From the sexist, coarse proprietor of Hobson’s Boot Shop to the forthright, ambitious and “uppish” Maggie, Lean has, with the aid of some fantastic casting, excellently captured the unique characteristics of each character: the drunken pompousness of Henry Horatio Hobson, the cold sternness of “old maid” Maggie Hobson, the childlike innocence of Willie Mossop. The adaptation follows the play almost word for word, as well as the occasional addition by producer, director and screenwriter Lean.
Charles Laughton, John Mills and Brenda de Banzie (as Hobson, Maggie and Willie) all give outstanding performances, portraying their characters perfectly. When reading the play, images are conjured up in the mind, and these images seem to have been projected onto the Silver Screen in the form of Laughton, Mills and de Banzie. Even the minor roles in the play (such as Jack Howarth’s Tubby Wadlow, or John Laurie’s Dr MacFarlane) contribute towards the overall gleam of this superb production.
The part of the “crusty old curmudgeon” Hobson (according to the Baseline Motion Picture Guide) is played wonderfully by Charles Laughton, at the peak of his prowess as an actor. Laughton gives a marvellously hierophantic performance as the bitter boot maker and father of three “uppish” Victorian women. Hobson is truly a “parent of the period”, and is a stubborn figurehead of Victorian patriarchy, although he has no objection to using women in the workplace.
As in the play, Laughton makes a fantastic job of Hobson’s speech in the first act regarding the “gradual increase of uppishness” towards him from the “rebellious females” of his household. As the play progresses Hobson’s dominance fades, and this factor is brought to life brilliantly by Laughton, resulting in the final convincingly meek “Yes, Maggie” at the end of the play. Laughton’s outstanding performance is overshadowed only by one: John Mills as mentally stunted Willie Mossop, a humble, ambitionless man with a great talent for boot making.
Mills portrays the simple charm of the dimwitted boot hand with extreme precision, and, along with furtive glances and exaggerated stammer, gives a shining performance as illiterate Salford-born Willie. Throughout the performance Mills excels, from the moment we see him in Act one as the rabbit-like shadow of a man, to the final scene where Willie has become a confident assertive businessman, the product of fine tutoring by capable wife Maggie. In my opinion, the final scene is where Mills really shines.
Seeing him give his proud speech to Hobson about how he’s the “owner of a business that is starving yours to death”, winning a partnership in Hobson’s shop, then winning an argument with his wife (a great achievement in itself) really show how much Willie has grown in confidence, but when Hobson leaves Mills switches smoothly back to the same simple old Willie, worried that he “bore on him too hard”. This performance really proves that Mills is an actor of great prowess, and equals the stature of Laughton easily.
The part of ambitious “old maid” Maggie was played by Brenda de Banzie. Maggie is unusual for women of her time because she frequently speaks her mind, and women of that time were expected to be seen and not heard. Unlike her other sisters, Alice and Vicky, Maggie is very calm and collected when dealing with the ramblings of her father, and also has a good head for business. She almost single-handedly runs her father’s boot shop, and without her the business would almost certainly fall apart.
De Banzie’s manner while playing Maggie is very much like that of a strict head teacher, but she has a softer side, as we see later on in the performance. Maggie’s curt manner is performed superbly by de Banzie, as is her stubborn and determined nature. When her father announces that she’s “past marrying age” she seems determined to prove him wrong, and she does: not only does she marry Willie Mossop, but she sets up her own boot making business, which prospers and even starts to rival the great Hobson’s.
She reveals her softer side, though, when we see her glowing with pride in the final act, when Willie is successfully “high-handed” with Hobson, Alice and Vicky. As well as the three main characters (Hobson, Willie and Maggie) there are other minor characters that make the finesse of the adaptation complete, and who are no less important. Daphne Anderson and Prunella Scales are wonderful as Hobson’s snobbish, almost spoilt younger daughters Alice and Vicky. Derek Blomfield plays the part of Freddy Beenstock, husband of Vicky and son of a wealthy businessman.
Richard Wattis plays the part of Albert Prosser, husband of Alice and a successful lawyer. Joseph Tomelty, Gibb McLaughlin and Philip Stainton are excellent as drunken comrades of fellow boozer Hobson. Certain things had to be added to the film adaptation of Hobson’s Choice, and some things had to be removed. In the performance, the part where Hobson is chasing the moon in the puddles has been added, as it is not in the play. The purpose of this little addition was, I think, to emphasise Hobson’s drunkenness.