Hobson's Choice

Moviegoers cherish the work of director David Lean (1908-91) mainly for its international scope and epic sweep, from The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia to Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India. For the first half of Lean's storied career, though, his films seldom ventured beyond his native England and included adaptations of Noël Coward plays and Dickens novels, and this, Hobson's Choice, his 1954 version of a play by Harold Brighouse. Like the others, it's British through and through. Set in late-Victorian Lancashire, with a Dickensian cast of characters, this engaging comedy features the bloated Charles Laughton boozing his way through a role well suited to his overacting: his opening belch introduces the self-satisfied owner of a boot shop who relies on his three lovely daughters (and a few basement-bound boot makers) to run his business. The girls have other things on their minds than attending to their widowed father's every command, marriage foremost among them. But the least "bumptious" and chatty daughter delivers the greatest surprise -- she determines to marry Willy, the most talented of boot hands and a wide-eyed innocent, expertly played by John Mills. That's just one of her clever manipulations, all of which end with everyone happily settled, including the now chastened and sober old man. As much as we revel in Hobson's comeuppance, there lurks a more serious theme in Lean's visually stunning black-and-white film -- a comedy of society and manners that looks back to Dickens. When one character mentions that there's always "room at the top," this deft little drama looks forward to the novel of that name and its much angrier view of class relations. Lean balances charm and bite in this smart social satire.

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