Posted by: Judy M. Goodman | March 26, 2009

Feminist Issues in David Lean’s “Hobson’s Choice”

David Lean’s 1954 film “Hobson’s Choice” is a panoply of modern feminist values. Written by Wynyard Browne, this is one of several films based on a Harold Brighouse play “Hobson’s Choice” a phrase referring to a choice which is really no choice at all. The film is an ode to a magnificent woman in an era of suppressed females. It uses both cinematic cues and artful use of changing points of view to track the ballet of power moving between father and daughter.
In his over-the-top, yet affective and effecting portrayal – Lean’s favorite among their collaborations – of the father Henry Horatio Hobson, an alcoholic proprietor of a successful shoe shop, Charles Laughton blusters and table-thumps his attempts to maintain the 1880’s male dominance in his life. Tired of her father’s verbal abuses concerning her age and expired shelf-life, the daughter Maggie Hobson, the eldest of three, motherless, stay-at-home sisters, engineers her own and her sisters’ escape from his dominance. Brenda de Banzi’s stalwart performance gives us a woman of unswerving vision and determination who, unlike her sisters, will not be swapping one dominator for another.
Maggie is the rock center of “Hobson’s Choice,” not Henry Horatio Hobson. Yet, Lean switches between the points of view of the three main characters: Hobson, Maggie, and Will (John Milles.) Whether through the eyes of Maggie assessing Will, their venture and adventures, Will coming into focus and building self esteem, or Hobson suffering the drunken wobbles or delirium tremens, we watch the story unfold before us without pretense or falsity. A cinematic technique to be envied by fiction writers – as is his sense of visual character-building.

In citing his genius as a shoemaker, a wealthy, female customer  presents her card to Hobson’s employee Will Mossup. She demands he tell her should he change employment – even though, when he first sticks his head out of the basement workshop, she likens him to a “scared rabbit.” Maggie swings into action. She announces to Will they will marry and, with his creativity and her business-sense, start their own shop.

As pragmatic as she is, Maggie equally represents the Romanticism of 1880’s and eventually the romance of every age as they fall in love. Moreover, when her father’s foibles nearly destroy him, she not only stage-manages his ultimate downfall, but also returns to care for him without diminishing herself or her husband. In a time when women had few or no choices, Maggie Hobson forges a life for herself without straying from accepted behaviors.

Though clearly the titular “man” of the family, Maggie teaches Will to read and gently forces him to blossom. The Mossups’ partnership is, for its time, a complete role-reversal. Maggie not only charts their course and handles the business end of their enterprise; she turns her husband from the scared rabbit into a full partner personally and professionally. He is a quick study. In his first step to completeness, he makes possible the success of their union by facing down his father-in-law on their wedding night. Moreover, his transformation is final when he faces down his wife at the end signaling not the evisceration of her strength, but the establishment of true balance. The film manages to mirror elements of Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” The Archers’ production of “I Know Where I’m Going (Wendy Hiller/Roger Livesey)” and, in an odd reversal, Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” casting the father as the shrew.

David Lean must be one of my favorite directors. “Hobson’s Choice” and  his 1944 “This Happy Breed” (Robert Newton, Kay Walsh, Stanley Holloway, John Mills) always rate high on my ever fluid and changing list of favorite films. The latter is one of three films he made from Noel Coward works. Coward’s women can be toxic. However, the women in Lean’s movie, though representing various female archetypes, lack the staleness which often characterizes archetypical characters. He preferred strong women characters such as Katharine Hepburn’s in “Summertime” (1955) and Sarah Miles’ in “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970.) “Hobson’s Choice” is his first clear monument to capable and assertive women.

In 2008, “Hobson’s Choice” was released on a Criterion Collection DVD featuring commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, coauthors of David Lean and His Films. I’ve never heard two men vomit out the word “protofeminist” so often in one sitting. However, their conversation is characterized by a wealth of information about Lean, his fancies and his talent for cinematic language, and an understanding of the high cinematic value and social prophecy of “Hobson’s Choice.”

Like each of the main characters, the viewer is faced with a Hobson’s choice. We must choose to be intimate with the characters just as Hobson must choose between defeat and extinction, Maggie faces change or spiritual death, and Will must either remain invisible or become a whole man. In the early fifties, strong women had few cinematic opportunities. Therefore, it’s more likely that fear of de Banzi’s strength than Laughton’s classic music hall performance that inspired critical disapproval of “Hobson’s Choice,” but the latter is what drew the fire. In the early 21st Century, we appreciate the strong women of the past in a different way. Today, fewer men fear strength in the “weaker” sex and even fewer will admit it if they do. This is not to imply this century is a paradise for women, that there are no more gender barriers or even that some of those barriers are put up by certain types of strong, 21st Century women. The only implication is that from our perspective we identify with Maggie in ways that the film’s contemporary audience may not yet have wanted to.

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