Directed by David Lean
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 108 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: February 17, 2009
Review Date: February 10, 2009
Before he became the “king of the sweeping epic” (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, A Passage to India), director David Lean made his mark in a series of beautifully handled smaller pictures. He gave us two of the best transcriptions of Dickens in cinema history (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist). He artfully brought works of Noel Coward to the screen (In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter). And he gave us a great treatment of the old Victorian era-set comedy warhorse Hobson’s Choice. The film is the very model of transcribing a play to the screen: neither a slavish devotion to the original staging nor a completely off-the-wall cinematic approach but rather a production that combines artful stage performance within a filmic language which uses both long takes and camera techniques that enhance both the comic and dramatic plot.
Blustering boot shop owner Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) depends on his three daughters to run his business, cook his meals, and keep the house in order. The daughters are all of marriageable age, but it’s the eldest Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) who’s the mastermind of both the business and the household. Though pegged by her father as an old maid (she’s thirty and has no prospects), Maggie sets about to mold a man to her specifications and chooses Hobson’s boot smith Will Mossop (John Mills). Outraged by her selecting a man below her station, Henry banishes her from the shop and the home, but that’s all right with Maggie. With her new husband Will, she intends to beat her father at his own game, and in the process, transforms her unassuming cipher of a husband into a confident, wily businessman.
Where to start in describing this wonderfully intelligent and wholly captivating comedy-drama? Lean begins with a remarkable, slow investigation around the boot shop premises before we finally stumble into its drunken proprietor. But throughout the running time of the film, Lean’s camera investigates rooms and parks and streets with that striking eye for detail that he would bring to his later epics which always gave them that enigmatic quality of intimacy despite being painted on a large canvas. Here, within a smaller frame of reference, we’re thrust directly into the midst of the battles: Maggie against her father, Maggie convincing Will that she’s the best thing for him, Maggie arranging her sisters’ happiness while they sit inertly clueless. Yes, Maggie is the true focus of the picture, and Lean makes sure that the character holds her ground through clever framing of her when she’s dealing with others. He also stages some remarkable set pieces that are unforgettable. Especially noteworthy is Hobson’s drunken walk home after a night of celebrating at the local pub Moonrakers, following the moon in a series of puddles in the street and then performing a balletic pratfall down a loading chute. There’s another breathtaking moment when handbills for Will’s new boot shop go blowing through the city streets like a blizzard raining down on poor, defeated Hobson.
Charles Laughton gives an entertainingly broad music hall performance as the boisterous but bluffing Hobson, fighting the encroachment of his male domain by his determined daughter with all the forces at his disposal. Though he disliked her intensely, he plays particularly well with Brenda De Banzie as Maggie, their off-screen animosity serving them well in the film as she continually thrusts and parries with him. John Mills makes a triumphant transformation from the unassuming simple obedient worker to a man of pluck and promise that is a career high point for him. Helen Haye as the imperious dowager Mrs. Hepworth who finances the Mossops to a place of power and notoriety makes a very favorable impression in her two scenes.
The film’s 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered faithfully in this DVD transfer, slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual fashion. Remarkably clean and blemish free for a film of this age, the transfer boasts incredibly beautiful blacks and superb shadow detail. Sharpness is wonderfully maintained throughout with perfect contrast adding additional luster to every frame. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio mix is typical of the period in which the film was made, but Malcolm Arnold’s terrifically ingratiating score comes through beautifully though never obscuring dialog. There is light hiss present throughout, but as the quiet scenes are few and far between in the picture, it’s barely noticeable.
Authors Alain Silver and James Ursini contribute an audio commentary that’s part film analysis and part film facts about the making of the movie and the production history of its stars, director, and crew. Though there are some errors in their facts (Brenda De Banzie did not win the Tony Award for her work in The Entertainer, for example), the two David Lean scholars do make many salient points about his work here and in earlier and later portions of his career.
A 1978 documentary on Charles Laughton produced by the BBC is the other primary bonus feature in the set. Forthright about the actor’s infamous insecurities, his homosexuality, and his legendary career on stage and screen, the biography features many interviews with people who knew Laughton best including wife Elsa Lanchester, friend Christopher Isherwood, actors Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish, and director Billy Wilder and features quite a few film clips from some of his famous movies. The feature runs 44 minutes and is in 4:3.
The film’s theatrical trailer (in rough shape) is interestingly framed at 1.78:1 (presented nonanamorphically) and runs 2 minutes.
The enclosed 16-page booklet contains some wonderful stills from the movie and a lengthy analysis of the movie by film critic Armond White.
Hobson’s Choice is a long overdue addition to the Criterion Collection, a classic comedy featuring appealing performances and directed by one of the world’s great masters. Highly recommended!