Hobson's Choice (1954)

Film Review

HOBSON'S CHOICE

Release Date: 19 April, 1954

Studio: British Lion Film Corporation

Director: David Lean

Starring: Charles Laughton, John Mills, Brenda de Banzie, Prunella Scales, Daphne Anderson, Helen Haye

Screenplay: David Lean, Norman Spencer, Wynyard Browne; based on the play by Harold Brighouse (1915)

Cinematographer: Jack Hildyard

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2014

Hobson's Choice was shown as part of the Daddy/Daughter theme at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. The guest speaker was Dennis Bartok, executive vice president for acquisitions and distribution of Cinelicious Pics, a film distribution company.

Synopsis

Perpetually tipsy, Henry Hobson (Laughton), the owner of a successful shoe-making business, dominates the employees in his business and the three unmarried daughters in his home. His pretty younger daughters, Alice and Vicky (Scales and Anderson), have suitors, although Hobson is reluctant to provide a dowry for either of them. Hobson expects that his plain oldest daughter, Maggie (de Banzie), will remain his dutiful, unmarried, housekeeper. Maggie has other ideas. She takes control of shy and self effacing William Mossop (Mills), Hobson’s best shoe maker, and marries him. They start their own shoe-making business in competition to her father. Rich Mrs Hepworth (Haye) and other well-to-do-customers choose Willie to make their shoes, and Hobson’s business declines.

One night, the drunken Hobson falls into the cellar of the corn warehouse belonging to the family of Vicky’s beau. He spends the night sleeping among and damaging some bags of flour. Hobson is sued for damages, and Maggie maneuvers so that he settles out of court. The money is used to provide suitable dowries for the two younger daughters.

Hobson has lost control over his business and his household; his drinking is damaging his health. He is forced to compromise with Maggie. Maggie and Will become equal partners with him in the shop, and Maggie will care for her father and manage their home.

Discussion

Wonderfully funny, charming, and touching, the film features appealing characters, quality dialogue and first-rate acting. Maggie, the central character is an independent, determined, loving woman. Plain looking and understated, steady, intelligent Maggie has been underestimated by everybody, but she knows herself and achieves her goals for success and happiness. She recognizes the potential in uneducated, shy William Mossop and sets about raising him up. Love develops between them. Maggie achieves her final goal when she takes charge of her debilitated father and his failing business.

The source play opened on Broadway in 1915 and London in 1916. The best-known play written by Harold Brighouse (1882-1958), a prolific playwright, Hobson's Choice is a repertory standard in English theater, read frequently in school, and was previously filmed in England in 1920 and 1930. David Lean's film follows the play’s plot closely, with only minor alterations.

Co-writer and associate producer Norman Spencer met David Lean in 1942 and had worked with him on most of his films prior to Hobson’s Choice. Spencer did not see the filmic potential in Hobson’s Choice, but Lean was "in love" with the play and felt it would make a fine film. Sir Alexander Korda, their "money man", agreed with Lean. Lean wanted character actor Roger Livesey for the lead; Spencer preferred Laughton, "a huge personality, a little fat, commandful". Laughton was the first "big Hollywood name" to appear in a Lean film. They spent 10 weeks in the London studio, and 8 days on location in Salford, Lancashire. Vocal coaches helped the actors attain the proper Lancashire accent.

Born in England, Charles Laughton made his first Hollywood film, The Old Dark House (directed by James Whale), in 1932. He earned a Best Actor Academy Award in 1933 for The Private Life of Henry VIII (produced and filmed in England). An actor with a unique voice, distinctive face and figure, and immense screen presence, he became an inimitable star early in his career. His versatility is demonstrated by his skillful portrayals of such diverse characters as the maniacal Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932), the shy valet of Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), and Quasimodo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

Never a leading lady, plain, sharp-featured Brenda De Banzie has the role of her film career as the determined and strong minded Maggie. Born in Manchester, De Banzie made her stage debut at age 16. She gained extensive stage experience in repertory and on tour before her first appearance in London. Her most notable theatrical role was as Phoebe, the second wife of Archie Rice, (played by Lawrence Olivier) in the London (1957) and New York (1958) stage productions of The Entertainer. She reprised the role in the 1960 film version. De Banzie was active on British television in the 1950s and 1960s.

Prunella Scales, playing pretty Vickie Hobson, was appearing in her second film. She was pleased and impressed that David Lean attended her audition for the role.

Initially, Robert Donat was playing William Mossop, but after an asthma attack, the insurers would not cover him. John Mills was called away from his holiday in the south of France to play the role. At first Mills, who was establishing himself as a romantic lead, was reluctant to play such a passive character. Later he called it one of his favorite parts. Mills won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Lean's Ryan's Daughter (1970).

If the response of the women in the 1954 audiences was similar to the feminine responses at the 2014 TCM screening, Mills had no cause for concern about the effect of playing Mossop on his standing as a romantic lead. We were sitting in front of four young women. In response to the Maggie/Mossop scenes, several of them squealed and cooed. One woman stated that Mills was "adorable", "awesome", and she could "eat him up". The film made her so happy she wanted to "hug" the screen.

Guest Introduction

Bartok discussed this comedy/drama adapted from a 1915 play:

• Director Lean, in mid-career, had directed two films derived from classic literature, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).

• His two prior films, Madeleine (1950) and Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952), had been less successful than the literary adaptations.

• Lean wanted Roger Livesey to play Hobson, but Alexander Korda, the producer, wanted Laughton.

• Lean wanted Robert Donat for John Mills' part, but Donat was asthmatic and had to withdraw.

• Mills adopted a Lancashire dialect.

• The film mirrors Lean's life; Lean did not get on with his own father who wanted him to be an accountant and did not expect him to amount to much. Similarly, Hobson expects less of Maggie, his oldest daughter, who goes her own way.

• The title refers to a 16th century saying: in a stable "Hobson’s choice" means to take the horse nearest the door or none at all, in other words, take it or leave it.

References

How We Made Hobson's Choice. Interviews with Norman Spencer and Prunella Scales. Nancy Groves. The Guardian. June 30, 2014.

HOBSON'S CHOICE (1954). Programming Guide. TCM Classic Film Festival. 2014.