British editor-turned-director David Lean is most widely-known for his epics. Starting with “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” on through to “Dr. Zhivago” and “A Passage to India,” he gave the cinema films of scale, scope and depth, and collected accolades and Oscars for his trouble.
His pre-epic career is best remembered for a couple of classic Charles Dickens adaptations. But even if “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations” managed a light moment here and there, the maestro was never known for comedy.
It’s not like he couldn’t manage it. “Hobson’s Choice” is proof of that. This 1954 farce, based on a comically timeless 1915 play, made a fine showcase for the great Charles Laughton, marked another successful teaming with Lean’s early career acting muse John Mills, and features the future Mrs. Basil Fawlty, Prunella Scales, in a role that would become her first big break.
The plot and character “types” are what make it timeless. It’s about a lazy widower (Laughton) who runs the most-highly-regarded bootery in 1880s Salford, suburban Lancashire — near Manchester. “Runs” is a tad generous as a description of his duties. Old Henry Hobson started the business and built it, but he’s got two cobblers in his employ, and when he’s not around, he has three daughters running the shop, his house and his life.
Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also seen in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Pink Panther”) is the eldest, the one with the head for business. Alice (Daphne Anderson) is the middle daughter, the one who can cook. And Vicky (Scales, immortalized in “Fawlty Towers”) is the youngest and prettiest, trusted mainly with housekeeping.
Vicky and Alice have wary suitors who must time their visits to her father’s habits, his mid-morning and mid-afternoon treks down the street to the Moonraker’s Inn, his favorite public house, where he regales one and all about how he keeps his daughters under his thumb and his business thriving thanks to the underpaid wizard with leather in his employ, unassuming William Mossop (Mills).
But all it takes is one severe but enthusiastic and wealthy dowager (Helen Haye) to upset Hobson’s life of dipsomaniacal leisure. She compliments Mossop, and Maggie does the quick math and resolves “You’re for me, then,” deciding that they’ll marry, start their own shop and build their lives together, whether Mossop is amenable to this or not.
With the other two daughters already plotting their marital escape, what choices does that leave for our pint-happy capitalist?
Filmed mostly on Shepperton soundstages, “Hobson’s” relies on a mere handful of sets. But Lean and especially Lawton find funny things to do on them. Laughton’s drunken dash up the stairs, reminiscent of Teddy’s “CHARGE!” up San Juan Hill in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” is a stitch.
This is a comedy of classic set-ups, double-crosses, schemes and true love, with a generous peppering of witty one-liners — mostly delivered by Laughton — regarding Hobson’s situation, his growing exasperation and the daughters he finds less “manageable” by the hour.
On Vicky’s provocative fashion sense, he gripes about the “bump” on her rump (a bustle) that he notices as she walks the streets “with the kind of waist that’s normal in wasps, unusual in women.”
On a lawyer he finds himself haggling with — “I’m not so fond of the sound of your voice as you are.”
His elbow-bending mates at the Moonraker’s hear why he is determined to foil that first marriage of his most indispensible daughter, Maggie.
“I’ve noticed that if you get one marriage in a family, it goes through t’lot like measles.“
Laughton was never funnier on screen. More sadistic, sure. But he makes a perfectly delightful blowhard drunk in his sole collaboration with Lean.
The film’s immaculately-framed compositions and perfect editing don’t make an effort to hide how slight this all is. The story is Shakespearean in its multiple daughters unable to easily marry their way out from under their father’s control. But the play and the film give them agency, especially Maggie, who sets all this in motion with an unflinching march towards the altar, dragging poor Mossop along because he plainly and amusingly doesn’t know what’s good for him.
Lean’s black and white films about Victorian Britain — Wilfred Shingleton did the art direction for “Hobson’s” and “Great Expectations” — have aged into what amount to historical documentaries of the era. If it didn’t actually look and feel like his, that’s still the way we expect even today’s gloriously colored versions of Dickensian London and environs to appear.
Shingleton won an Oscar for “Great Expectations.” Cinematographer Jack Hildyard would go on to win an Oscar for filming Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
“Hobson’s Choice” has enough delights that while one would never wish Lean had forgone any of his later films for another out-and-out comedy (Well, maybe “Ryan’s Daughter”), perhaps he might have had a better go of it than his next film, the heavy and more wistful romance “Summertime,” with Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi, also an adaptation of a play.
But if you’ve missed choosing “Hobson’s” in your survey of Lean’s 19 film (a few uncredited assists) directing career, it’s definitely worth a look. Laughton, the always warm and engaging Mills, de Banzie and the future and forevermore SYBILL!” of our nightmares seal the deal.
Rating: unrated, alcohol abuse, with an “ass” here and there
Cast: Charles Laughton, Brenda de Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson and Prunella Scales.
Credits: Directed by David Lean, scripted by Norman Spencer and David Lean, based on the play by Harold Brighouse. British Lion production on Tubi, Youtube, Amazon etc.
Running time: 1:48