Hobson’s Choice (1954) was only one of two comedies from celebrated British director David Lean, a filmmaker best known for his intelligent literary adaptations and sweeping epics on vast cinematic canvas.
Charles Laughton is comically tyrannical as the blustery Henry Hobson, a widower who huffs away with arrogance and indignation at the three daughters who work as unpaid employees in his boot shop while he wiles the days and nights in the local tavern. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), the eldest, is more babysitter and nurse than daughter at home, and more accountant and manager than employee at work.
Maggie decides there’s more to life and plots her escape from Hobson’s tyranny and Willie (John Mills), the shop’s meek bootmaker and unappreciated sculptor with leather, is key to her plan. Mills, so marvelous as the adult Pip in Lean’s Great Expectations, plays the nervous Willie as a man who has aged into a such sense of inferiority that Maggie has to literally drive it out of him.
Set in the industrial Northern England of Lancashire in the late Victorian era and peopled with a colorful cast of Dickensian folk, Lean creates a vivid sense of place and atmosphere, with the assistance of crisp photography by Jack Hildyard and detailed production design by Wilford Shingelton. This is no picaresque cobblestone and quaint storefront recreation of an idealized past but a ruddy place where working class Willie lives in a miserable rooming house in a squalid slum and a walk in the park ends by the river, where the view takes in acres of industrial plants sprouting smokestacks into the sky. Maggie leaves the cozy but cramped family home, overstuffed with showy décor, for a dark, noisy basement apartment and shop, and turns the Spartan quarters into a home for her and Willie.
Lean has plenty of ideas to work with—the original play was beloved British institution for forty years before Lean took his turn at it—but he works those details beautifully to create a crisply directed comedy full of lively and quirky characters and a tremendous recreation of working class Victorian England. The film’s comic centerpiece is Laughton’s “Dance of the Puddles,” a set piece where Hobson drunkenly “chases” the moon from puddle to puddle on the wet cobblestone street, trying to catch the reflection that keeps outrunning him.
In the end, however, Hobson’s Choice is not Hobson’s choice—or his story—at all. It’s powered by Maggie and given heart by Willie and his journey to self-respect and confidence.
Daphne Anderson and Prunella Scales costar as Hobson’s other daughters.
It won the BAFTA for best British film.
Black and white
The Criterion Collection DVD features commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, co-authors of “David Lean and His Films,” the 1978 BBC program “The Hollywood Greats: Charles Laughton,” a 44-minute biographical sketch of the actor from the documentary series, and the original trailer. The accompanying booklet features an essay by critic Armond White.