David Lean is best known for his epic late-period historical dramas exploring the psychological contradictions of outsized figures, like Lawrence Of Arabia, The Bridge On The River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. But his directorial career began with eminently British literary adaptations filmed on a smaller scale—Noël Coward’s This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter,and Blithe Spirit; Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Great Expectations; and an adaptation of Harold Brighouse’s perennially popular theatrical comedy Hobson’s Choice. Released in 1954, Hobson’s Choice is the last of Lean’s black-and-white films; the following year, he directed Summertime (also originally a play) in glorious Technicolor, and then the huge spectacles began. As befits a film that marks this transition, Hobson’s Choice embodies the very best of the intimate Lean, while anticipating the startling clarity of vision he would later bring to the North African desert and the Russian steppes.
Charles Laughton’s performance as Henry Hobson—widower, bootmaker, misanthrope, and town drunk—is the marquee attraction. Laughton wants to marry off his two younger daughters to get them away from the suitors they crave, but for Brenda De Banzie, a spinster of 30, he prescribes a life of keeping his house and running his business. De Banzie’s plan, however, is to steal her father’s best worker, the simple-minded John Mills, by marrying him and setting up a rival shop. As Laughton plots to escape work by huffing off to the tap room, his daughter deftly maneuvers around all the barriers her stolid, suburban trade life has put in her path—and sees in her father’s transgressions of the local temperance forces an opportunity to give her flightier sisters their hearts’ desires, too.
There’s no doubt that Laughton’s singular presence is the visual engine that drives Hobson’s Choice. Except for one fanciful scene of drunken clowning, his majestic bulk and jaundiced eye convey Hobson’s loutish, blowhard character without bothering to affect any histrionics. A more contained and controlled portrayal of the pompous sot is hard to imagine. Yet the delight of the comic plot is wholly in the hands of De Banzie and Mills, whose mismatched business partnership teeters on the edge of love throughout the film. Although the act structure of the play works against Lean’s instinct for keen dramatic tension, Hobson’s Choice displays to perfection his delight in British acting and his maturing visual inventiveness.
Key features: A quality BBC documentary about Laughton, a scholarly commentary by the co-authors of David Lean And His Films, and hagiographic liner notes by critic Armond White.