DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Hobson’s Choice (1953)

The film still resonates today because of its good humor, the warmth of its humanism, and its progressive views on a woman’s “rightful place.”

Published on June 8, 2009

Hobson’s Choice (1953)

Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Starring: Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Prunella Scales
Director: David Lean
Studio: The Criterion Collection, Edition: #461
Video: 1.33:1 B&W
Audio: English Dolby Digital Mono
Extras: Authors Alain Silver and James Ursini audio commentary that’s part film analysis and part film facts about the making of the movie; a 1978 44-minute documentary on Charles Laughton; the film’s theatrical trailer
Running Time: 108 minutes
Rating: *****

Hobson’s Choice (1954) is the second filmed version of the 1916 play by Harold Brighthouse; the first was in 1934. Despite its age, the film still resonates today because of its good humor, the warmth of its humanism, and its progressive views on a woman’s “rightful place.” It is also superbly directed by David Lean, who’d earned his reputation through his bittersweet Brief Encounter (1945). It also features a dream cast: Charles Laughton in the title role of Victorian bootmaker Henry Hobson, Brenda De Banzie as his eldest daughter Maggie, John Mills as a timid employee Willie Mossup, and the youthful Prunella Scales (see Fawlty Towers) as daughter Vicky Hobson. The plot is too complex to explain here; for a good summary, see this  Wikipedia entry.

Lean uses some remarkably unconventional narrative devices in this film. In an era whose comedies primarily portrayed alcoholics as cute and even endearing bumblers, Hobson’s Choice shows the destructive consequences of Hobson’s alcoholism both on his family and on his health. Another convention Lean eschews is the cult of victimhood. Each member of this family rallies in her own way, particularly the feisty Maggie, who’s determined to make a life for herself despite being consigned to the role of the eldest spinster daughter. John Mills deftly changes his character from the wimpy worker to a forthright man inspired by none other than his new wife. Minor characters are fully formed, like Dorothy Gordon as the cockney Ada Figgins (Willie’s original “intended”) and Madge Brindley who plays her mother Mrs. Figgins. They pop out fully formed like characters from a Restoration comedy.

Originally shot in glorious black and white, Criterion’s reproduction looks like it was from a film released earlier this year. The DVD transfer shows rich blacks, nice detail in the shadows, and astounding sharpness. The mono audio level is good for the day and Malcolm Arnold’s score comes through clearly, never obscuring the dialog. There is a slight hiss in the quiet scenes, but thanks to the lively pace of the film, they are very few. Highly recommended!

 — Peter Bates

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