Starring: Charles Laughton, John Mills, Brenda de Banzie
Directed by: David Lean
This genial comedy of folk up North came at a transitional point in David Lean’s illustrious career. The intimate but enduring masterpieces of his early period – Brief Encounter, the Dickens adaptations – were behind him, and he had yet to blossom into the director of those elegant Cinemascope epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia for which he is still best known to the general public.
Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) owns a thriving shoe shop in Salford, but its success is largely due to the business sense of his eldest daughter Maggie (Brenda de Banzie) and the superior handicraft of his bootmaker, Willie Mossop (John Mills,) which leaves Henry plenty of time to do what he does best, holding court with a bunch of cronies in the local pub. When Maggie takes it into her head to marry Willie, Henry sees it as a threat to this comfortable way of life and goes all-out to put a stop to the impending nuptials. Willie is terrified out of his skin, but the indomitable Maggie sets about foiling the would-be tyrant.
The source material, a play by Harold Brighouse, must have been showing its age even at the time, largely because Brighouse delineates his characters, and their comic entanglements, with brushstrokes so broad you could paint a barn door with them. Lean attempts to manage this problem in two seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand, he tries various means to ground the drama. The undoubted highlights of the film are the beautiful, near-documentary exterior scenes shot in a pre-slum clearance Salford by ace cinematographer Jack Hildyard, in particular a glorious vista of the River Irwell with down blowing across it and smoking chimney stacks beyond. Then there are the meticulous, if rather tight-looking, costumes by John Armstrong which single-handedly seem to haul the actors back into an earlier, more restrictive age.
On the other hand, Lean also goes big. Presumably with the director’s blessing, the central performances are all teeter over the top. In the case of Mills, with his rabbit-in-the-headlights gaze, jutting elbows and bandy-legged walk, the result is a patronizing caricature. But Laughton is highly watchable, shambling and tottering across the screen, his rubbery features twisted by greed and sagging with indolence. Laughton’s performance, in particular, seems to prompt Lean into several one-off cinematic experiments – the mixing of live action and animation in a scene where a badly tripping Henry believes he’s being assailed by giant insects, and the famous sequence where Henry drunkenly tracks the moon’s reflection through a series of puddles.
Given what was to happen to Lean later in his career – an approach to his craft that was perhaps too deliberate and cerebral for his own good, resulting in the tepid Doctor Zhivago and the still-born Ryan’s Daughter – it’s interesting to see the director playing around and trying new things. There are hints here, perhaps, of paths not taken. For that reason, Hobson’s Choice holds a special place in Lean’s distinguished filmography.
In this HD restoration by the BFI, Jack Hildyard’s extraordinary cinematography comes up very nicely indeed, just slightly granular but crisp and brimming with atmosphere. You can see the various textures of the costumes, the sheen of satin and leather and the roughness of tweed, and count the curls in the actress’ pretty updos. Extras include a brief chat with Prunella Scales, who had a small supporting role in the movie, and an informative 13-minute interview with the charming Norman Spencer, Lean’s, Associate Producer and co-writer on this film and Lean’s long-time collaborator.