HOBSON’S CHOICE (David Lean, 1954)

Based on Harold Brighouse’s 1915 play, David Lean’s comedy Hobson’s Choice is by turns boisterous and reserved, depending on which character is center-stage: longtime Salford bootmaker and shoe shop-owner Henry Hobson, a widower and public alcoholic, or tea-totaling employee Willie Mossop, who becomes his rival when, patiently urged on by Hobson’s middle-aged daughter, Maggie, opens his own shop, whose prosperity marks Hobson’s for extinction. (Maggie’s reverse-gender Pygmalion-ish grooming of Willie, whom she eventually marries, allows her the means to strike out at her father, who hates women, including his three daughters. Throughout, George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play hovers about.) The title refers to another Hobson entirely: Thomas Hobson, who a few centuries earlier offered patrons of his horse-rental business the “choice” between a horse that he selected and no horse before they could rent another horse more to their liking. This forced choice really was no choice at all.
     The film is amiable and attractive, but, as Blithe Spirit (1945) reminds, comedy is not Lean’s forte, and Lean is hardly a feminist himself. Maggie’s wielding of power comes off only slightly better than her father’s, and that only because she speaks softly to Willie, that is, so condescendingly selfconsciously gently. (The condescension of Professor Henry Higgins via-à-vis Eliza Doolittle is something that Shaw’s play acknowledges, confronts and disparages; Lean’s film, at least, maneuvers around Maggie’s condescension toward her Willie.)
     Responsible for the lion’s share of the film’s pleasure are its performances. In particular, Charles Laughton is excellent as Henry Horatio Hobson, who drunkenly may flop for the night anyplace at all. John Mills and Brenda de Banzie delight albeit in thinner roles, as Willie and Maggie—roles suited to their lesser though estimable gifts.
     Top prize (an audience award then), Berlin; Best British Film BAFTA.

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