Monday, February 24, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Hobson's Choice" (1954)

A Hobson's Choice refers to a false choice, in which the chooser appears to exercise free will but in actuality is trapped in a situation beyond their control. It originates from a 16th-century stable owner who required his customers to choose the horse in the stall nearest to the door, or none at all, in order to prevent his best mounts from overuse.

A shorter, punchier description of a Hobson's Choice would be: "Take it or leave it."

Henry Horatio Hobson faces just such a choice in the 1954 movie bearing that name, though not until the very end of the story. Ostensibly the main character since he's played by cinematic giant Charles Laughton, Hobson is really just the sun around which the other, more interesting characters orbit.

As played by Laughton, Hobson is a drunk, a bully, an abusive boss and a poor father. Since this is a comedy, Laughton has a great many opportunities to play the stumblebum, tremulously pretending the results of the copious amount of alcohol he has consumed do not exist. Drunks are the most common form of actors in the world, since every inebriated thespian strives to appear not to be that which they are.

The director makes great use of Laughton's physicality, his rotund carriage and face so enveloped in multiple chins and cheeks that he appears to be always peering out from some hole, like a satisfied critter that has dug a burrow and backed itself into a haven of indulgence. Laughton's sharp, intelligent gimlet eyes, though, inform the audience that there is a brain at work behind the fat and fog.

If you'd be surprised to learn that this director is David Lean, then like me you will discover that the Brit known for his extravagant epics actually made average-sized movies at earlier times in his career. This movie is an adaptation of the play by Harold Brighouse, with a screenplay by Norman Spencer, Wynyard Browne and Lean himself.

"Hobson's Choice" ended up winning the BAFTA award for best British film. I wouldn't quite put it on that pedestal, but it is a wickedly funny and smart picture that boasts somewhat progressive views on the balance of power between women and men.

The real central character is Hobson'd eldest daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), who runs his bootmaking shop and lords it over the two younger sisters (Daphne Anderson and Prunella Scales). She's much the carbon copy of her father, minus the drink and the mean-spiritedness. When she learns that her father has no intention of seeing her married because she's too valuable to his business, Maggie browbeats the simple-minded bootmaker who works in the basement, Will Mossop (John Mills), to become her groom.

Will is completely befuddled at first, acting the part of the humble employee following orders, even if they lead to the altar. Eventually, they start their own business and within a year have stolen away most of Hobson's trade, forcing him to accept a partnership with Mossop -- now tutored into a confident, savvy businessman by Maggie -- running the show.

De Banzie and Mills are terrific in their respective roles -- each received BAFTA nominations, while Laughton did not -- though they're quite long in the tooth to play youngsters. Maggie is explicitly stated as being 30 years old, and meek Will is probably even younger, while the actors portraying them were both in their mid-40s.

Mills wears an unattractive haircut with shaved sides and a prominent cowlick, which (intentionally?) resembles Adolf Hitler's odd 'do. This helps give him a boyish look, later replaced with a more grown-up one.

Lean & Co. have a great deal of fun with Hobson's drunken revelries, imbibing with the same handful of similarly-situated businessmen at the same bar every night. They trade barbs like fresh-mouthed schoolboys, but in the end Hobson seems to have the upper hand over the crew.

In one musical number, he leaves the pub so drunk he becomes fascinated with the lunar reflection in the puddles of the cobblestone street. Literally moony, he falls down a basement loading shaft and, while unhurt, facing legal and financial obligations to the proprietor. His younger daughters' suitors use this occasion to blackmail Hobson, with Maggie's assistance, into allowing them to marry, too.

I enjoyed "Hobson's Choice" and its sly take on the gender wars. It's not likely to be enshrined as a feminist totem anytime soon, since Maggie uses her new freedom in order to enter a new form of servitude with a different man. Still, her man and her station are both completely of her own choosing, and that's saying something.

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