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With: Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales, Richard Wattis, Derek Blomfield
Written by: Norman Spencer, David Lean, Wynyard Browne, based on a play by Harold Brighouse
Directed by: David Lean
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 108
Date: 04/19/1954

Hobson's Choice (1954)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Getting the Boot

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

David Lean was mainly known for his tasteful epics, such as his Oscar winners The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and he has received some critical backlash over the years for constantly thinking "too big." However, a recent school of critical thought has given him more credit for his early features, the small, polite, stylish black-and-white British pictures like Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). Either way, no one ever accuses Lean of having much of a sense of humor; of his sixteen pictures, maybe three are comedies (though he made many more in his previous career as a motion picture editor). Hobson's Choice is the last of the three, coming at the tail end of Lean's "early" career and just before the "epic" stage took over (it's his last in black-and-white). Like some of the early films, it's intricately designed with a very distinctive sense of place and strong character rhythms. And though Lean's direction is indeed too heavy and careful to give way to much laughter, he has a secret weapon here: Charles Laughton.

Laughton plays Henry Hobson, who runs a successful boot shop in the 19th century in Salford. His workday consists of drinking at the pub and stumping back to the shop for meals. His three grown daughters handle the day-to-day operations, especially his eldest, Maggie (Brenda De Banzie). One day Hobson announces his wishes for the two youngest to marry, but not Maggie because he needs her at the shop (even though he doesn't pay her). She conspires to marry the shop's talented but humble bootmaker Willie Mossop (Lean regular John Mills), start her own shop and plot her revenge. Maggie is smart as a whip and Willie is likeably malleable, but it's Hobson that makes the film cook; Laughton was a great ham and one of the cinema's all-time greatest scene-stealers and scenery-chewers. He uses his great, portly frame and his thoughtful eyes like a master craftsman, considering and reacting to every event with maximum showmanship. (I got a giggle out of watching him climb the stairs after one night of heavy drinking.)

In a way, though Lean's direction could have been a bit snappier and sprightlier (and with a bit of running time lopped off) his pristine, right-angled package perfectly juxtaposes the unruly and rotund Laughton; he's constantly displaced and off-balance, which makes his performance all that much funnier. One of the best scenes recalls Lean's frightening graveyard sequence in Great Expectations; Hobson wakes up, hung over, and sees several off-putting hallucinations in his bedroom. For some reason, these images gave me the chills, as if Lean had some kind of direct tap into Hobson's nightmarish subconscious. Perhaps he wasn't great at comedy, but wouldn't it have been interesting to see him try a horror film?

DVD Details: The Criterion Collection has released this formerly hard-to-find classic on a new 2009 DVD. Extras include a commentary track by James Ursini and Alain Silver (co-authors of "David Lean and His Films"), a 1978 BBC documentary on Laughton, and an essay by the great film critic Armond White.

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