Hobson’s Choice

Hobson's Choice

For a director best known for his wide vistas and endless horizons shooting a film like Hobson’s Choice might seem like a limiting project for David Lean. Adapted from the 1915 play and set in the mercantile Lancashire of the last century we barely stray beyond the town high street and the shops on each side. Yet within these confines the director makes great use of cranes, sweeping cameras and whip pans to push this fun story along at a pace that never lets up.

We start in Salford in 1880. The Hobson of the title is a business owner, a widower, an overbearing father to three girls and, not infrequently, a delinquent drunk. He runs a successful boot makers and when we meet him he is scheming to marry off the two younger daughters while keeping his eldest, a woman of thirty who he considers too ‘over ripe’ for marriage, to run his shop and look after him in his house. She has other ideas.

Charles Laughton may play the title character and his name might well top the credits but it quickly becomes clear this picture belongs to the female protagonist. As a character Maggie is the principal agent of change in the drama and as an actress Brenda de Banzie steals every scene she’s in. The first time we see her she is the harpy behind the till, contemptuous of her sisters’ frivolities and bullying to their paramours. Later, on the other side of the curtain that divides shop from domicile, she is taunted for being an old maid who should feel grateful for her unpaid roles as shopkeeper and housemaid.

While her younger sisters mewl and moan about their father’s plans and his distaste for their chosen partners (“You mean you’ll not let us choose our own husbands?”) she carries on with an air of insouciance, a plan forming behind the inscrutable mask.

She has her eye on the shop’s star craftsman, an illiterate who lodges in the rough part of town but is a whizz at fashioning leather. She wants him not just as a business partner but as husband too and with equal parts guile & charm she succeeds in performing a sort of reverse Pygmalion, revealing an inner strength in him he’d not known he possessed.

She is transformed too, the burgeoning potency in her husband kindling a deep adoration within her, many degrees warmer that the cold front surrounding her at the start of the film.

This is a fabulous adaptation and other than one or two misguided flourishes from Lean (mostly when trying to invoke a feeling of comic drunkenness) the pacing is spot on. It’s also worth noting how feminist and modern this seems too. Maggie appears as a force of nature and stands aside for no one, least of all the men within her ambit. Extraordinary for a film of 1954 and quite astonishing for a play written in 1915.

I’m delighted to offer this review is part of the Stage to Screen Blogathon hosted by The Rosebud Cinema and Rachel’s Theatre Reviews.

Hobson’s Choice – directed by David Lean (1954)

In Short
An overbearing patriarch has plans to pair off his two young daughters with suitable men. The third sibling, considered too old to marry has other ideas.

Trailer here