Henry Hobson takes his final draught and gets up to leave. Then, just for a moment, he has second thoughts. Before him, he sees two of each of his drinking buddies. Not being a man to hold second thoughts for long though, he spins around and heads for the door – or is it two doors? Missing both, he bounces halfway back to his table.
Once outside the pub and refreshed by the chill night air, he has a moment of semi-clarity. The street is dotted with rain puddles and the nearest holds a reflection of the moon. He heads toward it as if drawn by its magical powers, but his changing perspective causes the reflection to shift to a different puddle. He splashes about in frustration before doggedly continuing on his illusive quest.
This scene wonderfully conveys Henry’s character. He’s a man of great determination and, as played by Charles Laughton, a great man in other senses of the word as well. Yet, he’s so drunk on his own hubris that he fails to notice the times are changing for masters of the house such as him. The women are taking over.
I first saw “Hobson’s Choice” about twenty years ago as part of a David Lean retrospective. There I was watching epic classics like “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia” and waiting, not terribly anxiously, to see this little comedy on the final night of the series. Now, this little gem is my fondest memory of the bunch.
The story centers on Hobson, the owner of a London boot shop; his eldest daughter Maggie; and his star boot maker, Willie Mossop (played superbly by character actor John Mills). Willie is a shy man content to spend his life creating beautiful works of boot art obscured by Henry’s enormous shadow. Maggie though has other ideas.
Forbidden by her father to marry – he needs her to keep his life in order – Maggie rebels and sees the talented and handsome Willie as the perfect way to defy her dad and strike out on her own. She proposes both marriage and a business relationship. They’ll start their own boot shop. She’ll manage the money. He’ll keep making boots.
That’s the story and it’s skillfully told. But it is the character of Henry and the performance of Laughton that has loomed large in my memory for all these years. Re-watching it recently, I was astonished once again by this extraordinary actor’s virtuosity. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever played intoxicated so memorably huger than life.
And as his hubris is gradually stripped away to be transferred over to Maggie, he becomes increasingly pathetic. His character arc is perfectly rendered. Finding himself under Maggie’s thumb and squirming, he is as memorably huge in his begging and pleading as he once was in his ordering and demanding.
Our next movie shows a very different side of Charles Laughton, as director of one of the most singularly dark and strange masterpieces of American movies, “Night of the Hunter.” He was every bit as “bigger than life” as a director as he was as an actor.
“Hobson’s Choice” has not been rated by the MPAA although it did, once upon a time, gain approval by the British Board of Film Censors in 1954. It is a classic in the very best sense of the word and should be a delight for everyone in the audience.
The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, February 25 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.