Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Directed by David Lean
Written by David Lean, Norman Spencer & Wynyard Browne

My David Lean experience to this point has been limited to his later day epics which include the indescribable and incomparable Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai and A Passage to India. I am unfamiliar with his smaller, earlier, distinctly British work. My only familiarity is I once saw a clip of the film Brief Encounter in a British History class in college. It left me not really wanting more despite its very good reputation, and yet as time has gone by I have been draw to seeing it again, and by time I mean by seeing this film, and also by maturing somewhat in my open mindedness towards film.

Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) is a successful bootmaker in England. Well, that is not exactly true, Willie Mossop (John Mills) is the outstanding bootmaker, but he is kept in the cellar making his boots while Hobson makes all the money. And Hobson doesn’t even really run the ins and outs of the business either, that task is handled quite well by Hobson’s three daughters, Alice, Vicky and Maggie (Brenda de Banzie), who is considered an old maid at 30. Hobson is looking to wed his two younger daughters, but knowing that he won’t find her a husband, Maggie takes things into her own hands and weds Willie, stealing him away from her father to start their own bootmaking business, creating tension between the enterprising daughter and the drunkard father.

This is somewhat of a strange bag in terms of the story. I can’t completely say that it was overly engaging. The idea of bootmakers and backstabbers is only marginally compelling, though admittedly a decent premise for comedy, but I never felt any of the characters were ever developed to the point that I should really care about what happened to any of them, especially since the only two that had something to gain, got it, only to fall back on something else in the end. Hobson in the lead is not even really the lead in the film. Maggie and William as the catalysts of the plot are only treated with a supporting touch. I am not really sure what it was that made this all come together, but somehow it managed to do just that.

I think the light touch of David Lean, exercising the famous visual flair, for which he later became so notable for in his epics, at just the right times and never when it is unnecessary. And in the “lead” performance is a great Charles Laughton, whose comedic step is measured with great timing coupled with the right amount of dramatic heft. John Mills plays his somewhat befuddled opposite in the bootmaking business with a pretty dead pan stupidity, which may be what the character calls for, but the problem is in the vapid character. As such, the forced relationship between Mossop and Maggie never rings true.

For everything that this film has going for it in the subtle little touches sprinkled throughout the film, to which I grant David Lean a sincere nod, I think at its core there are too many character problems which lessen the stakes, even in a comedy, to the point that the outcome of the film may or may not have been fulfilling, but I wouldn’t know because at that point I didn’t much care whether Hobson succeeded or flopped, and the same could be said for Maggie and Mossop. If there was one silver lining to the narrative, it’s that Vicky and Alice did finally find husbands. Well that and the directional flair has inspired me to pursue the rest of Brief Encounter, which I has given up on at one time.


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