Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice (1954)


Selfish, overbearing businessman, Henry Horatio Hobson (Charles Laughton, 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty), has a hissy fit when his eldest daughter, Maggie (Brenda De Banzie, 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much), marries his dim-witted employee Willie Mossop (John Mills, Great Expectations). Hobson has to make a decision; accept the marriage or suffer the consequences.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Despite David Lean’s reputation as a humorless director, this comedy-drama is a complete artistic success. Based on the play of the same name by Harold Brighouse, and adapted by director Lean, Norman Spencer, and Wynyard Browne, Hobson’s Choice is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

This is a rather difficult story to film right, I’ve been told. It’s what they used to call a “Lancashire comedy” — the term refers to the Northern part of UK. I’m not British, so I have a hard time grasping the concept, but it seems that author Brighouse’s humor is very regional. That’s precisely why director Lean was apprehensive to make the movie. He was a Southerner and didn’t think he could do justice to the story. He was also afraid to repeat the mistakes he made with Blithe Spirit (1945). Producer Alexander Korda (The Thief of Bagdad and The Third Man) changed Lean’s mind and it turned out well in the end. In fact, I think Hobson’s Choice is one of Lean’s  very best films.

It’s really a very funny movie. Hobson’s Choice was beautifully shot by Jack Hildyard (The Sound Barrier and Summertime). There is one great sequence with Laughton getting drunk and running after the moon — the sequence has been baptized as the “Dance of the Puddles.” It not only showcases Lean’s technical expertise, but also displays Laughton’s fantastic comic timing.

Laughton was from North Yorkshire, UK, so I’d say he was the natural choice for the role. I can’t praise Laughton’s work enough. Lean later referred to him as “the best actor I ever worked with.” The real surprise here is Mills (the father of Juliet and Hayley Mills, Disney’s Pollyanna and The Parent Trap), who displays his versatility as the illiterate Willie. Even Lean had doubts about him (Robert Donat, Goodbye Mr. Chips, was Lean’s first choice), but Mills goes toe-to-toe with the great Laughton. On the other hand, Lean never liked De Banzie, but I thought she was excellent too.

Malcom Arnold’s (The Sound Barrier and The Bridge on the River Kwai) playful and inventive music score is wonderful (he uses a musical saw for the “Dance of the Puddles” sequence). It’s worth noting too that production designer Wilfred Shingleton spent considerable amount of time getting the fantastic sets just right.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Hobson’s Choice is worth revisiting from time to time — it never loses its charm. With Prunella Scales (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne), Daphne Anderson (The Prince and the Showgirl), and Helen Haye (The Spy in Black). Remade as a TV movie in 1983. B&W, 107 minutes, Not Rated.


4 responses to “Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice (1954)

  1. Delightful review of one of my all-time favorite movies. The play is amazing, and I got to see it in London in 2016 for its 100th year anniversary. But I’ll always love the film for its comments on class and protofeminism alongside amazing humor. Plus young Prunella Scales (later to play Sybil Fawlty).

    Liked by 1 person

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