’s Choice DVD
Hobson’s ChoiceDavid Lean’s film version of Harold Brighouse’s 1915 play Hobson’s Choice opens as if it were another entry in Lean’s series of expressionistic Dickensian adaptations. Lean and cinematographer John Hildyard set a moody atmosphere of shadows and dark corners, giving us a forlorn tracking shot of an empty, wind-driven cobblestone street in late-19th-century Salford and then moving into a boot shop that could very well be the location of an impending murder. With great dramatic fanfare the camera whips around as the door bursts open, the wind and blowing leaves framing a large, threatening figure who steps inside … and then promptly burps and says, to no one in particular, “Pardon me.” And just like that, we are no longer in the terrain of grim melodrama, but rather social comedy.

Such is how we are introduced by one Henry Hobson, a rotund widower who owns the boot shop, but spends most of his time at the local tavern guzzling booze and trading stories with his longtime friends. As played by legendary character actor Charles Laughton, Hobson is a comically boorish blowhard, as obnoxious as he is set in his ways. A true Victorian, Hobson clings with willful mindlessness to an increasingly outmoded social perspective that elevates men, however useless and burdensome, to the highest rungs of the ladder and casts women into silent supporting roles. Although his shop bears his name, Hobson does little or no work, leaving the business to Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), his eldest daughter and mother stand-in, and everything else to his two other daughters, Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales). They have all learned to deal with Hobson’s hung-over cantankerousness and incessant need to assert his authority in every matter, no matter how trivial, yet they are also itching to escape his shadow by marrying. Hobson entertains the idea, although he asserts quite bluntly that Maggie, who is the ripe old age of 30, is clearly past her prime and destined to the life of a spinster.

Yet, as it turns out, Maggie is anything but a passive recipient of Hobson’s patriarchal bullying, and she convinces Hobson’s best bootblack, an uneducated and utterly insecure man named Willie Mossop (John Mills), to marry her. Willie is understandably reluctant, not only because Maggie proposes marriage as more of a business proposition than a romantic endeavor, but because he is perfectly content to slave away in the basement of the boot shop, turning out the finest workmanship in Salford. However, Maggie’s dogged insistence eventually wins him over, which means that Hobson loses on two counts: He loses control of his eldest daughter, who was the brains behind his business, and he loses his best workman.

First staged in 1916, Brighouse’s play is a cutting social comedy that reflects the growing momentum of first-wave feminism in its strong female characters and consistent undercutting of male authority, whether it be the blustery drunkenness of Henry Hobson or the fiddling insecurity of Willie Mossop. While the title, which is a play on the turn of phrase that suggests no choice at all, would make it appear that Hobson is the main character, it is actually Maggie who drives the narrative. Yet, she is the one person who remains resolutely consistent from beginning to end, offering herself as a rock on which Willie may sharpen himself into a competent, confident businessman who realizes his great potential and against which Hobson can hurl and eventually shatter himself, which means that it is up to Maggie and Willie to help him pick up the pieces. However loutish he may be, Hobson is always sympathetic, partially because Laughton’s boisterous performance turns him into a kind of boastful clown and partially because we recognize that he’s all talk, a product of his society who is too stubborn to recognize that the world around him is changing.

Adapted by Lean, his longtime production designer Norman Spencer, and playwright Wynyard Browne, Hobson’s Choice was one of only a handful of comedies Lean directed, yet the skillful manner in which he balances the humor and the social commentary would seem to suggest that it was his genre of choice. After making the comedies This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945), Lean had turned to more serious fare, including the powerful wartime romance Brief Encounter and the much-praised adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). As it turned out, Hobson’s Choice would be his last foray into comedy (as well as his last film made in Britain and his last film shot in black and white), as the subsequent years would find Lean continually working in the romantic/epic mold with films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and A Passage to India (1984).

The scope of and grandeur of those later films certainly makes a film like Hobson’s Choice seem small by comparison, but at the same time it allows us to see how masterfully Lean was able to infuse the stagebound story with a particularly cinematic air, matching Laughton’s amusingly grandiose egocentrism and petulance (he’s like a Victorian-era Archie Bunker) with a visual style that foregrounds the ugliness of the Industrial Revolution as often as it focuses on cozy domestic spaces. There is plenty of old-world charm to be found in cobblestones and gas lights, but there are also belching smokestacks and polluted rivers, both of which frame the crucial moment when Maggie makes her marriage pitch to Willie. In another film that might be read as negative commentary on the marriage-to-be, but what Hobson’s Choice delivers time and again is a comical twist on the expected: the marriage of convenience grows into real love, the tyrant gets one-upped but then reincorporated into a new family structure, and the powerful woman asserts her strength not by simply controlling those around her, but by invigorating them to self-improvement without ever losing her own identity. It makes everything old seem brilliantly and often hilariously new.

Hobson’s Choice Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary featuring film scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, co-authors of David Lean and His Films
  • The Hollywood Greats: Charles Laughton, a 1978 BBC documentary about the actor’s life and career, featuring interviews with his family, friends, and colleagues
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New essay by critic Armond White
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 17, 2009

    Criterion’s new high-definition digital transfer of Hobson’s Choice is a direct result of a recent restoration by the BFI National Archive, which was funded by the David Lean Foundation and StudioCanal. The transfer was made from a new 35mm fine-grain master positive that was struck from the original camera negative and then further restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The resulting image is quite superb, with excellent contrast and detail that beautifully renders both the charm and ugliness of late-19th-century Salford as envisioned by Lean (the only complaint, as with all recent Academy aspect ratio films released by Criterion, is that the image is slightly windowboxed). Blacks are strong and consistent, with great shadow detail (for a perfect example, just check out the opening sequence). There are a few signs of age here and there in the form of light speckling, but the overall image is so smooth and clean that you would never guess that the film was made 55 years ago. The monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit, was taken from a restored 1953 combined fine-grain master positive. Further digital restoration has ensured an extremely clean track, with good fidelity and no evidence of ambient hiss or crackling.
    Criterion’s disc includes a wonderfully informative screen-specific audio commentary by film scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, co-authors of David Lean and His Films. Silver and Ursini are deeply knowledgeable about Lean’s cinema, and they offer a plethora of narrative, thematic, and visual insight and analysis that truly adds to the enjoyment of the film. Fans of Charles Laughton will rejoice at the inclusion of The Hollywood Greats: Charles Laughton, a 45-minute BBC documentary from 1978 about the actor’s life and career. It features interviews with Laughton’s family, friends, and colleagues, including actress Lillian Gish, director Billy Wilder, and Laughton’s wife, the British character actress Elsa Lanchester. Lastly, the disc includes the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

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