It’s a pity, really, that posterity remembers David Lean‘s Hobson’s Choice primarily as a Charles Laughton vehicle. Understandable, given his great talent and fame, but still a pity – because the star of the film is undoubtedly the little-remembered Brenda De Banzie.
Henry Hobson (Laughton) is a prosperous businessman and respected Freemason in 19th century Salford, proprietor of a bootmaker’s, widowed father of three daughters – efficient Maggie (De Banzie), inept Alice (Daphne Anderson) and spoiled Vicky (Prunella Scales) – and extremely fond of a tipple. Much though he rues the presence of “these fools of women” in his life, their thrifty father refuses to pay the dowry settlements that would allow his daughters to marry, preferring anyway to keep Maggie (whom, aged 30, he views as “on the shelf” already) as his general caregiver and lackey.
Unwilling to waste her life attending to her self-indulgent father’s every whim, Maggie sets her cap at their boot-boy Willie Mossop (John Mills), a rough diamond who cannot read but makes the best boots in town…
It’s a charming comedy, this film, and progressive for its time. Lean’s script, from Harold Brighouse’s play, subtly teases out the chauvinism of Hobson and his cronies, exposing it without ever signposting. John Mills, who perfected the Lancastrian accent in record time after an eleventh-hour insurance problem necessitated his replacing Robert Donat, is perfectly adorable as the straw man through whom Maggie achieves her ambitions even as she transforms him into a gentleman.
Scales and Anderson are somewhat underused as Maggie’s sisters, but each plays her role with aplomb, providing submissive foils to the eldest’s resourcefulness and determination. Laughton himself plays it almost camp; grotesque and grumpy when sober, absurd and expansive when in his cups. The drunk scenes would be endearing set-pieces, but they are a little unworthy of Laughton – and indeed of Lean: such low comedy unnecessarily underscores the fact that this man is a lush, mocking him harshly in a film that is in all other respects gentle.
The prize, though, is De Banzie, primarily a theatrical actress, who is scintillating as Maggie Hobson. It’s a role that could so easily descend into fishwifery or ascend into feminist preachiness, but she takes neither bait, rather patiently grooming Willie into the perfect husband and businessman and turning their marriage from one of convenience and mutual advantage into a partnership of deep and poignant love.
Lovers of cinematography will recognise all the traits that made Lean the great director he was – the settings recall his Great Expectations at once. The scene of inebriation that proves Hobson’s downfall, silly though it is, is nevertheless redeemed by the unexpected sweetness of a drunk chasing the moon through puddles in the street. The camera is as lively as the comedy itself, and the opening shot, panning and tracking slowly through the boot-shop, presages an equally famous scene: that of Doc Brown’s unruly laboratory in Back to the Future (if Zemeckis did not take a cue from Lean, hats will be eaten.)
Hobson’s Choice features as part of the Made In Britain season and will be screening around the UK.