June 15, 2014

Hobson's Choice (1954)
Grade: 56/100

Director: David Lean
Stars: Charles Laughton, Brenda de Banzie, John Mills

What it's about. A comedy set in an English city during the late 19th century. Hobson (Charles Laughton) is the widower owner of a shop making and selling boots. He is a selfish and spoiled man who drinks too much.

Hobson lives with his three unwed daughters. Maggie (Brenda de Banzie) is approaching middle-age and is remarkably confident and competent. Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales) are younger and pretty. They have respectable fiancé's but are unable to marry because Hobson refuses to pay a dowry.

All three women have had it with Hobson's antics. Maggie plots a rebellion that pulls the rug out from under the hapless Hobson. She propositions Hobson's skilled bootmaker Mossop (John Mills) into marriage. She moves out and sets up a boot shop that takes away much of Hobson's business. She also hatches a successful scheme that obliges Hobson to pay the dowries for Alice and Vicky to wed their beaus (Richard Wattis and Derek Blomfield).

Without his daughters and best bootmaker, the future looks bleak for the hard-drinking Hobson. But Maggie arranges a face-saving safety net for Hobson that puts her and Mossop in charge of the family business.

How others will see it. Based on a popular play by Harold Brighouse, directed by highly regarded David Lean, and starring famous Charles Laughton. What could go wrong? Nothing, really, and the movie was greeted warmly by British critics. At BAFTA, it won Best British Film, and received four other nominations, including Best British Actor (Mills) and Best British Actress (de Banzie).

However, the film caused little stir in America, which instead favored Lean's big budget epics (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago). Nonetheless, at imdb.com, U.S. voters grade the movie slightly higher (8.0) than those from other countries (7.9). Not too surprisingly, older audiences and women like the movie best, with women over 45 awarding the film an 8.5 out of 10.

Presumably, women like the take-charge Maggie but appreciate that she also looks after the interests of her sisters, and even her undeserving father. Older audiences are willing to overlook the fact that the movie is a modestly budgeted black and white period comedy with mono sound.

How I felt about it. Maggie for Prime Minister! It appears that it is Maggie's world, and the rest of us exist within it. It is fortunate that her rule is benevolent, or we would all be in trouble. There is never a moment where she is not in control, and is always able to twist those about her into following her will. Even when Mossop insists that his name comes before that of Hobson, we suspect that he is merely passing a test that Maggie has put before him.

Besides Maggie's preternatural skill in transforming those around her into hand puppets for her pleasure, the film is also interesting in other ways. Mossop's elevation from working class to merchant class takes aback Maggie's family, and even her sister's fiancés. His class promotion comes not through his own guile, the usual method, but from his craftsman skill and his wife's ambition.

Maggie also demonstrates that a woman can have greater attributes than her looks. She is less attractive than her sisters, but they are strictly reactive, while the plans of proactive Maggie invariably succeed. One reason for this is that they are ultimately unselfish. Everyone wins with Maggie except for the plain landlady's daughter engaged to Mossop.

Finally, Hobson's Choice conveys the message that even undeserving family should be provided for. Hobson is an indolent and insulting drunkard who uses his three grown daughters as unpaid servants. Maggie puts him in his place, but doesn't let him fall too far.

But perhaps it all flows too smoothly for Maggie. Hobson's fall into the grain shaft should have killed him, or at least caused serious injury. It seems unlikely that Hobson would show up at Maggie's place of business on her wedding day while with her two sisters and their lovers, the snare awaiting Hobson. Also, it is convenient that Mossop has remained single well into his forties, although, I suppose, his character is a decade or more younger.