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A "Hobson's choice" is a 17th century expression that means the illusion of choice where there really is no alternative. It's made for an apt title for Harold Brighouse's 1915 play, a domestic comedy set in the north of England in the late Victorian era, though it's not apparent until the story winds its way to its third act. The play, beloved in England and regularly revived, had been adapted to the screen twice, in 1920 as a silent film directed by Percy Nash and as an early talkie by Thomas Bentley in 1931, before David Lean released his definitive version in 1954.
Hobson's Choice (1954) opens with the seriousness of a drama, with the camera quietly taking inventory of a quaint 19th century boot shop on a rainy night. The stillness shattered by the sound thump and a whip pan to the skylight, where a branch is thrashing in the wind. A dark shape casts a shadow on the shop door. It's a moment right out of Lean's Great Expectations (1946), until that shape belches and stumbles drunkenly through the door, loudly slurring his protestations as his daughter tries to whisk him off to bed. The entire tone of the film is set in that reversal of expectations.
Charles Laughton stars as the blustery Henry Hobson, a widower with a thriving business in boots and shoes and three daughters who work his shop without wages. Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales) are young, pretty, empty-headed things with flirtatious natures who are actively courted by the sons of local businessmen. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest, runs the shop and the home with hardheaded practicality. When Hobson dismisses Maggie's desire for a husband, branding her an old maid (at the age of thirty) and sentencing her to a life looking after him and running his shop, she rebels against his blithe tyranny and takes her future into her own hands. She sets out to remake her life and embark on her own business, one in direct competition to her father's boot shop. She also lets no man dissuade her otherwise, neither her father or the timorous Willie Mossop (John Mills), the shop's brilliant boot-maker and partner in her plan, whether he knows it or not. "My brains and your talent will make a working partnership," she promises, and proceeds to build his confidence, draw out his potential, and inspire his ambition. Along the way, she finds his way into his affections and reveals her own, and in the final act, offers Henry Hobson the "Hobson choice" that gives the film its title.
Alexander Korda had been approached by the screenwriting team, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who were developing a screen adaptation for a radio comic but had different ideas. So did Korda, who bought the screen rights from under them and offered the project to David Lean, whose career was riding high but had previously directed only a single comedy, Blithe Spirit (1945). Lean saw the opportunity as a great change of pace, a miniature next to the big canvas of his previous film, The Sound Barrier (1952, aka Breaking the Sound Barrier). He started his adaptation from scratch with his associate producer and longtime production manager Norman Spencer. Wynyard Browne, a nom-de-theatre for a husband-and-wife team of playwrights brought in at the beginning of the writing process, share screen credit but left the project after only a few meetings. They weren't needed, as it turned out. "There was a tight little play with everything there," Spencer explained to Lean biographer Kevin Brownlow.
Lean had Roger Livesey in mind for the showcase role of Henry Hobson. Spencer pushed for Charles Laughton. Korda, who had worked with Laughton on The Private Life of Henry VIII (1934) and Rembrandt (1936), as well as the ill-fated and never completed I, Claudius, knew that Laughton could be difficult and obsessive, but realized he would be perfect for the outsized character and told the actor that the part had been written for him. Laughton got on famously with Lean, often socializing with the director after hours, and he has cited the role of Hobson as one of his favorite screen performances, but he was otherwise unhappy during the production. Robert Donat was originally cast in the role of boot-maker Willie Mossop but was in ill health and forced to drop out. Laughton threw a fit, claiming he had only agreed to the film to work with his old friend and that the production was thus in breach of contract. Korda countered by threatening Laughton with a scandal, which could reveal the actor's well-concealed private life (he was homosexual, which was illegal in England). Laughton returned to the set but remained frustrated. He didn't like his accommodations, was unhappy with playing so many drunk scenes and he loathed his co-star, Brenda De Banzie, a stage actress with only a few films to her credit.
