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DVD SAVANT

Hobson's Choice


Hobson's Choice
Criterion 461
1954 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 108 min. / Street Date February 17, 2009 / 39.95
Starring Charles Laughton, John Mills, Brenda De Banzie, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales, Richard Wattis, Derek Blomfield, Helen Haye, Joseph Tomelty.
Cinematography
Jack Hildyard
Production Design Wilfred Shingleton
Film Editor Peter Taylor
Original Music Malcolm Arnold
Written by David Lean, Norman Spencer from the play by Harold Brighouse, Wynyard Browne
Produced and Directed by David Lean

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Hobson's Choice is David Lean's last B&W film and his second-to-last before launching on his final phase of epics that started with The Bridge on the River Kwai. It's a delightful adaptation of a 1915 play set in 1880 Salford, a raucously funny comedy that also offers some clever observations about English class divisions. Charles Laughton has the plum role of a pompous, opinionated boot shop owner who lords it over both his cowering employees and his three daughters. Actually, the title refers to a 16th century livery stable owner who had a rule that any customer hiring a horse had to take the next one in line. The phrase "Hobson's Choice" came to mean a false choice: "Take this, or take nothing".

Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) has a prime business location and caters to the carriage trade while also selling cheap clogs to the working public. A blowhard, he intimidates his two bootmakers who labor in the basement, while making arbitrary decisions for his daughters Maggie, Alice and Vicky (Brenda De Banzie, Daphne Anderson & Prunella Scales). Henry plans to marry off the two younger daughters, who think of nothing except their boyfriends anyway. What does concern them is that Henry refuses to even consider paying "settlements", the local equivalent of a dowry. Henry typically wakes late, barks out his orders and then retires to The Moonrakers, a pub across the street. He eats and drinks with his well-to-do merchant peers, leaving the running of the shop to his eldest, Maggie. As Maggie is already thirty and unwed, Henry smugly assumes that she'll be his unpaid cook, housemaid and shop manager for life. Henry plans to have everything his own way, like the original Hobson of old.

Maggie has other ideas. She's a sharp cookie, perhaps the most forceful female character in a David Lean movie. Maggie weathers her father's slights in silence but has her future worked out. The real talent in Henry's shop is Willie Mossup, the shy and unassuming bootmaker (John Mills). Everybody except Henry appreciates the fact that Willie's a brilliant artist in leather. The commanding Maggie tells Willie of her plan to marry him and start their own boot shop; she practically has to browbeat Willie into accepting the notion. Father Hobson is infuriated when he hears of this, and punishes his employee by whipping him with a strap. That's all the motivation that Willie needs to take the plunge.

Hobson's Choice overflows with rich characterizations and amusing scenes. Henry Hobson foolishly expects Maggie and Willie to come back begging, but his rich customer Mrs. Hepworth (Helen Haye) loans the pair a hundred pounds. Asked for collateral, Maggie says, "Willie is your collateral. There's no bootmaker like him." Hearing that Willie is already "sort-of" engaged to another girl, Maggie marches right down into the working class slums and straightens the situation out. As it turns out, Willie is being intimidated by his intended's domineering, alcoholic mother.

At first it seems that Maggie is taking advantage, but in truth she does Willie a great favor. She teaches her new husband to read and to have pride in his work and his appearance; he becomes a Man of Means instead of a working stiff. Henry Hobson may have been correct when he said that Maggie was no longer going to attract suitors. Maggie does the next best thing: she creates her own perfect husband out of raw material.

Henry's left only with his clogmaker and nobody to run things or cook proper meals. The lazy Alice serves Henry a sickening plate of jellied tongue, giving actor Laughton the opportunity to make some of the funniest faces of disgust ever seen on film. Henry continues to drink to excess, and becomes distressed when he can no longer intimidate his friends at the pub, who laugh at his mishandling of his shop. In a hilarious sequence, Henry's so sodden from drink that he becomes fascinated by the reflection of the moon in the cobblestones outside the pub. He falls into the basement stockroom of his neighbors, passes out, and is sued for trespassing. But he realizes that he's gone too far only when he starts seeing animals that aren't there -- like the giant white rat that stares at him from the end of his bed.

Hobson's Choice is a humorous ode to modest middle class values and comforts. Maggie eventually works things out with Henry, allowing her stubborn father to save face yet firmly taking charge. She has a husband who loves her and is no longer a household slave. Willie has moved up a rank in society. It takes extraordinary effort for a working man to break in, but Maggie chooses well: "Will Mossup is a good man, as meek and fine as I'm strong and hard." In fairy tales, the lowly commoner invited to join the royalty is usually a deserving girl who happens to be beautiful as well as virtuous. The Cinderella character in Hobson's Choice is Willie Mossup. His beauty is a commercially viable talent. Maggie calls him "a business opportunity in the shape of a man."

Charles Laughton is a riot at all times; he gets to bellow, pout, gloat and do a great drunk act. Totally swackered in the pub, he takes careful aim at the exit doorway and walks straight into a wall. Brenda De Banzie's Maggie has enough determination for five women and is forceful without being abrasive. Most Americans have only seen De Banzie in The Man Who Knew Too Much and in a small part in The Pink Panther, but she's also terrific in a Gregory Peck film called The Purple Plain. John Mills grows in self-confidence and stature; he's on record as claiming Hobson's Choice as his personal favorite performance. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard gets the maximum out of every starched collar and shiny cobblestone, and Malcolm Arnold provides a score with the gaiety of an English music hall.


Criterion's DVD of Hobson's Choice is a beautifully restored B&W transfer with crisp, precise audio. Alain Silver and James Ursini's commentary analyzes the film from the career standpoint of its director, who only made one other outright comedy, Blithe Spirit. The other extra is an absorbing 1978 English documentary on the life and career of Charles Laughton, with excellent contributions from family members, his wife Elsa Lanchester, Billy Wilder and the producer of his only directorial effort, Night of the Hunter. The hour-long show offers an understanding of the man found nowhere else; it's an excellent example of the kind of special extra offered by Criterion.

A theatrical trailer is included. The amusingly designed insert pamplet contains a fine essay by critic Armond White. Criterion's disc producer is Karen Stetler.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hobson's Choice rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Alain Silver and James Ursini, 1978 BBC documentary.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 14, 2009



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
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