DVD Review of Hobsonís Choice
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/12/09
Having grown up on the more well known films of David Lean, from his 1940s period pieces, like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, to his famed epics, The Bridge On The River Kwai, Lawrence Of Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago, I was surprised to learn that he even made comedies. In fact, he only made two, 1945ís Blithe Spirit, based on a Noel Coward play, and the film under review, 1954ís Hobsonís Choice (Leanís last black and white film), also based upon a play- a 1916 play of the same title by Harold Brighouse. While this film is not in a league with the aforementioned classics, it is a very good film, and often quite humorous; yet this is all due to Leanís direction and trimming away of some of the narrative fat from the play in favor of unique cinematic expression, starting from the opening shots that define the workplace of Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton, in one of his better late roles, after his career started a long, slow fade) to the many precise positionings of characters within the film frame, to the degree that many scenes play out as living detailed paintings from the very era the film is set in- the late 19th Century. One particularly well wrought scene comes near the filmís end when Hobsonís oldest daughter confers with a doctor about her fatherís condition, and instead of the camera following them for what will be a perfunctory exchange it stays with Laughton, who gives a bravura scene of underacted rage and calm in one.
The title, of course, comes from the illusory claim of a person to give someone multiple choices, when in reality only one is offered- ala Ďtake it or leave it.í Oddly, The very term Hobsonís Choice is often conflated with the idea of a Catch-22, where all available choices are equally bad. The screenplay was adapted by Lean, Norman Spencer, and Wynyard Browne, and shows that transfers of tales from one medium to another can be successful if the artist recognizes the differences between media, and adapts accordingly. The source play had been adapted twice before, but both were forgettable films. The tale is a bildungsroman of not the main, nor even secondary character, but that of the tertiary character, Will Mossop, (John Mills), a bootmaker in a small town near Manchester. Mossop has worked for his employer, Hobson, all his adult life, and has no idea of the many ways life can improve. Hobsonís boot shop is run by the widowerís three adult daughters, thirty year old Maggie (Brenda De Banzie, who was almost forty at the time of filming)- who is sharp-tongued and level-headed, and her two younger sisters, Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales- later to become a major television star in the U.K.), both dreamers. Hobson feels it his duty to marry off his two younger daughters, until he finds out that Marriage settlements need to be paid. But, Maggie, he has already given up on as being resigned to old maidhood. All three, however, are definitely not shrinking violets, and the film does a good job of capturing the then burgeoning Suffragette Movement. While Maggie is clearly the most capable of the girls, the two others have no difficulty putting their blustering father in his place. This drives the old man out on the town each night, to a pub called Moonrakerís, to drink with his pals, whom he secretly detests.
The two younger girls long to leave the shop, as does Maggie, but the duo have men already lined up, whereas Maggie does not. Alice is in love with a young lawyer named Albert Prosser (Richard Wattis), while Vicky is head over heels for Freddy Beenstock (Derek Blomfield), the son of a corn merchant who heads the local Temperance Society- another aspect of which the play and film deal quite well with. There are some marvelous moments in the film (subtle glances and throwaway lines) that show the subtleties of the familial relations between the Beenstocks and Hobsons go way back. Hobson, while he wouldnít mind being rid of Vicky and Alice (save for the dowries they would cost) tries his best to cut down Maggie, saying her time has passed, and trying to keep her in the business for his shopís own good. Maggie, who has a hard beauty along the lines of a Colleen Dewhurst, sensing that her father might be correct, if she does not act soon, out of the blue forces Mossop into an engagement, by claiming she will mold him into a better man. This portion of the film climaxes with Maggieís marching her way into Mossopís livng quarters and confronting the lower class girl he is involved with (and her monstrous mother) and staring both down, as she walks away with Mossop as her prize. When Hobson learns of Maggieís choice for husband, he is outraged, and tries to beat Mossop with a belt. But, this only drives him further into Maggieís grip, and the two of them leave, to set up a boot shop of their own, funded by a customer who once praised Mossopís talent with leather.
The bulk of the film then sees the literal rise of Mossop from the cellar hole where he worked for Hobson concomitant with Hobsonís figurative and literal fall into the Beenstock corn cellar, which then gets him embroiled in a trespassing lawsuit. On their wedding day, Maggie coordinates things so that he father has to come to her for help, and also uses the opportunity to blackmail a 250 pound dowry for both her younger sisters to wed Prosser and young Beenstock, so that her fatherís alcohol induced trespass does not see the light of the local newspapers. This is the first Hobsonís Choice. With all three of his daughters gone, Hobson soon loses his business to Maggieís management skills and Mossopís talent for bootmaking. After Maggie and Mossop have paid off their initial loan, they find out that Hobson is close to death due to his alcoholism. Neither Vicky nor Alice can or will move back in to help the old man, but Maggie sets things up so that she and Mossop can rescue the business and Mossop can get top billing on the sign. After a bit of bluster, Hobson realizes that his second Hobsonís Choice, and gives in, although he maintains a faÁade of his older, more confident self, as he heads off to see Prosser to draft up a partnership contract, with him as a silent partner.
The acting is first rate, as is most everything about the film. The thing that keeps it from greatness is mainly the fact that, despite its political stances on womenís rights and the evils of alcohol, there really is no Ďdeeperí meaning to the film. Nor do we really get an Ďiní to any of the three major characters. Yes, Mossop is malleable, but how many men of the 1800s would allow themselves to be bullied into marriage, sans a pregnancy? Maggie has a resolve, but we get little insight into her inner workings; even though a nice scene of their wedding night reveals a bit of their burgeoning real relationship. Only Hobson is fully sketched, but his character is a borderline parody, regardless of Laughtonís great acting job.
The forthcoming The Criterion Collection DVD of the 108 minute movie is one of the best theyíve released in the last year or so. Iíve criticized the company for some of their skimping on the extra features in many new releases (many sans audio film commentaries), but this package, even though it does not have much in terms of quantity, makes up for it in quality. First, there is a quite good film essay by critic Armond White that avoids all the clichťs of puffery that adorn too many essays on film. There is a theatrical trailer, and an excellent 1978 BBC documentary on the life and career of Laughton. Short on the sort of fellatio that passes for reminiscence, this documentary is unusually clear on the pros and cons of Laughtonís life, temperament, bisexuality, and art. The film, itself, shown in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, has been restored by the BFI National Archive, and looks sterlingly crisp. But, the best feature is an excellent audio commentary by film scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini, who authored a book called David Lean And His Films. The duo are on point, in terms of both the background of the film and scene-specific comments, as well as not falling into the traps of running off at the mouths, leaving large gaps of silence, nor clogging the commentary with superfluous information.
Hobsonís Choice is not a highly regarded film in Leanís canon, and in comparison to some of the aforementioned classics, the reason why is obvious- itís only a very good film in a career littered with great works. But, it was recognized by the critics of the time, and won the 1954 Best Film Award from the British Academy of Film. The only negative in the film is the over the top burlesque music of Malcolm Arnold. Yes, the film is a comedy, but itís nowhere near slapstick. That said, it is also an enjoyable film, and dominated by the female presence in the film, a rarity in Leanís canon. A good film, an excellent ensemble of DVD features, and this bit of minor English film history becomes one of the better DVD releases in recent years. See for yourself, as it will soon be released to the general public. Now thatís a choice old Hobson could live with.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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