Hobson’s Choice (1920) A Silent Film Review

Maggie, the eldest daughter of a successful boot merchant, decides that she will not go quietly into spinsterhood and instead marries one of her father’s bootmakers and goes into business for herself. Based on of the most delightful comedy plays England has produced.

I am also covering the 1954 version starring Charles Laughton and directed by David Lean. Click here to skip to the talkie.

Home Media Availability: Streaming from the BFI.

Love the One You’re With

The phrase “Hobson’s choice” refers to a situation in which only one option is offered in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. The original Hobson owned a stable that rented horses and in order to prevent the best animals from being worn out, implemented a rule that anyone hiring a mount would have to take the horse closest to the stable door or nothing at all.

The famous Mr. Hobson.

The patriarch in the play Hobson’s Choice is named Hobson but the title is not merely a catchy pun, it is the entire backbone of the story. The characters have the choice of one thing or nothing and so they have to make do, which, incidentally, is also a great formula for humor.

The story opens in Manchester in 1880. Hobson (Arthur Pitt) owns a successful boot shop but spends most of his time at the neighborhood pub, Moonraker’s. (If you have any James Bond jokes, now is the time to get them out of your system. I am envisioning Hobson hanging out with Jaws.) The day-to-day running of the shop falls on Hobson’s eldest daughter, Maggie (Joan Ritz), who has hit the big three-oh and is officially a spinster. Her younger sisters, Vicky (Joan Cockram) and Alice (Phyllis Birkett), have suitors but Hobson is happy to have his best worker safely single, especially since he does not pay her.

Maggie terrorizing her sister’s suitor.

Maggie, however, has a good head on her shoulders and doesn’t plan to spend the rest of her life selling boots for her despotic father. The best bootmaker in the establishment is Willie Mossop (Joe Nightingale), a shy and awkward fellow with no education but a natural mastery of his craft.

Maggie calls him up from his workroom and outlines her plan. Hobson’s boot shop stays open for two reasons: the good boots Mossop makes and the bad boots Maggie sells. In short, they have the combined talents to make a living on their own. Oh yes, and they should get married to just to make everything tidy.

Mossop isn’t sure what hit him.

Mossop is terrified about courting above his station, reflecting the Victorian values of the play’s setting, but Maggie is a modern woman who won’t let little things like social mores get in the way of a profitable business venture. She has the choice between Mossop and remaining as she is, which would be intolerable. He has the choice between striking out on his own with Maggie’s help or (gulp!) crossing her. And so a partnership is born.

Women doing business? Shocking!

The great pleasure of the story is seeing Maggie cross swords with her bloviating father and breaking every stereotype of Victorian womanhood that she comes across. Obviously, this also makes the plot appealing to modern viewers. In addition to feminism, we get advocacy for upward mobility into the middle class. (Anti-Victorianism at the time of the play’s writing was busily knocking down the myth that poverty was a moral failing, a view that, alas, never seems to quite die.)

Obviously, I am Team Maggie. She refuses to go quietly into spinsterhood and instead applies her talents as an entrepreneur. She is deliciously bossy and is never once called upon to apologize for herself nor is she punished for her forward ways in the story. Nope, she very much saves the day with her sensibleness and Sherman Tank manner.

Maggie give’s Mossop’s fiancee the heave-ho.

Brighouse’s play gives some insight into the character of Mossop that is never made explicit in this film (or the 1954 version) but which certainly colors the performances of the actors portraying him:

“He is a lanky fellow, about thirty, not naturally stupid but stunted mentally by a brutalized childhood. He is a raw material of a charming man, but, at present, it requires a very keen eye to detect his potentialities.”

Poor Willie Mossop.

Maggie, of course, possesses that keen eye and it is Mossop who gets the Cinderella (Cinderfella?) treatment in the story. Maggie doesn’t take off her glasses and reveal model looks underneath but Mossop learns how to read and write and appreciate that he can be more than just a bootmaker working like a rabbit under the shop.

Maggie makes use of Mossop, yes, but every other character he interacts with is making use of him. Hobson likes having a talented bootmaker who will work on the cheap. Mossop is engaged to his landlady’s daughter but she views him just as he is: a fellow with a job. Maggie is the only one who sees that all Mossop needs is an opportunity to shine in order to come up in the world.

Get used to shoeboxes.

Brighouse belonged to what is called the Manchester School of playwrights and its members sought to bring a distinctly Northern character to their works. (Besides Hobson’s Choice, the most famous work of this model is probably Hindle Wakes by William Stanley Houghton.) I personally welcome this as the un-moorish North doesn’t seem to get the same coverage, at least in the books, plays and films that I have seen. Unique local color and humor will always be a winning combination.

Despite its distinctly English setting, Hobson’s Choice opened at the Princess Theater in New York in 1915, where it was praised for its unique characters and humorous situations. It made its debut in its home country in 1916 with Nightingale taking the role of Mossop.

The 1880 setting for the play was likely intended to keep it far, far away from the events of the First World War, which was raging at the time. Brighouse was attached to the Intelligence Staff of the Royal Air Force and wrote Hobson’s Choice in his spare time. Born in 1882, one can imagine that he likely used childhood memories to both infuse color into his play and stave off the inevitable stress that would come with his military duties.

Maggie’s sisters in the boot shop.

The film adaptation was directed by Percy Nash, whose career had been going along swimmingly until he waded into the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Lord Kitchener and made a film called How Kitchener Was Betrayed, which was immediately targeted for censorship and outright banning. Nash’s career recovered somewhat when he switched to documentaries.

Nash’s direction is stiff and staid. There are no major mistakes but also few stylistic flourishes. It’s all very polite and steady but not particularly interesting, especially since the adaptation does not take advantage of the medium of film to include additional locations beyond some brief snippets. Unfortunately, the picture also staggers under the weight of its title cards with the viewing being presented with walls of text at every turn.

