Hobson’s Choice was David Lean’s 10th film and one of his last that focused on a domestic set-up, before he started making widescreen epics. The film is a little unusual in being one of only two of the director’s comedies. It’s a shame he only made a couple as it really is funny.
The puffed up, ridiculous heart of the film is Charles Laughton’s Henry Hobson. The time is Victorian Salford where Hobson is a shoe shop owner, local dignitary and drunk. A widower, he treats his three daughters like employees, and his employees like lackeys. They run the shop while he spends his time in the pub with his friends. Greedy, lazy, and authoritarian, Hobson is a man who is just waiting for a fall. It is his eldest daughter, Maggie (Brenda de Banzie) who delivers justice after Hobson allows her two sisters to marry, but says she must stay to look after him.
In 1933 Laughton had starred in the first British film to become a hit in America, The Private Life of Henry VIII, where he played another absurd, arrogant patriarch. He said of himself that “I have the face of a departing pachyderm,” and according to Simon Callow (who wrote a biography of the man) he made his name “bringing to life a parade of monsters”. He plays Henry Hobson with great relish, and he is certainly a tyrant, a buffoon, but also a man who is made tragic by the weight of his stubbornness.
Maggie hatches an escape plan that involves Will Mossop, the genius bootmaker who toils away below the floorboards of the shop. Will, as played by John Mills, is an awl or two short of a full toolbox in what is possibly the weakest part of the film – Hobson might be over the top, but Will Mossop is bordering on caricature. Although Laughton is undoubtedly the star quality, Brenda de Banzie is more than his match. She creates a character who is intelligent, plain talking and tough, but also holds our sympathy.
It’s fun to watch Maggie’s plan unfold and her father totter oblivious into it. But Hobson himself is pretty darned funny. It is probably not politically correct to laugh at an alcoholic ruin himself, but you’d have to be very po-faced indeed not to chuckle at Charles Laughton. His physical comedy is first rate, especially in a scene where he tries to navigate his way home after one particularly heavy night. David Lean lends the scene a surreal hue with the street scattered with puddles, each reflecting the moon, which then multiply for their drunken beholder.
Hobson’s Choice may be stuck in a smokey town in the North of England, but it is miles from Brief Encounter. The film is based on a play by Salford writer, John Brighouse, which had been a big success in both the UK and in the States, and had also been turned into two films. So, it was a tried and tested success before Lean produced his seminal version. If the shoe fits…
Hobson’s Choice 60th Anniversary Blu Ray edition is out on 28 April, 2014.
This 60th Anniversary Blu Ray edition comes with a number of extras, including an interview with Prunella Scales (who looks rather unwell), and another much more insightful one with the associate producer and Lean’s co-writer on the project, Norman Spencer, who gives this great quote: “As a clergyman is to religion, David was to film. Nothing interfered with film.”