This whole movie stands on boots. (Yes, the pun is intentional.) The opening shot shows a big black boot hanging above the entrance to Henry Hobson’s shop. The street is out of film noir, dark, raining, and very gloomy. The closing shot of the film shows that same boot but in cheery daylight. This is a comedy, after all. But why boots?
In between the two shots of the storefront boot, we have a story with a happy ending, based on a 1915 play by Harold Brighouse (which, oddly, premiered in the U.S.). Henry Hobson, the bootmaker and owner of the shop (Charles Laughton), is a fat father who spends most of the day drinking with cronies in the nearby Moonrakers Inn. He tyrannizes his three daughters. He tells the two younger two daughters, “I’m going to choose husbands for the pair of you.” He boasts to his barroom pals that he will give them no marriage settlements so that they could marry the men of their choice. The oldest daughter, Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), he laughs at. “You’re past marrying age.” “Maggie,” he boasts, “is too useful to part with.” “There’ll be no marriages in my house.” A nasty if laughable fellow, this Hobson.
Maggie, however, won’t take it. She plucks meek little Willie Mossop (John Mills) up from his workbench in the cellar of the shop. He is the talent on whom Hobson’s business depends. She tells Willie that she is great at running a shop, he is great at making boots, together they will make a great team, and she is going to marry him. And she does, once they have set up a basement shop to compete with her father.
Their business thrives; Hobson’s declines. And Hobson gets himself in trouble while drunk. Maggie blackmails him into giving the other daughters the settlements they have to have. Then, when he collapses from alcoholism, she forces him to turn over his shop to her and Willie.
That explains the title. Around 1600 one Thomas Hobson owned a livery stable in Cambridge. The stable had about forty horses, but when someone came to rent a horse, Hobson always told his customer to take the horse nearest the door (to prevent favored horses from being overused). Hence a Hobson’s choice is no choice at all: take it or leave it. When Maggie Hobson offers her father the choice of being sued or coming up with settlements to get his daughters married, that is no choice at all. Neither is there any choice when Henry, sick from alcohol, has to turn over his shop to Maggie and Willie.
The title is, of course, an untranslatable British idiom. When some foreign distributors needed to supply a title, they focused on Hobson’s bullying. In Spain, El déspota, in Italy, Hobson il tiranno, and best of all, in Germany, Der Herr im Haus bin ich, The Lord of the house am I. The French took a different tack: Chaussure à son pied, a shoe for one’s foot. My French friends tell me this is the phrase one uses when somebody finds a partner who fits perfectly. Naturally enough, the French picked up on the sexual symbolism of shoes and boots. This is a film, after all, about a woman who presses onto her a man who fits her perfectly.
Boots and shoes fit over our feet, supporting and protecting us. But they are also the lowest article of our clothing. After the opening shot, the camera pans over all kinds of boots and shoes, ladies’, both everyday and dress-up, gentlemen’s, children’s, and working people’s clogs. Boots involve families, work, romance, life itself, and Malcolm Arnold gives us snatches of music to match the different groups.
The opening boot was high up. Lean uses verticality, particularly basements and cellars, artfully in this film. Willie Mossop makes his entrance coming timidly up from the cellar like a rabbit from a rabbit-hole. But in the final scenes, he climbs a ladder to inspect the goods in the shop he will be taking over. He towers over the two younger sisters who, he knows, are just about to lose their hoped-for inheritance. When he and Maggie started out, they made their combined workshop-salesroom-apartment in a basement, with the sound of boots grating on the sidewalk above them. A long scene with Hobson in the Mossops’ basement signals that power has shifted, and we see the first of the “choices” Hobson has to undergo. "There is always room at the top," writes Maggie, as a sentence for Willie to learn to write.
As in Great Expectations, again and again, the characters go conspicuously through doors, signalling potential changes in their situations. Willie comes up through the cellar trapdoor, and Maggie takes him through a door to the family quarters: his life is going to change. Hobson staggers in the front door to bully his daughters. He staggers out the front door of the Moonrakers to tumble down into a cellar—his downfall. He reluctantly pushes open the door of the Mossops’ shop, again, the beginning of his acceptance of his defeat. Maggie pushes the younger daughters through doors, marking their losing status.
Maggie and Willie’s antagonist, the father, suffers a fall down into the basement of his archenemy, the temperance man and grain wholesaler, Beenstock, whose son wants to marry his youngest daughter Vicky. (She is played by Prunella Scales, John Cleese’s shrew of a wife in the Fawlty Towers series.) Hobson’s literal “downfall” delivers him into the power of Maggie.
“Pride goeth before a fall” goes the cliché, and Hobson follows a tragic downward arc in this film. He is King Lear, an angry, impotent old man boasting of his power. He has three daughters, and he is spoiling the chances of marriage for his most loyal daughter. He has a kind of mad scene, when he tells his cronies in the pub what he really thinks of them. In vino veritas. Magnificently drunk, he goes out from the Moonrakers pub into the street and seeks the image of the moon in some puddles, finding his own face there instead.
Critics have greatly praised this scene, but without mentioning the specific story associated with “moonraker.” In a rural section of southern England, the inhabitants indulged in lots of smuggling. They had hidden a barrel of choice French cognac at the bottom of a small lake. They were engaged in fishing it out when the customs officers appeared. “What have you got hidden there?” The natives pointed to the lake and the reflection of the moon and told the officers they had seen this big yellow circle and they were trying to fish out the big round cheese in the lake. The officers laughed at the foolishness of these dumb yokels and went on their way, at which point the dumb yokels had the last laugh. Hobson’s Choice uses that reflection of the moon in Laughton’s big drunk scene when his big round face replaces the moon’s image to become the big yellow cheese in the lake.