She proved to be a difficult actress in her own right, tangling with the director on the set, and Laughton complained to Lean that: "She doesn't understand the part in the least." On the other hand, David Lean biographer Gene D. Philips suggests that Laughton's dislike was, at least in part, a result of her sharp performance. Brighouse's play is set in the era of the first stirrings of the Suffragist movement and the adaptation keeps the dramatic focus on Maggie's brazen odyssey. Whether or not you see Maggie as an early feminist (as Lean biographer Gene D. Philips suggests), she is a driven, determined, talented woman who defies her ne'er do well father and his patronizing arrogance, as well as prejudices of class and privilege. Though third billed to the male stars, Maggie is the story's engine and the most dynamic character in the film, and De Banzie threatened to upstage the grand theatrical ham, playing her scenes crisply and with elan as he huffed away with indignation at the disrespect served up by his daughters and blustered in his cups at the local pub. She went on to play such major roles as the ambiguous Lucy Drayton in the 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much and Laurence Olivier's wife in The Entertainer (1960), but never really became a leading screen actress.
John Mills, so marvelous in Lean's Great Expectations eight years earlier, was the last-minute replacement for Donat in the role of Willie. The 45-year-old Mills, whose career had shifted from romantic leads to heroic leaders, was initially uncertain about taking the role of a shy, passive, working class bloke, but delivers a marvelously attenuated comic performance as the timorous Willie, a man who has aged into a sense of inferiority that Maggie has to literally drive out of him. And if Prunella Scales (as the youngest of the Hobson sisters) looks familiar, it might be for a role she played decades later: John Cleese's tart-tongued wife in the cult TV comedy Fawlty Towers.
Lean creates a vivid sense of place and atmosphere and fills it with a colorful cast of Dickensian folk. This is no picaresque cobblestone and quaint storefront recreation of an idealized past, but a ruddy industrial town where a walk in the park ends by a river scummy with pollution and lined with acres of industrial plants sprouting smokestacks into the sky. Many of the exteriors were shot on location in Salford, including the couple's first attempted kiss, a sweetly romantic moment played against a squalid slum, and the canal scene (which Lean and company proceeded to pollute with rubbish and detergent powder when they discovered the town had cleaned it up for the shooting). Jack Hildyard's rich photography manages to make even this squalor look stunning.
The rest was built in the studio by Wilfred Shingleton. His delightfully detailed sets include not just the cramped quarters filled with evocative dcor (from the cozy but overstuffed quarters in back of Hobson's shop to the dank, dark basement apartment and shop of Maggie and Willie) but the central cobblestone lane where the film's signature set piece, The Dance of the Puddles, takes place. On a stumbling walk home from Moonrakers, Hobson "chases" the moon from puddle to puddle on the wet cobblestone street, trying to catch the reflection that keeps outrunning him (the effect was accomplished with a simple backlit drawing on opaque paper suspended above the set). As he steps into one puddle, the ripples subside to reveal not the moon but his own bleary pumpkin face staring back. The scene ends with Hobson battling the chains around an open chute in the sidewalk that drops into a deep storage cellar. It's a deft piece of physical comedy, like a Charlie Chaplin silent movie pantomime, thanks to the assistance of Billy Russell, an old music hall clown who Laughton insisted on hiring to help choreograph and rehearse the scene.
Hobson's Choice is a crisply directed comedy of lively and quirky characters in a vivid world of social snobbery and working-class life, but for all the deftly-played humor, it's Lean's warmth that makes the film so satisfying. A hit in England and a modest box-office success in the United States, the film went on to win the Golden Bear at the 1954 Berlin Film Festival and BAFTA for Best British Film.
Producer: David Lean
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Wynyard Browne, David Lean, Norman Spencer; Harold Brighouse (play)
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Art Direction: Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Film Editing: Peter Taylor
Cast: Charles Laughton (Henry Horatio Hobson), John Mills (Willie Mossop), Brenda De Banzie (Maggie Hobson), Daphne Anderson (Alice Hobson), Prunella Scales (Vicky Hobson), Richard Wattis (Albert Prosser), Derek Blomfield (Freddy Beenstock)
by Sean Axmaker