Wednesday, June 28, 2017
softening the leather
by Douglas Messerli
Harold Brighouse, Wynyard Browne, David Lean, and Norman Spencer (writers), David Lean (director) Hobson’s Choice / 1954
A longtime favorite among movie-going audiences, David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice has not particularly aged well. This 1954 film seems a bit like it was made in the 1930s and even, had film been available, in the 19th century, with its picaresque views of Lancashire.
As usual Charles Laughton chews the furniture in his booming harangues against his three daughters and his drunken muggings—with apologies to both the moon and door revealing his sentimentality beneath his gruff exterior. And, although Brenda De Banzie plays his spinster-deemed daughter, Maggie, quite authoritatively, and John Mills handsomely mopes around in his role as her self-determined groom, each of the actors can’t quite escape the types which she and he have been assigned; De Banzie is bit shriller, equally head-strung Deborah Kerr, and Mills (as Will Mossop) only at the very end is allowed to escape his hound-dog, “aw-shucks” characterization.
Yet the real problem of this film, I perceived this time through, is that none of the film’s characters is really likeable. Hobson is, after all, simply a drunk with imaginary claims; we seem him in a constant motion between the bar and bed. Without his daughters, it is hard to even imagine how the shop might still survive. And it is difficult to even figure out how he got into the business in the first place.
The strong-willed and fairly likeable elder daughter, Maggie is, as her father proclaims, a bit like the leather her would-be lover crafts into beautiful boots and shoes. Even after she determines to marry, she remains so stiff-necked that we can hardly believe that upon her wedding night she has successfully given up her virginity to the evidently-pleased Will. If we’re all happy that she “gets her way,” it appears her way is as harsh as a missionary lecturing the local natives. Even when she defers to her new “master,” we know that it is simply a ruse to keep her husband on his leash.
I will always think of British director David Lean as a kind of smarter, but just as corny and sentimental director as the American Frank Capra. Is it any wonder that this film’s hero, Hobson, winds up deep crib of corn?
If Capra knew a good story when he saw it, Lean had an equally keen eye for images and a marvelous skill to edit them. The joy of this film is not so much in its characters as it is in Lean’s ability to whip up atmosphere: the wailing storm of the first scene (as in his Dickens films) as the camera sweeps in upon a creaking boot advertising what lies within the shop and then roves across the rows of boots, slippers, and clogs for sale which lay at the center of his tale. As Laughton waddles down the street on his way to his favorite bar, you could swear you were in Salford one early morning in the 1880s.
Yet Lean’s tales, at heart, are as quintessentially stock British as Capra’s are stereotypically American. And there is always in Lean’s films a sense that the story (new or old) is being told by a tired Oxford lecturer reciting British history. Heterosexual love in Lean’s films (particularly in his supposed love story, Brief Encounter) is always a kind of transaction, and in his later, epic works he almost abandoned the subject, except through the pop-like refrains of Doctor Zhivago’s “Somewhere My Love.”
Los Angeles, June 28, 2017