Hobson's Choice (1954)
Director: David Lean
Writer: Harold Brighouse, Wynyard Browne, David Lean, and Norman Spencer
Cinematographer: Jack Hildyard
Producer: David Lean
by Jon Cvack
Drifting from Daivd Lean’s usual fair, Hobson’s Choice is neither a romance nor a war film, but instead a type of chamber drama, movie-based-on-a-play, taking place within a boot making shop, owned by the tippling and officious Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton). Each day he barks orders to his three daughters and single employee, before heading off to the public house to get crocked, with Lean immersing the viewer into Hobson’s drunkenness, tripling up the frame and adding a spinning effect to perfectly capture what one too many does. In one brilliant scene, Henry chases the moon that’s reflecting on a bunch of puddles, before finally into a storage container, destroying a bunch of property and being slapped with a hefty lawsuit. Henry refuses to acknowledge that he has any type of drinking problem, worsened by the fact that once fully loaded, he starts deriding his friends with harsh personal attacks. As funny as the performance is at times, David Lean is a master at making us just as quickly feel embarrassed and pity the man.
Given that most of his days are spent in bed, recovering from a hangover, before checking in on the books, and heading off to the public house once again, Hobson’s reluctant to marry off his three daughters who control the shop. His best weapon is refusing the dowry that any man would covet in order to marry one of the daughters, leaving them with few options. That is, except for Henry’s eldest Vicky (Prunella Scales), who wishes to open her own boot making shop when an elderly and wealthy patron enters, demanding the cobbler who made her boots; considering them the greatest pair she’s ever owned. She discovers that the artisan is the soft-spoken and passive Willie Missop (John Mills) who works in the shop’s basement. Vicky pursues Willie, much to his discomfiture, using sex as her primary weapon to lure him away from Hobson in order to create her own boot business.
Willie and Vicky’s shop proves to be a wild success, with Vicky showing that Henry’s domineering attitude runs deep in the genes. She’s a formidable competitor, and within a year the pair attract most of Henry’s clients. Henry’s drinking eventually catches up to him, leaving him bedridden, to which Vicky and Willie offer a partnership between the stores. After a lengthy and entertaining argument, Henry finally capitulates and they shake on it.
Charles Laughton’s performance is genius, with Mills and Scales following just behind, but I’m just not sure what the film was necessarily about. It didn’t seem to take on a meaning or scope the way Lean’s other films have. And while I can look past the lack of scope in that this is very much a film version of a play, the nebulous theme left me kind of disappointed. It felt far more about focused on characters than theme or message. In refusing to let his daughters marry off in order to preserve his drunken lifestyle, Henry seems to embody capitalist vice; to make enough so that you can make others work for you while reaping all the profits and benefits. Henry is entirely oblivious or even careless about his own selfishness that I found myself resenting the man far more than I did at the beginning of the film. Vicky continued this tradition by coveting Willie for his talent and profitability than any type of genuine love. With her complete teetotalism, it left me wondering if she too would one day fall victim to the bottle like Henry; except she seems so hungry for the work and in need of Willie’s abilities that it doesn’t seem likely. It all left me wondering what I’m supposed to take from this beyond a few great performances.
BELOW: A nice taste of Laughton
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