by Allan Fish
(UK 1953 107m) DVD1/2
Be back in half an hour
p Norman Spencer d David Lean w Norman Spencer, Wynyard Browne, David Lean play Harold Brighouse ph Jack Hildyard ed Peter Taylor m Malcolm Arnold art Wilfrid Shingleton cos Peter Taylor
Charles Laughton (Henry Horatio Hobson), Brenda de Banzie (Maggie Hobson), John Mills (Willie Mossop), Daphne Anderson (Alice Hobson), Prunella Scales (Vicky Hobson), Richard Wattis (Albert Prosser), Derek Blomfield (Freddy Beenstock), Helen Haye (Mrs Hepworth), Joseph Tomelty (Jim Heeler), Jack Howarth (Tubby), Julien Mitchell (Sam Minns), Gibb McLaughlin (Tudsbury), Philip Stainton (Denton), John Laurie (doctor), Raymond Huntley (Nathaniel Beenstock), Edie Martin (customer),
If we are being absolutely honest, Hobson’s Choice doesn’t quite come close enough to perfection to automatically guarantee a place here. The main problem is no fault of the film, but rather the play on which it was based; namely, that the final act is a redundant epilogue which brings the audience down from the highs of the first three.
We find ourselves in Salford in around 1880. One Henry Horatio Hobson, as pompous as his name, is the owner of a bootmaker’s. Hobson is a widower after his wife left for a higher place and is left with three daughters. The two youngest, Alice and Vicky, are frivolous, love shimmying in their bustles and have their eyes on two young men, a lawyer and a corn merchant’s son respectively. The eldest, Maggie, the only one with any brains, is hard-working and unmarried at thirty. Just to spice it up a bit, the latter is son of Hobson’s sworn enemy, a temperance advocate. Henry lives just to pop over to the pub opposite, The Moonraker’s Arms, for a gallon or two of refreshment.
Hobson is determined to keep Maggie to look after him and run the shop and will not pay settlements to get the other two off his hands; besides, he makes them work for free in the shop. A spanner is finally thrown in the works when a rich old woman, Mrs Hepworth, calls to insist that Hobson’s bootmaker, Will Mossop, always makes her boots and doesn’t go anywhere without letting her know about it. Maggie hits on the idea of marrying Will and setting up by themselves.
The similarities to various stories are there for all to see, not least King Lear, but this is played purely for comedy. For those with a knowledge of the places mentioned – Chapel Street, Oldfield Road – it adds a little extra delight, but this can be enjoyed by just about anyone. Gorgeously shot by Jack Hildyard, with Malcolm Arnold’s greatest film score, and shot with the same fidelity to the subject Lean showed with Noël Coward’s work in the 1940s, it’s a joyous affair. Especially when one considers that originally the part of Mossop was going to be played by Robert Donat, himself a Mancunian. Sadly, his asthma flared up badly again, much to the disappointment of his friend Charles Laughton, and Lean called upon his old cohort Mills to take on the part.
Mills has never been better, both perfect in his quiet “I know my place” attitude in the first half and standing his ground in the last two acts. Matching him every step of the way is de Banzie, in her signature role, as the often frighteningly to the point Maggie, who knows her dad inside out and ensures that we all get to a relatively happy ending. There are lovely bits for Jack Howarth and Joe Tomelty, and a young Prunella Scales and a welcome one line for that ancient bird Edie Martin, but dominating all is Laughton as the bigoted Hobson. Most recall with relish his drunkenly making his way out of the pub, trying to catch the moon reflected in a puddle and ending up going arse over tip into the open cellar of his neighbour. It’s a magnificently surreal sequence, but it’s the opening shot of him arriving home utterly pie-eyed, burping and tottering in like a contestant on It’s a Knockout in one of those huge rubber costumes, that captures him in an instant. Forget the last act which feels like an add-on with Laurie as a doctor resisting the temptation to tell Hobson “you’re doomed!” Just savour every second of what goes before. “Tubby? Shop.”