Monday, July 14, 2014

Hobson's Choice (1954): Biting humor and surprising warmth

Title: Hobson's Choice
Director: David Lean
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

Watching Hobson's Choice made me happy. It's British comedy at its best, with brilliant characters, a tender and hilarious romance, and a satisfying ending.

Set in the late 19th century in England, the movie features Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton), who runs a bootmaking business and who abandons his shop every day to go drinking. He lets himself do this because he's got three grown daughters running the shop for him for free; the younger two are a bit flighty, but the oldest, Maggie (Brenda de Banzie), is smart and has a strong business acumen. He's counting on the fact that she'll remain a spinster and take care of him and his shop until he dies; he's also not too eager to marry off his younger daughters, Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales), as he's reluctant to spend money on a wedding. In this way the movie starts: Maggie overseeing the shop and the other daughters helping out, while a talented but extremely humble boothand, Will Mossop (John Mills), toils away in the cellar to make the high-quality footwear the shop is known for. Henry Hobson, in the meantime, drinks and jokes around.

The Hobson family in Hobson's Choice

Maggie, however, has no intention of staying under her father's thumb for the rest of her life. She comes up with a plan to marry Will Mossop and set up a bootmaker's shop with him, where she manages the business and he makes the boots; this would not only give her far greater independence than she's ever had, but also put her into competition with her father, who has always taken her business skills for granted.

Will Mossop is terrified when his boss's daughter announces her intentions to marry him. He's uneducated, belongs to a lower social class and has no spine to speak of; his meek nature and dab hand at making boots are about his only distinguishing qualities. With echoes of Pygmalion, Maggie sets about polishing him up a little, improving his literacy and giving him more confidence; unlike Pygmalion or My Fair Lady, she does this without any contempt towards him, only affection and proud encouragement, a determination to make him believe in himself.

Maggie and Will's wedding meal

The results are one of the best ever on-screen portrayals of a happy marriage. Will remains essentially himself, only with a greater ability to hold his head up and speak sharply when necessary. Maggie, in essentials, also remains the same; she's hard-working, tough, clever and looks out for everyone's best interests, including her younger sisters' and even her father's at the end. Although their courtship starts out more as a practical arrangement, Maggie and Will bring out the strengths in each other's characters, discover they have a genuine sexual chemistry, and love each other (the wedding night and morning after scenes in this movie are full of sweetness and hilarity).

It's also refreshing to watch a movie where the wife doesn't lose her personality after marriage and where a firm, domineering woman is also capable of tenderness; in a lesser movie, the filmmakers might have given her no warmth at all and turned her into a caricature of a "manly woman."

Maggie and Will on a date

What about Henry Hobson? After his daughter pulls the rug out from under him, what does he do? The movie gives him a fall from pride, though he'll never admit to it. He keeps up the pretense of being in control. I liked how the movie contrasts his own domineering nature with his oldest daughter's. Maggie might take charge of everything, but she doesn't treat people disrespectfully or consider herself too superior to work hard on what needs to be done. Her father, on the other hand, has a bullying nature and treats the shop as his own little empire, run by unpaid or poorly paid minions who keep things going while he goes off to enjoy himself.

Laughton, de Banzie and Mills are fantastic here, stepping fully into their roles, not slipping out of character ever. The movie is also visually beautiful in unexpected ways; for instance, there's comic poetry in the scene where a drunk Hobson chases the reflection of the moon across puddles and the window of a nearby shop. It's a well-made film in pretty much every respect.

*All images link back to their sources (Criterion Confessions, Independent Cinema Office, and Flixster Community).