When it’s on: Wednesday, 18 February (1.05 pm)
Several years ago, I bought The David Lean Collection, a set of the great British director’s films from before his international standing grew and the budgets expanded, instead showcasing his earlier directorial efforts. In many ways, the ten movies in this boxset are better than anything that came later. With less money to spend and narrower palettes upon which to craft his vision, Lean made sharper focused pictures, driven very much by their characters and working with some very fine British actors. There’s the occasional misfire; I found The Sound Barrier to be a little tedious and slow, not to mention factually inaccurate. But most are excellent, headed by the unimpeachable Brief Encounter and his definitive Dickens adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, plus the winning collaboration with Noel Coward that produced In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed.
Rubbing shoulders with these prestigious affairs is Hobson’s Choice, which maintains Lean’s high standards. It’s based on a play written by Harold Brighouse in 1915, which itself was a turn on the old expression, ‘Hobson’s Choice,’ referring to a situation where there was no real choice one could make. It had already been adapted for the screen twice before Alexander Korda approached Lean to direct this version, which he took on as a change of pace from 1952’s The Sound Barrier, a nice shift from aeronautical drama to northern comedy. Lean wanted Roger Livesey for the eponymous Hobson but got Charles Laughton instead. In hindsight a great bit of casting, and it’s difficult to picture the hoarse voiced Livesey – superb as a dramatic actor, especially for Powell and Pressburger, but less natural within comedic surroundings – as the tyrannical drunken boor who dominates the story.
As for Laughton, his career had already arced by this point. An internationally famous star, the Scarborough born Laughton had played Hobson years ago as a young man on the stage, but since then had enjoyed years of success though was beginning to wane, fortunate for the production as he had a tendency to overpower films with his presence. He was cast against Brenda de Banzie as Hobson’s eldest daughter, Maggie. Better known for her work on the stage, the native Mancunian de Banzie was perfect for the part, unwilling to be cowed by her screen father and determined to marry outside his wishes. The third major name was John Mills, almost unrecognisable as the mild-mannered shoemaker, William Mossop, but becoming more Millsian as the film progresses along with his character’s levels of confidence. Mills, again not the first choice for the role (it was originally offered to Robert Donat, who declined due to his long running problems with asthma), was uncertain about playing a Lancashire working class lad, but showed a gift for comedy and ran away with the film’s heart.
Hobson’s Choice takes place in Salford, Manchester, in 1890. Against a backdrop of satanic mills, smoking chimneys and Coronation Street accents, Henry Hobson owns a successful bootmaker’s. We first meet him when he enters the store in the dead of night, blind drunk after another evening at the Moonraker pub, and it soon becomes clear that he has very little to do with running the shop. The boots are made with some brilliance by the unassuming Mossop, whilst it’s Hobson’s three daughters who do all the work, both within the business and for him personally. He’s not only a drunk but a terrible father to boot (sorry), declaring to his daughters that he will chose their husbands for them and showing a violent streak when the forthright Maggie opts instead for Mossop, believing that his practical skills and her business nous will make for a brilliant partnership. It does. While Will carries on doing what he does best, Maggie makes a more rounded man of him, teaching him his letters and boosting his confidence so that by the end of the film even his pudding bowl haircut has grown out. In the meantime, Hobson’s relationship with the drink continues. A brilliant comic scene sees him leave the Moonraker, pissed up, having told his drinking buddies exactly what he thinks of them, before he chases a reflection of the moon in the street’s puddles, at one stage taking a while to realise that what he’s staring at isn’t the moon at all but rather his own round face. He ends up collapsing down a store cellar and falling asleep.
The ‘choice’ refers not to his decision over the daughters’ marriages, but the precise lack thereof as he first runs into trouble with the law and, later, growing sick through his dependence on alcohol, is forced to go into a partnership with Mossop and Maggie, who resume their old duties but on far better terms. There’s a lovely moment when Mossop comes into the shop at the end and addresses everyone on equal terms, having come a long way from the lowly shoemaker confined to the cellar.
Lean was first recognised as a technically gifted director, only gaining an ability to film performers convincingly over time. By the time he made Hobson’s Choice, both sides of his talent were fully developed, with some fine realisation of the rise of Mossop from his modest roots to well-heeled proprietor. This is matched by the teasing out of his personality as he learns to love Maggie. When she first proposes marriage, he’s unconvinced, doesn’t love her and goes along with it more out of ‘knowing his place’ rather than following his heart. The scene on their wedding night, when she’s getting ready for bed and he knows he’ll have to join her and procrastinates, stoking the fire to waste time, is a delight, as much of the sight of them the following morning, when love has clearly blossomed.
Hobson’s Choice: ****