You don't normally associate David Lean with comedy, and after "Hobson's Choice" (1954) you still might not.
"Hobson's Choice," based on a popular and oft-adapted play of the same name by Harold Brighouse, tells the story of an aging bootmaker (Charles Laughton) who lords it over his household which consists of his three daughters for whom he seldom has a kind word. He expects them to work for free, and to treat him like a king. His meek younger daughters Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales, the future Mrs. Fawlty) acquiesce, but his older daughter Maggie (Brenda de Banzie) takes no guff from the portly patriarch.
Hobson decides it's time to marry off his youngest daughters. When Maggie asks why she's not part of the plan, he scoffs and reminds her that she's far too old. Why, she's already 30, and well past marrying age. Maggie immediately cobbles together a plan designed to piss off dad as much as possible. She shacks up with William (John Mills), the unambitious but exceptionally talented cobbler who toils under Hobson's iron hand. Not only that, but she whisks away her father's best employee and starts her own shop with the goal of putting dad out of business.
The film is essentially a vehicle for Laughton to ham it up as a not-so-lovable drunk. One of the film's signature scenes involves a thoroughly soused and befuddled Hobson chasing the moon's reflection in a series of puddles. It's about as amusing as most scenes of drunken hijinks which is to say not at all, and it lingers interminably. As a friend points out on the documentary included on this Criterion release, Laughton couldn't help but be over the top because he looked like Charles Laughton. He works marvelously in many roles, but when allowed to cut loose as the archetypal irascible drunk he can be a bit overwhelming.
John Mills, by contrast, delivers a much more reserved and compelling performance as the blank slate on which Maggie writes all her dreams. At first it seems hopeless for poor William. Maggie plucks him up from the womb-like safety of his little workshop and informs him that they are going to get married. Meek as a kitten initially, his confidence is stoked by Maggie's fire. Instead of being the henpecked husband of a domineering woman, he becomes an equal and worthy partner and their marriage blossoms into genuine love.
There are some fine set pieces in the film, none better than the couple's awkward wedding night. Maggie tosses William a robe before disappearing into the bedroom. He fiddles around nervously, intimidated by a woman who, to this point, has called all the shots. Afraid even to be naked on his own he tries to squeeze into the robe before shucking off his pants and shoes. Just when he seems about to faint, he finally musters the courage to charge over that hill, and the next day's results suggest that victory was his.
Despite the comic veneer, there's a real cruel streak to "Hobson's Choice." Hobson is hardly a lovable drunk. He's pompous, selfish and cruel to his daughters, never showing any sign of remorse for his behavior. He doesn't even miss his long-dead wife. In a line that will produce a chuckle to knowing audiences today, Laughton says "I'm not very partial to women." Yet as irredeemably vile as he is, his final fate seems far too severe. When Maggie finally turns the tables on him, she not only takes over his shop but makes sure he isn't left with a single shred of dignity. Whether he deserves it or not, it's an odd way to end a comedy and doesn't even provide any sense of achievement for Maggie or William. It simply leaves a bitter taste lingering.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is picture-boxed as are many recent full-screen Criterion releases. Some viewers will see a thin black frame around the image. The digitally restored transfer is up to the usual Criterion standards. The picture is sharp, contrast is rich, and there are only a few signs of damage from the source print.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The film is accompanied by a commentary track (increasingly rare for Criterion these days) by writers Alain Silver and James Ursini, best known for their on film noir, but also authors of "David Lean and His Films." I sampled about a half hour of the commentary, and found it excellent (more compelling than the movie, actually) which is what I'd expect from these two top-flight film scholars.
"The Hollywood Greats: Charles Laughton" (44 min) is a 1978 BBC documentary about the actor/director. It deals primarily with his homosexuality and his insecurity about his looks, sometimes in the starkly humorous way that only BBC docs from this era can achieve: "He was lonely in school like all fat, homely boys."
A Theatrical Trailer is the only other feature on the disc.
The insert booklet features an essay by film writer Armond White.
I should admit that there are few character types I found more annoying than the blustering drunk (W.C. Fields being the exception that proves the rule.) Their bellowing, stumbling charms are usually lost on me. "Under the Volcano" and "Leaving Las Vegas" bored me to tears. Unlike both of those films, "Hobson's Choice" is a comedy and a very broad one, but its appeal rests almost entirely on Laughton's lead performance as the besotted pater familias. I couldn't have cared less about him, but if your drunken buffoon tolerance is higher than mine, you will probably be more kindly disposed towards the film.