Friday, July 17, 2009

David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice (1954)

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on June 10, 2009.

Laughton as Hobson
There lived in England, between 1545 and 1631, a man named Hobson who owned a horse-rental business. He was quirky in that in he would rent out horses only according to his choice. It was, quite literally, Hobson’s choice for his customer who could either ride away in the horse that was offered or not ride at all. By the end of the film, David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice (1954) turns out to be exactly that—an instance of Hobson’s choice—for the portly Henry Hobson (played by Charles Laughton, 1899-1962), who has no say anymore, neither at home nor in his business. The film comes a full circle with the authoritarian, although bumbling, Hobson of the early frames firmly cut down to size.

Hobson, a bootmaker in 1880s Salford, Northern England, has three chief pursuits: bullying his three daughters, bullying his shop employees, and drinking at his favorite Moonrakers inn. The daughters are unmarried and stuck at home because their father is not willing to give them settlements—the settlement being a woman’s passport to a good marriage in Victorian society. The employees in his boot shop are also stuck in their dead-end jobs, given the class system of the times. Hobson unfairly calls his daughters the “rebellious females” of his household, just as he is quick to a peeve when a rich customer praises the bootmaking genius of his star employee, the meek Willie Mossop. Hobson is used to his own supremacy, and his girth dominates the frames, literally.

Hobson’s eldest daughter, Maggie, however, has a mind of her own and is determined to liberate herself. Maggie is entrepreneurial, ambitious, and has a deadly practicality about her. To her father’s horror, she fixes a marriage-business deal for herself with the socially inferior Willie Mossop. She believes in the combination of her brains and Willie’s hands, and persuades the wide-eyed Willie too. This marriage of business and romance is an astounding success and, as the narrative unfolds, a disbelieving Hobson finds himself eating his own words. The tables turned, a bankrupt Hobson finds himself faced with a bad case of Hobson’s (read Mossop’s) choice.

Lean tells this tale of reversal in fortunes, based on Harold Brighouse’s play of 1916, in his characteristically British, understated, and imaginative way. Lean’s world here is very Victorian—late Victorian, to be specific—with the “ayes,” the cobblestone streets where marketplaces stir to life every morning, the in-fashion bustles (or “humps” as Hobson calls them mockingly) of women’s dresses, the class system—and yet, like Dickens, the other great chronicler of Victorian England, Lean tells a story that is timeless and universal in appeal.

The singular thing about this film is the ease with which it straddles different realms, and welds worlds, much like a Dickens novel. The comic and the sublime come together—as in the scene where an inebriated Hobson catches sight of a beautiful full moon in the street puddles and then proceeds to trample over all the puddles, one by one. The comic is treated poetically, and the poetic is treated comically. Each signifies the other, and, temporarily, I am reminded of another portly gentleman—Mr. Pickwick in Dickens, although, of course, Pickwick is a kind and noble soul, quite unlike the boor that is Lean’s Hobson.

Here is a humorous film (not typical for Lean) whose underlying themes are essentially heavy duty. It is the story of one woman’s determined fight against the gender and class stratification of her times. Maggie is delightfully pragmatic, and not even the sphere of romance is exempt from her pragmatism: in an early scene, an optimistic Maggie assures an awkward Willie, who is too much in awe of his employer’s daughter to see her in a romantic light, that if he cannot bring himself to love her immediately, “then we’ll get along without it”. Lean’s portrait of the romance between Maggie and Willie is at once comic and poignant, and the viewer looks on amused as Lean masterfully captures the changing subtleties of their relationship. By the end of the story, Willie fondly tells his wife, “you are growing on me”. The pragmatic gives way, quite effortlessly, to the poetic, and Lean’s genius for recording the endless variety of life is, it seems, quite inimitable.

On an aside: Around 1954, the year this film was made, which of Laughton’s contemporaries in Hindi cinema, I wonder, would have fitted the bill for the role of Hobson. Purely wishful thinking on my part, but if I could go back in time, I would cast Gope, that much-forgotten rotund comedian, the “piya” of the famous “Mere piya gaye Rangoon” song from Patanga (1949).

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