Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Dir. David Lean. Starring Brenda De Banzie, Charles Laughton, John Mills

David Lean plays two tricks on us in the first two minutes or so of Hobson’s Choice. The first has to do with the shoes. Hobson’s is a shop for boots, shoes, and clogs, proclaims the sign, and in a tracking shot we see pair after pair after pair of shoes. Fancy women’s shoes line the table at waist level. Men’s boots sit above on a rotating wheel. We are led to believe that these are Hobson’s shoes, since it is his sign on the door. He (Laughton) bursts in through the door; the camera is far away from him, at the back of the shop, and he is lit from behind to create the impression of a powerful, imposing, and mysterious figure. It’s a ruse that only lasts a few moments, for it’s not long until he must stagger into the room and then again up the stairs. The second trick is the presence of Maggie (De Banzie), her hair in braids and her nightgown heavy over her body. She scolds Hobson, takes his coat and hat, locks the door behind him. It could not be clearer that this woman is his wife, but in the next scene we discover she is far from it. Maggie is his eldest daughter, even though in responsibilities she is doing all the things her mother used to do, and more. This is a devilishly tricky opening, and it makes the reveal of Willie Mossop (Mills) remarkable despite the established star power of John Mills. We can see the way Lean stretches his legs in this first scene; he is still constrained by the shop, as he will be constrained by interiors throughout the vast majority of the picture, but he uses every inch of the shop. We can also see his flair for irony and his sympathy for unlikely strivers (from Laura to Maggie to Lawrence).

Even the movie’s title has a certain je ne sais quoi to it. “Hobson’s choice” is of course the idiom which implies that there’s no choice at all, and certainly for the paterfamilias that turns out to be the case. Outmaneuvered by his daughter’s superior business acumen, his former employee’s superior craftsmanship, and his own alcoholism, he is forced to sell out to Willie Mossop just over a year after his daughter exercised her free agency. More than no choice at all, though, that free agency shines through as “Hobson’s choice.” It is Maggie Hobson Mossop (mhm) who decides that she will not allow her father to browbeat her into life as an old maid, and that she will choose a man who is worthy of her standards. At first, those standards are basically those which will allow her to earn a fair income. Above all else, Maggie is practical and would never put herself in a position where she’d starve, even if it did mean freedom from her father. Her forceful courtship of Willie—which includes a trip to the boarding house where she breaks up with his girlfriend for him—is at first guided by those practical lines. The movie wins some softness when we see Maggie come to find the good man in Willie beyond the brilliant cobbler, and when Willie is inspired positively by Maggie’s ambition. Their love story is not particularly romantic, but it is moving in its own way. Love stories in which two decent people discover each other for the better are among the most undervalued in showbiz, perhaps because their cousins (“love stories in which two people who hate each other but discover each other for the better”) are so much more histrionic.

Even though two of English cinema’s biggest stars, Laughton and Mills, headline the picture, it’s De Banzie who carries the movie. The story follows her artifice and guile, the sort that the witnesses of liars come to or else are weeded out through natural selection. The shift from Maggie the doer to Maggie the supporter reflects the movie’s time, which is a little disappointing. Maggie is liberated from her typical gender role insofar as she is shamed for not conforming to it; her status as “old maid” is the reason she can take a risk with Willie Mossop that her younger sisters would never dare touch. When she actually is married to Willie, Hobson’s Choice gives him multiple opportunities to assert himself. In the last few minutes of the movie, Willie is downright sharp with Hobson, driving a hard bargain and putting his old boss and father-in-law up against the proverbial wall. Maggie merely assents to what her husband has in mind. The scheme was originally hers, but at the end, it is meant for Willie to consummate. Even so, her fingerprints are all over the story as few women’s fingerprints touch Lean’s movies. Her good sense, both fiscal and temperamental, is what allows her to achieve her goals. Willie Mossop would work forever at Hobson’s despite the fact he’s too good for them, and he would do nothing more than be grateful for the chance to earn a pittance. Mills is a good foil for De Banzie. His most famous roles tend more on the Pip end of the spectrum anyway, giving a little oomph to the bashful humor Willie brings to the piece, and he is homely enough that he never outshines the “old maid.” Her family members are uniformly silly. Her younger sisters are flighty, the picture of the stereotypes of the Victorian era, hunting husbands with the same gusto that the nobles of The Rules of the Game hunt cute little animals. Her father, of course, is a prize buffoon. De Banzie plays the straight woman to the ridiculous people around her for the vast majority of the movie, and it makes her all the more endearing.

Hobson is one of Laughton’s best roles in a lifetime filled with good ones, and what makes him quite brilliant in it is the ability to play it in two minds at once. Hobson sees in himself a king in his castle, and Laughton portrays that. But that portrayal is so over the top, so punchable and foolish and arrogant, that Hobson is basically Falstaff. Or, perhaps, this is Henry VIII again without the ability to laugh at himself; Hobson would tear up the playing cards before he’d ever let a wife beat him at the game. In either case, we are meant to laugh and scowl at this obviously ridiculous man. Hobson is the true bourgeois dope: well off enough that he believes the service of others is the ultimate luxury. At home, he expects to be waited on by his three daughters, who he keeps from marriage because losing them would mean losing his dinners and menders and maids. At the bar, he actually pays for service—his daughters, of course, receive no wage for what they do—but once there fills himself to the brim with drink. His bootmakers are revealed in one of the funnier parts of the film; they work under the shop, in a basement revealed by a trap door. In short, Hobson doesn’t actually do anything, and the movie is explicit in taking away any vestige of responsibility Hobson might pretend to in his own mind. One night, too drunk to make it all the way home, he falls into the cellar of a fellow businessman who is also an ardent member of the temperance movement. He comes to Maggie, who is by now married to Willie, for help and especially sympathy. They’ll put my name in the paper! Hobson says, likewise concerned in his bourgeois way with the thought of public embarrassment mixed, of course, with the assumption that his public embarrassment is so important for the plebes of Salford to know about that it will end up in the Manchester papers. (Willie, who is keenly aware of his social standing, is not quite as good at salving the burns in Hobson’s ego; it almost seems worth it to get into the papers for a bad reason just to have the pleasure of reading about yourself in them, he offers.) If there is a final bit of nuance to Laughton’s Hobson, it’s that one can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Just as one pities a dog when they chase a ball that never left their master’s hand, what happens to Hobson is completely inscrutable to his small mind. It’s more funny than it is sad, for sure, but one tries to have a little sympathy for lower animals.

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