Judge Kristin Munson would take Hobson's choice over Sophie's any day.
"There'll be no marriages in my house!"
Criterion is best known for their definitive releases of intimidating film-school darlings. The DVDs cost an arm and a leg but are worth having, if only to lend weight to your claim that you bought Beyond the Valley of the Dolls because of its homages to the Aesthetic movement. For every inscrutable art house offering, however, the company also puts out little-known gems like Fanfan la Tulipe and Hobson's Choice that are movies first and critical fodder second.
Facts of the Case
Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton, Advise and Consent) is a widowed boot seller and an oafish drunk. The only reason he's still in business is thanks to the free labor he gets from his three daughters. The two youngest sisters have sweethearts they want to marry, but Hobson refuses to part with his darling girls, especially when it means forking out for a dowry and finding some new help. Luckily, oldest girl Maggie (Brenda De Banzie, The 39 Steps) has plans for getting all of them out from under their father's thumb, and a big part of those plans involve William Mossop (John Mills, Ryan's Daughter), her father's illiterate apprentice.
For those used to David Lean epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over the River Kwai, Hobson's Choice will seem claustrophobic. Tight close-ups, crowded composition, and body parts cut-off by the frame all recreate the straitjacket sensation of middle-class existence in a turn of the century town.
Adapted from a 1916 play by Harold Brighouse, Hobson's Choice feels surprisingly light and fresh. Lean knows exactly when to keep things brisk, when to slow them down, and how to cut so that the transition from soundstage to outdoor sets is almost invisible. It doesn't hurt that the featherweight plot packs a deceptively literate punch, sneaking some Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw in behind the broad music hall comedy and scenery munching of Charles Laughton. There's even a bit of fairy tale trimming to go with the proto-feminist, reverse Pygmalion plot, but you don't need to know any of that in order to enjoy; it just makes the rewatching more rewarding.
Maggie the snippy spinster steamrolling her unwilling beau into a marriage of convenience is like something straight out of a terrible rom-com, and the plot veers dangerously close to becoming just that, except that the sweetness that seeps into the relationship is genuine and understated. When Maggie says "You're the man I made you and I'm proud of you," it's not some creepy lesson about changing your man. She takes what she already sees in William and nurtures his confidence until he can see it too. It's not gaspingly romantic but it does generate a warm glow that keeps the slight story afloat.
Not many movies tip the plot twists within the title, but that's what happens when you decide to get punny with your character names. Having "Hobson's Choice" mean choosing between something you don't really like or getting nothing at all, something mothers have been pulling at the dinner table for decades. Once you know that, it's pretty obvious how Maggie will manage to hoodwink her drink-soaked daddy.
What really sells the package are the three leads. John Mills is awkward but not a buffoon and Brenda De Banzie is brittle but sympathetic. Charles Laughton is…well, Charles Laughton, but he does manage to dial it back so he doesn't steamroll over the other performers with as much force as usual.
The restoration work on Hobson's Choice has yielded a transfer that is nothing short of amazing. The included trailer is so dark and beaten that actors are like shadows gliding through murk but the film itself is clean and bright and could have been playing theaters just last week. There's a also surprisingly hearty Dolby mono mix.
Along with the trailer is a commentary track by Alain Silver and James Ursini, authors of a book on David Lean. Most of the track is critical analysis along with tidbits on casting and Criterion provides a separate chapter selection for the commentary so you can skip to topics you're interested in. There's also the standard Criterion essay booklet and an episode of The Hollywood Greats, a 1978 version of Biography, but with the good bits left intact. The 45-minute TV doc chronicles Charles Laughtons' career and personal life, including his homosexuality and neuroses, along with some pithy comments on his film roles. That most of the observations come from folks like Billy Wilder and Laughton's own wife, Elsa Lanchester (The Bride of Frankenstein) keeps it from being cruel, but it's still slightly sudsy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Lean likes to take the realistic approach, but only someone with the shoulders of Atlas would be able to suspend disbelief about the two "young" leads, and mine are fairly bony. The "only 30" Maggie is obviously pushing 40 and her innocent beau is just ten years younger than her father.
The plot twists are all fairly obvious from the start, but with Hobson's Choice, the pleasure is in the journey, not the destination. Because the overall package teeters between academic and gossipy, the amateur film scholar and the fan of classic romantic comedies will both walk away happy.
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