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Charles Laughton





1954.  Directed by David Lean.  Camera:  Jack Hildyard.  With Charles Laughton, John Mills, Brenda De Banzie, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales, Richard Wattis.

Henry Hobson runs a successful boot maker's shop in nineteenth-century Salford. A widower with a weakness for the pub opposite, he tries forcefully to rule the lives of his three unruly daughters.  When he decrees "no marriages" to avoid the expensive matter of settlements, eldest daughter Maggie rebels and sets her sights on Will Mossop, Hobson's star boot maker.  Maggie and Will leave to start up in competition, and she then turns her mind to helping her sisters marry their chosen partners.

A far cry from the pomp and spectacle of Lean's later, grandiose productions, this gently romantic comedy of manners is based on Harold Brighouse's 1915 play, and sits alongside Great Expectations and Brief Encounter as one of the best films he made in black and white.  Lean's restrained direction allows the sparkling scripts pithy banter plenty of room to breathe, whilst deftly avoiding the static wordiness inherent to most stage for screen adaptations.

At its core, Hobson's Choice has a towering performance by Charles Laughton, whose Henry Hobson is a marvelous mixture of snarling brute and whimpering child, huffing and sputtering his way through scene after scene of delightfully sexist dialogue.  Crucially however, Laughton resists the temptation to go over the top, instead keeping his Hobson firmly on the plausible side of caricature, thus ensuring that the pathos of this potentially unlikable character remains firmly intact, and whilst we eagerly await his comeuppance, we never lose sympathy for the curmudgeonly old fogey.  Also outstanding is Brenda De Banzie as the long suffering but incredibly strong willed Maggie, an amazingly strong female character, made all the more remarkable given that the film has its origins in a text now 90 years old.

The crisp black and white photography, courtesy of Jack Hildyard (who also collaborated with Lean on his epic Bridge on the River Kwai) is stunning, beautifully capturing the grimy charm of its Victorian setting, and giving a vivid sense of gritty intimacy to the dank interiors.  Scenes featuring a drunken Hobson are gloriously realized, and gives rise to one of the films most enduring images, that of Hobson attacking the moon's reflection in a puddle.  Likewise, production design is impeccable, the crew's recreation of Victorian era Salford even stretched to Lean throwing rubbish into the river Irwell (the council, on hearing that a film was to be made on location there, spared no expense clearing the riverbanks and water of any such refuse the week before cast and crew arrived, oblivious to the fact that this disarray was precisely the reason Lean and company had chosen to shoot there.

This amiable comedy is often overlooked in favor of Lean's more epic works, but to dismiss it out of hand as something the director cut his teeth on before moving on to better and brighter things would be a grave error.  Its unassuming nature, and admittedly slightly saggy third act aside, it's a film with considerable charm, wit, eccentric characters and some hilarious set pieces.

Internet Movie Database

Additional photo courtesy of Gary