But some do work.

The performances are pretty good, though Joe Nightingale does a bit of mugging. Joan Ritz (married to Nash) does better as Maggie but both she and Nightingale are too old for their roles, which rather alters the tone of the story. Surprisingly, Arthur Pitt is a mild Hobson and the role really calls for some gnawing of the scenery.

Coverage of this film is generally colored by the acclaimed 1954 David Lean version and authors who do not seem to have bothered to watch the picture dismiss it as “dreary” and “drab” which seems a bit unfair. (Y’all know my pet peeve is people writing about the history of films without bothering to watch said films and it is far, far, far more common than you might imagine.) Plus, there is a knee-jerk response to dismiss British silents, which I think is rather unfair. Hobson’s Choice not slick by any means but it is perfectly serviceable.

Hurrah for Maggie.

(Alas, we cannot compare the 1931 version as it is missing and presumed lost but critics of its day praised it for its busy camera work and proclaimed it a satisfying adaptation. Sigh. Please, check your basements, attics, Soviet archives and eccentric private collectors. Thanks!)

Hobson’s Choice is a true rarity: a story from the past that has somehow managed to weave its way through the years without aging a day. The appealing characters, clever plotting, local color and surprisingly modern romance all combine to create first class entertainment.

Love, Manchester-Style

Unfortunately, this film version falls into the same trap that has snared many a film adaptation: fear of making even the smallest change lest the magic of the stage play be lost. Both Way Down East and the William Gillette Sherlock Holmes suffer from this problem with the former retaining cornball humor from the source material and the latter terrified of anything resembling a medium shot, let alone a closeup.

It is historically valuable to see Joe Nightingale, the original Mossop of the play’s British theatrical run, and any film version created so closely to the original is worth a view but I wish the filmmakers had shown a shade more confidence in their medium. In the end Hobson’s Choice collapses under the weight of its own title cards and its hesitation to open up the story. This version of the film is well worth seeing but it does have serious flaws.

Where can I see it?

Available to stream via the BFI’s official YouTube channel. The picture quality is excellent, as you can see from these screencaps, but there is no score. Oh well, let’s hold out hope for a home media release with some catchy music, preferably from a Lancashire-based musician to keep up the theme.

Of course, when someone brings up Hobson’s Choice, they almost always mean the 1954 production directed by David Lean and with good reason. This film has the cast, it has the mood and it has the story. It’s one of the most beloved mid-century British films for a reason.

Hobson’s Choice (1954)

I had heard of this film, of course, but never really got around to watching it until earlier this year. I had just finished Scott of the Antarctic for my review of The Great White Silence and, well, I was just a little depressed. I had been reading Scott’s journals, studying the circumstances of his death and then topped it all by watching John Mills as Scott freeze in a freak blizzard. I tend to get too heavily involved in films I am studying and decided that I needed an antidote, preferably one with a live John Mills. And so here we are.

And passed by the British Board of Film Censors!

Both the 1920 and 1954 adaptations of the play are quite faithful to the original but the 1954 film does a far better job of “opening up” the story. It’s amazing what can be accomplished by a riverside stroll and a few scenes at Moonrakers. Voila! A classic stage play no longer feels like a relic of the stage. Lean and screenwriters Norman Spencer and Wynyard Browne didn’t add in any sweeping panoramas or war scenes but still managed to make an already good story deeper. They were smart enough to keep the witty dialogue more or less intact while still making tweaks here and there to avoid claustrophobia. (And kudos to cinematographer Jack Hildyard for lending some elegant little flourishes.)

Maggie makes her move.

As mentioned above, the cast is ideal. We have the venerable ham Charles Laughton chewing the scenery as only he could as Hobson, John Mills being suitably rabbit-like as Mossop, a baby Prunella Scales as Vicky and the underrated Brenda de Banzie as Maggie.

One thing I will say, I think it’s rather cheating for both the 1920 and 1954 films to cast a woman significantly older than thirty to play the “old maid” Maggie. Joan Ritz was nearly forty and Brenda de Banzie was forty-four. Is thirty such a shocking age that it must be portrayed as older than it really is? I am reminded of this amusing aside that Leslie Charteris wrote in his introduction to a collection of Saint stories:

Here’s to old hags! (Willie Mossop was described as being around the same age as Maggie in the play but his actual age is not stated so there is a bit of leeway.) Of course, de Banzie gives an excellent performance and is perfectly cast, I just find that buying into the notion of thirty being over the hill to be odd. (The 1931 version of the film does feature a cast a bit closer in age to what was called for in the play.)

The Mossops clean up nice.

With the exception of one short scene in a luxurious home, there are no particularly dazzling locations. It’s all boot shops, a pub, a grainer’s cellar and assorted sitting rooms but the brightness of the performances and the enthusiastic delivery by the talented cast keep things peppy.

The winner of this competition is the talkie, of course, but the silent film is still worth seeing if for no other reason than getting an idea of how to play was staged when it was new. However, the David Lean version is a masterpiece of family drama and it’s a guaranteed feel-good picture. You simply cannot be in a bad mood after watching it and it’s the perfect thing to watch after a hard day.

Released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.


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  1. Gil Lamont

    I have also a crisp Region B Blu of the 1954 version, lacking the Criterion commentary and Laughton bio but with a Prunella Scales interview. From amazon.co.uk. Cheaper than the Criterion and not pictureboxed!

  2. amycondit

    Hooray! What a great review of the silent and later David Lean version. My film education is expanded again as I was unfamiliar with Hobson’s Choice. I’ll look forward to sitting down to both versions!

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