This 1954 classic from David Lean has been lovingly digitally restored on its 60th anniversary, and from its rather simple humorous domestic story and 19th Century Salford setting, was quite a departure from previous film Breaking the Sound Barrier, which explored British aerospace engineers solving the problem of supersonic flight.
The premise consists of a cranky dominating boot shop owner Henry Horatio Hobson (Charles Laughton) who isn’t willing to give his two daughters settlements to get married. His oldest daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), is written off by him as too old and too useful to him to marry, so she decides to take matters into her own hands and set her sights on the shy but talented boot-maker Will Mossop (John Mills), and they start a rival boot shop, with Maggie then setting her mind to securing the settlement for her sisters.
From this humble premise we get a film which touches on some important themes such as gender equality, the brutal nature of misogynist behaviour in the 19th century, and the hardships and exploitation of the working class. As Norman Spencer the co-writer in an interview in one of the extras says, this is “a fun film, but a serious fun film”.
Laughton gives a typically larger-than-life performance as Hobson and really makes real the hypocritical, misogynistic and brutishly domineering nature of men of his age, speaking of marriage as something to keep “females quiet and content”. And seeing his daughters as constantly nagging him and disobeying him after coming home from one too many drinks at the pub regularly and finding his dinner not there as he’d like it. Laughton and Lean bring out the ugly nature of Hobson, and really highlight his foolishness through his drunken escapades which lead to him chasing a moon in a puddle and to get very ill in bed. While he is shot in a way that also emphasises the fear he invokes, seeing his feet from the basement where Will works for instance, or shot in a way that is very unflattering and highlights his frequent states of drunkenness.
We really learn to hate this character and so Maggie becomes for us a real heroine of the film, a forthright woman who stands up to Hobson’s bullying ways in way that is unapologetic and admirable. And De Banzie, in her most famous role, really does justice to a character who is not only strong but very tender toward the ones she loves. Lean emphasises this by lighting her face up like a Hollywood star in those moments when she looks most loving.
There is also genuine moments of laughter to be had in Laughton’s well-played inability to walk steadily when drunk and generally pretty good impersonation of a drunkard. Or in Mill’s fine variations on notes of bewilderment and anxiety, as he confronts a woman who is determined to have what she wants and who also forces him to stand up to his exploitation (a fact humorously played out by a rich customer who admires Will’s work and comments that he’ll probably leave as Hobson “probably underpays him”). For instance a scene in which we see close-ups of his increasingly surprised expression and gawping face, as Maggie announces her plan to marry him and he slowly catches onto her meaning, is one of the funniest scenes in the film. Mills also does well Will’s transition to proud and loving husband who gradually grows more confident with Maggie’s influence. The film is also full of funny quirks such as playing a military drum roll as Will prepares to enter Maggie’s bedroom.
All in all it’s not Lean’s finest I prefer Great Expectations or Lawrence of Arabia, but it certainly stands up as one of his most accomplished comedies. One which dares to exploit its feminist themes and to make a normal-looking older woman (for that period’s standards) and an illiterate, shy, funny-looking working class man with a rather ridiculous pudding bowl haircut the heroes. And for that alone it deserves a look and its place in the classic British cinema canon.