Hobson’s Choice (1954) dir. David Lean
Starring: Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales
By Alan Bacchus
David Lean’s marvellous humanist comedy, based on the play by Prunella Scales, is invisible to its age. Lean’s visual flare and eye for composition combined with working class rags to riches story looks as fabulous now as it did then.
Before David Lean started making colour films with big canvases on location he made even more and arguably even better smaller studio films in Britain. Lean was a dynamo with the camera, a style not that dissimilar from one of his contemporaries, Orson Welles. From 1942 to 1955, including 'Oliver Twist', 'Great Expectations', 'Brief Encounter', 'Hobson’s Choice' and 'Summertime', Lean managed to open up his confined locations using expressive constrasty lighting and deep focus photography techniques more in common with film noir.
Charles Laughton plays Hobson a cantankerous shoe store owner who works his three daughters to the bone, without any pay, for the sake of the family. But they are all marrying age and so Hobson has to deal the prospect of a) losing his workstaff and b) having to pay a ‘settlement’ to their prospective husbands. Ever the stingy capitalist, Hobson has avoided this ‘choice’ as long as he can. With no other options Maggie decides to take it upon herself to find a husband. She doesn't look farther than the shoe shop and target's Hobson's best bootmaker Willie Mossop. Maggie convinces Willie of marriage not as romance, but mutual convenience, a business relationship which would help them start a new shoe business, find mates as well sticking it to the rueful Hobson.
London never looked better than through Lean's eye. The photography of the city’s fog drenched skies and rough cobblestone roads add invaluable texture and realism to the environment. His interior scenes mostly take place in the confined spaces of Hobson’s shop, or Maggie/Willie’s flat, yet Lean’s camera is surprisingly mobile and moves with elegance (and motivation) around the rooms with ease.
As a working class triumph of will, the journey of Maggie from a subjgated worker drone spinster into an independent business woman and eventually loving wife is great storytelling. Charles Laughton is at his crabby best playing the stubborn and oppressive patriarch of the family who in his selfishness just can’t bear to see his daughter’s succeed. And so when we see Maggie decide to take her life into her own hands and choose her own destiny it’s marvelously inspiring.
In the second act, as we see Maggie lift herself up and go through the machinations of starting her own shoe business it becomes a smart business story. In fact, I was reminded of how we saw Claudette Colbert engineer her own pancake business with Louise Beavers in ‘Imitation of Life’.
John Mills as Maggie’s husband is perhaps overly characterized as a childish nave completely naive and complicit to whatever Maggie says or does. If anything Willie’s roll could have been strengthened by emphasizing his contribution to Maggie’s business as a real boot artist. But as comedy, his simplicity overcomes any deficiencies. In the final act when Willie and Maggie have to get married, and thus, CONSUMATE Lean takes his time to craft a humourous climax (pun intended) showing the frightening moments before Willie has to finally go to bed with Maggie. Of course sex is never mentioned, but the subtextual and visual suggestions make the buildup surprisingly tense.
“Hobson’s Choice” expresses themes of feminism, humanity and both condemns and celebrates capitalism with a light British comedic flare, and of course David Lean’s superb filmmaking skills.