In one of the greatest tragi-comic scenes in British cinema, the corpulent, arrogant and very inebriated Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) stumbles out of his local watering hole, Moonrakers, after a contretemps with his drinking buddies. Stumbling down a short flight of steps, he finds himself clinging to a lamppost for support. It's at this point he sees the reflection of the moon in a puddle. Guided by a skinful of booze and accompanied by Malcolm Arnold's wonderful score, he undertakes to scoop it up, prancing in an absurdist ballet from one puddle to another only for the moon to be replaced, the moment he bends down, by the heavy-jowled moon of his own face. The moon slides from the rain-slicked street and reappears in the window of corn chandler (and Hobson's teetotal nemesis) Beenstock's office window. A poster leers from the wall: "DEFY THE DEMON DRINK". Hobson sneers at it, pirouettes and goes on his merry way. His next obstacle is a length of chain attached to some temporary posts fencing off a gaping aperture dropping down into Beenstock's cellar. Hobson valiantly extricates himself from the chain and the chain from around the posts and goes plummeting down the chute.
This is the scene everyone remembers from 'Hobson's Choice', but the two which precede it are crucial. In the first, Hobson stomps back into his shoeshop after an aperitif in Moonrakers and calls for his younger daughter Vicky (Prunella Scales) to provide dinner. She does: an unappetising slab of jellied tongue. He calls upon Alice (Daphne Anderson), his middle born daughter, to produce something better. She avers that she's been too busy minding the shop. Almost sheepishly, he asks Vicky what's for pudding. "Rhubarb," she retorts. This is the final straw and Hobson gathers himself up and storms out, declaring that he's going where he'll get the respect he's due. Cut to: Hobson in Moonrakers, the laughing stock of his acquaintances. Fuelled by self-righteousness indignation, Hobson offers them a few home truths then drunkenly exits the establishment.
So what's caused the Moonrakers' regulars to laugh it up over Henry Hobson? Well, it's all the doing of eldest daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) and what she does is not without reason. The Hobson sisters have subjugated their own lives and ambitions to looking after their father since the death of the matriarch. (That's "looking after" as in minding the shop while he goes out drinking and cooking and cleaning up after him when he comes back.) Alice and Vicky both have beaus and Hobson is, to begin with, quite amenable at the prospect of marrying them off. Until he learns how much it would cost him in marriage settlements. The old skinflint can't conceive of spending money unless alcoholic beverages are supplied in return, and decrees that neither of them will marry. That he doesn't include Maggie in this is because he's already written her off as unmarriageable (early in the film he insensitively calls her "an old maid").
He reckons, however, without Maggie's cool, calculating intelligence; her determination; and her incisive business acumen. Determined to better herself and get free from her father's petty tyrannies, and savvy enough to know that she needs to operate within the accepted social norms to do so, Maggie's first hurdle is to find a husband. She looks no further than the cellar, where Willie Mossop (John Mills) thanklessly toils away, making the shoes that are so comfortable and popular they guarantee Hobson's customer base even if the front-of-house service leaves a lot to be desired. Willie is a man of timidity and zero ambition, which makes it much easier for Maggie. "Willie Mossop," she tells him, "you're my man." End of.
Next: a benefactor, and who better than moneyed socialite Mrs Hepworth (Helen Haye), already impressed at Mossop's talent with the leather and the last. Premises are found, materials acquired and Maggie and her new (and distinctly nervous) husband set to work. Flyers are printed up and distributed. One is distributed directly into Hobson's hand at Moonrakers, occasioning the merriment amongst his comrades that kicks off the argument-moon/puddle-Beenstock's cellar shenanigans described earlier. Hobson's outrage at his daughter and son-in-law's temerity knows no bounds - that his day-to-day existence quickly unravels without Maggie's sharp effeciency doesn't help - but when Beenstock sues for trespass and damages over the cellar incident, Hobson comes to realise that he'll need Maggie back on his side.
Adapted from Harold Brighouse's hit stageplay, 'Hobson's Choice' may have seemed an odd choice for David Lean. A comedy, and one with a pronounced sense of earthy, working-class Northern humour (it's set in Salford against the backdrop of the Manchester Ship Canal), the aesthetic seems at odds with Lean's previous outings, very few of which show even the vaguest trace elements of humour. His previous outing had been 'The Sound Barrier', a joyless mishmash of boy's own drooling over fast planes and new technology, and a tedious family/class/guilt/recrimination melodrama from the stilted pen of Terence Rattigan. Yet 'Hobson's Choice' is a classic of its kind, acutely observed, perfectly played and often laugh-out-loud funny. In addition to the moon in the puddle, an earlier scene in which Hobson, arriving home sozzled, stumbles back and forth before facing up to the staircase and pelting up it full tilt only to teeter on the top step is physical comedy as good as anything Laurel and Hardy did.
The cast are faultless. John Mills reveals himself as a fine comic actor, so good I found myself regretting the panoply of stiff-upper-lip roles he became known for. Prunella Scales (who would become one of the icons of British comedy twenty years later as Sybil Fawlty) and Daphne Anderson play off each other beautifully, particularly in a scene where they exit the shop in a huff, the bustles swishing in sync. Brenda De Banzie is a revelation, her transformation from spinster-in-waiting to radiant heroine never seeming forced or cliched. She is simply a woman who comes to radiate with the possibilities of what she can achieve. And then there's Charles Laughton. Imagine his Henry VIII with a jellied tongue instead of a leg of chicken; his Captain Bligh empirically ruling a shoeshop instead of a ship. It's a larger than life, deliberately theatrical, barnstorming performance and the fact that everyone else holds their own against it is probably the best indication of just how good 'Hobson's Choice' is.