Like King Lear, Hobson’s Choice gives us a battle of the generations. And the younger generation triumphs as, in comedy, it always must. The triumph of a younger generation over a tyrannical father is one of the great comic motifs: think of Plautus, Molière, Goldsmith, Shaw and on and on.
This is a comedy of generation in another sense, acts of creativity. There are three, perhaps four, here. Willie makes beautiful boots. Maggie makes Willie a man. And David Lean makes his film—sometimes with the assistance of Maggie. She often acts like a director, coaching Willie, telling him what to do, and feeding him his lines (as in his speech at their wedding dinner).
And perhaps there is a fourth generating, Charles Laughton’s creation of Henry Hobson, bravura acting. (Interestingly, Laughton played Willie in the play as a young man.) Laughton famously said of himself, “I have a face like the behind of an elephant.” He does, and he uses it magnificently as Hobson, beginning with the splendid belch that marks his entrance into the film. He is so full of himself that he is funny, but Laughton also brings out the meanness in the man when he cruelly crushes his daughters’ hopes and when he savagely beats Willie with his leather belt and when he tells his cronies what he really thinks of them. That kind of sadism was a Laughton specialty—recall Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932), the lecherous aristocrat in Jamaica Inn (1939), or Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935).
The most important creation in Hobson’s Choice, though, is Maggie’s, and Lean makes it a feminist creation. She asserts herself as a woman against her father’s bullying masculinity. She shows she can compete in a man’s commercial world. Maggie brings Willie up out his cellar hole—am I being too fanciful if I think of this as a birth image? She certainly mothers Willie into manliness.
Contrast this proto-feminist comedy with American “screwball comedies.” Strong if batty women like Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, or Jean Arthur take over befuddled males like Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, or Cary Grant. This British comedy shows the same quasi-feminist triumph, but never quite becomes “screwball.” It keeps a sober eye on the economic and social realities, just as the lovers in Brief Encounter acknowledge from the outset that their love is impossible. In both the American and the British comedies, of course, the idea that a woman dominating a male is a joke really reaffirms patriarchy or, in my professional jargon, “male hegemony.”
In Hobson’s Choice, at the end, Willie (now “Will”) can challenge Maggie as to whose name will go first on the new sign for the shop—and win. He now uses the same postures Hobson used at the beginning: thumbs stuck in the armholes of his vest, belly protruding. The entrepreneurial male triumphant, and Maggie thoroughly approves, rewarding him with a kiss.
Many critics have noted David Lean’s essential “Englishness.” The English are famously “a nation of shopkeepers.” (The remark is attributed to Napoleon, “un peuple boutiquier,” but it was really a Scot, Adam Smith, who said it.) The capitalist values of enterprise dominate Hobson’s Choice. “Trade” is what matters, here conceived as money or “brass” and people’s valuation of your wares. The customer is always right, especially in the British class structure. Rich Mrs. Hepworth can capitalize Maggie and Willie, setting them on their road to success. But the penny shoelace lady gets the same red-carpet treatment as rich Mrs. Hepworth. Hepworth gives physical pounds, the shoelace lady only a penny, but “brass” is the local idiom for both, and it seems to be the chief goal in life. Maggie gets a brass wedding ring, giving it sentimental value. The “brass ring,” of course, is what you win on a merry-go-round.
The sound track is full of delicious Lancashire accents, because the film takes place in Salford, a rather grim industrial suburb of Manchester. Lean uses the industrial mess to undercut any potential romanticism. The lovers’ first kiss (really a near-kiss) takes place in a grimy brick archway with Blake’s “dark, satanic mills” in the background. While the younger daughters “walk out” with their middle-class suitors in a prettified park, Maggie and Willie court on a park bench facing a filthy, polluted river. On their wedding night, Maggie makes the still illiterate Willie finish his homework before he can bed her. When the door closes on the bridal couple, Malcolm Arnold gives us romantic music, but David Lean’s camera lingers on their grim apartment.
Before bedding Maggie, Willie distractedly pokes through a grate on their stove. The next morning she pokes through the same grate—some sex symbolism! To say nothing of that grim black boot in the opening. After the wedding morning, Lean cuts to the next year and Willie paying back Mrs. Hepworth’s loan (at 20% interest!). Solidly, even stolidly, in the English tradition, Lean undercuts romanticism and sex.
Lean draws on other British traditions. I’ve mentioned King Lear, the “moonrakers” story, and indeed the very title Hobson’s Choice. For music to accompany Hobson, Malcolm Arnold adapted a bumptious tune that would go with a slapstick turn in a music-hall. But above all, Lean brackets his lovers with capitalism and industrialism and sexual inhibition.
As many critics have pointed out, David Lean’s recurring idea is the small getting big. Here, Maggie and Willie’s humble beginnings grow into their taking over Hobson’s shop. “Great things grow from small,” says Willie’s slate on the wedding night. (Is there a phallic joke here?)
Lean’s heroes, like Maggie, are dreamers. Think of Laura Jessup in Brief Encounter (that Rachmaninoff!), Pip, T. E. Lawrence, Col. Nicholson. But like Maggie, they may dream of great expectations, but they are pragmatic; they accomplish things; they adjust to realities. The lovers in Brief Encounter know from the outset that their love is impossible, and they accept that.