Reels of Gold: Classic Film Talk
Today we reminisce about David Lean’s
Hobson’s Choice (1954)
Directed by David Lean
Starring: Charles Laughton, Brenda de Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales
Welcome to the town of Salford in the county of Lancashire, England. The year is 1880.
There are many shops in this quaint village including that of local shoemaker Henry Hobson. A widower with three daughters – Maggie, Alice and Vicky – Hobson relies heavily on their help to both run the household and to work in the shop. His daughters are becoming slightly impatient with this arrangement and hope to be married so to break away from their father. Hobson decides that it is he who will choose their husbands, all except for Maggie, but when he learns that he will have to pay hefty settlements (aka dowries) for each daughter, he changes his mind and says that they will remain unwed. As for Maggie, Hobson has long considered her hopeless because is she is ‘too ripe’ at 30-years-old. Nonetheless, she has her own secret plans for finding a husband and proving her father wrong.
Also working in the shop is Willie Mossop, a quiet but talented tanner and cobbler who comes from the wrong side of town. After a wealthy woman of high status comes in and demands that only Willie make her shoes from then on, Maggie realises his true potential. One day, she takes Willie aside and asks him to marry her, being quite bossy and insistent on the subject. Though Willie is hesitant, he obeys and they quickly become engaged, very much to the horror of Hobson. All three get into an argument with Maggie and Willie leaving to start out on their own after Hobson becomes unreasonable. They visit the high society woman who came into the shop and are given a loan of £100 with the promise to pay her the money back plus 20% within a year. With the funds, they rent a cheap place where they can set-up shop and eventually live as a married couple. Despite a slow start, Willie is well on his way to becoming established as the best bootmaker in Lancashire.
What will become of Hobson and of Maggie’s two sisters? Can Willie be a fierce competitor to Hobson’s monopoly hold on the shoemaking business?
The film is based on a theatrical play written by Harold Brighouse, an English playwright who started writing in the early 20th century. For his last endeavour in his early British career, David Lean acted as co-writer, producer and director on the production after he was given the suggestion to adapt it. The film is a slight departure for the usual serious Lean who mostly made either wartime/military or romantic/dramatic pictures beforehand, with the exception of his two Charles Dickens’ adaptations. I must say that comedy suits him both in producing witty dialogue and in working behind the camera. One of the things I enjoy the most about Lean’s films is that there is a very complete feeling to them. There is a definite beginning and end to his stories and he tries to explain/cover any missing periods during the heart of the film. He was indeed a wonderful storyteller.
‘Hobson’s Choice’ is universally understood to be a situation where one may choose the thing that is offered or else take nothing at all. In other words, you take what you get. It was apparently named after a 16th century Englishman by the name of Thomas Hobson who let horses and would only allow for his customers to take the next horse in line for service rather than having their pick. This term is most befitting for Henry Hobson, perhaps a descendant of Thomas, who is a difficult man with whom to reckon. He barks orders to others and goes about his business without a care for anyone else, making it so that Maggie has to take specific measures in order to change the dynamics. It is my understanding that she does not wish to hurt her father but that he needs to wallow a bit in order to learn some lessons. In the end, Henry can only say ‘yes’ to his own Hobson’s Choice.
One thing that really stuck out to me from the film is how the character of Maggie develops and, moreover, how she presents herself in a society where women did not lead prominent existences. Maggie is very outspoken and intelligent though she remains reserved with her father until she has more bargaining power in her hands. Hobson recognises that her wiseness is valuable but wishes to keep her on at the house so that she can continue to run the shop and take care of his every need, particularly since there is no longer a material figure present. In fact, there is a scene at the beginning of the film when Maggie is waiting-up for Hobson, who is coming home at 1 o’clock in the morning on a windy and cold night after spending hours drinking with his Mason buddies. Her attitude towards him when he enters the house in a drunken stupor was such that I initially thought that she was his wife! (Hobson has a self-admitted difficult relationship with women – who he refers to as ‘chattering magpies’ – even with his deceased wife whom he did not particularly appreciate until she was gone and he had to start fending for himself.) Since he has written Maggie off as an ‘Old Maid’, he believes that it will make it so that she will never leave him. Little does he know she is a keen observer and also a woman ahead of her time both intellectually and ideologically.
Hobson is afraid of those who are stronger, more talented than him. He has undoubtedly noticed Willie’s exceptional bootmaking skills but does not act on rewarding him because he knews that: 1) Hobson can afford not to augment his salary because there is no other work for Willie in town and 2) Willie will remain a part of the lower-class no matter what and will not ever climb out of that social ranking. I do not believe that Hobson is entirely mean-spirited because he is largely a man of his time. He was supposed to be the dominant head of his home and workplace, not one of etiquette and enlightenment. I like to imagine him completely changed after making his Hobson’s Choice; being a more cheerful person as well as a doting grandfather who is eager to play with his grandchildren.
The most surprising character in the film is Willie Mossop. We are introduced to him climbing out of a floor hatch from his underground shoe-making workshop, almost like a secret elf who mends shoes at night. He is a man of little self-confidence not because he has a poor opinion of himself but because he never realised that he needed any. Willie is a hard-working and reserved man who is happy in his job, grateful for the meagre living he earns, and who is completely supportive of his employer. Though it never dawned on him that he did not necessarily have to follow a set path in life, the idea of it had indeed crossed his mind. When he realises the positive impact of the changes Maggie is bringing to his life, he declares, “It’s like a happy dream.” Although Maggie’s forcefulness is sort of off-putting at first, you realise as the movie goes on that her love for Willie was always very present and real. She did not propose marriage to him out of desperation or because he was an easy catch. No, she did because she always saw the good in him and wanted to see him reach his fullest capacities. Maggie does not seek to change anything about Willie’s personality to make him more acceptable in her social class. She does not belittle him for being illiterate. Instead, she encourages him and stands by his side, herself giving up a more comfortable existence and financial means in order to start a life together. Willie always had the potential inside of him – Maggie held the key to unlock it all.
“It was the performance I have enjoyed the most. Willie Mossop was a wonderful part, an unglamorous chap, but he was a hero.” – John Mills
Hobson’s Choice is a truly delightful film that is wonderfully written and that has beautiful performances. It is ‘feel-good’ without being the least bit sugary sweet. This is a marvellous way for Lean to end his early British career though, thank goodness, he would come back and film in the UK and Ireland on more than one occasion during his later Epics phase. There has not been one David Lean film that I could not recommend to you and this one is no different.