The normally dependable David Lean dropped this inexplicable shit bomb in a possible attempt to appeal to the harpy in his life, as part of a divorce settlement, or during a particularly nasty stroke. I have no other explanation as to how one can go from the immaculate Great Expectations to the classic Bridge on the River Kwai, with this bit of propaganda that puts forth the notion that behind every great man (who is actually a fucking idiot) is a greater woman. Purportedly this was meant to be an attack on patriarchy as a system in inherent opposition to a meritocracy as well as being misogynistic. Though there is some truth to this, in that patriarchal systems come with a built-in corruption and select against true ability. Every social system with a nobility had this problem, and its crumbling foundations exposed by the Second World War was a most welcome change. The problem with Hobson’s Choice is twofold. For one, making a statement about patriarchy with a similarly bent film that implies that all men are either drunk parasites or complete pussies, and that all problems require a domineering woman is just as ludicrous as the value system the film appears to attack. Secondly, Hobson is given no choice whatsoever, which makes the title nonsensical. More on that in a moment.
The inimitable Charles Laughton plays Hobson, a successful bootmaker who owns a shop in nineteenth-century Salford. Not quite the bustle of Manchester, but the man does well enough. He is the owner, and presumably was the force behind its success, but we see none of what Hobson did to make his shoe shop the envy of local entrepreneurs. As far as we can tell, since his wife died, he has made unpaid slaves of his three intensely annoying daughters, awakens at noon, drinks all afternoon, and returns for supper before passing out upstairs. He speaks of the congenital inferiority of women, and that choosing a husband on their behalf is the due and proper of any gentleman who has fathered the weaker sex. Dialogue like this comes thick and fast in the opening scenes, just so we know he is a complete misogynistic asshole who deserves what he will get. The deck is stacked so deep against any man’s point of view that any thinking audience will be throwing red cards in the air on a constant basis.
He barely understands how to run his business, which again begs the question of how he became successful in the first place. His eldest daughter Maggie balances the books, sells the shoes, and has been watching young Willie Mossop, the most skillful bootmaker in the shop. Mossop is talented and underpaid, and a simple soul who takes pride in his work and asks very little in return. Hobson cannot wait to marry off his daughters and be rid of their constant prattling, although he cannot bear to part with Maggie since she is “useful”. Maggie plays the pivotal role in the film, and sets up her boorish father for ruin, a task that is all too easy since he barely knows the location of the entrance to his own shop. You know, like all men, deplorable fuckers that they are.
Maggie whisks away Mossop in the night to get married, and convinces the dimwitted but talented craftsman to go into business for himself, which is guaranteed to ruin Hobson in time. She is a crafty marketer, and outmaneuvers Hobson, for whom Masonic connections turn out to be useless. So in a stroke, Maggie proves three things:
1. A woman who can determine her own destiny must do so rather than adhere to social standards to have any hope at controlling their fate. Fair enough point, and would be welcome in a film devoid of the next two points.
2. A man with talent will never amount to a hill of shit unless a powerful woman is there to whip them into shape and control the money. Mossop would continue being an impoverished prole if not for Maggie’s intervention, and she handles all the cash and holds all of the control in the household. In short, only a pussified man shall avoid self-destruction.
3. Fuck with women at your peril, because you will be fucked in the ass sideways.
Once Hobson is deprived of his best artisan, he descends into drunken failure. He insults his friends, gets noshed every night, and ends up falling into an open cellar during a good bender. He faces ruin thanks to this last one, taken to court and humiliated in the open press. If only his wife were alive to exert some control. Even if the case did not go to court, his days are numbered; a doctor informs him that he will die of liver failure in six months if he continues his bingeing. The implication is that Hobson’s late wife did, in fact, control the business entirely, since this pillock could barely find his mouth with a fork without help.
Mossop and Maggie return to inform Hobson that he must yield his shop to his son in law or face bankruptcy, as well as certain death since he has no caretaker and apparently has become a nursing home candidate in a couple of short months. This is hardly a choice, since the idiot faces death in short order. Mossop in particular has acquired the appetite of a vulture, thanks to his tutelage by Maggie, who appears to have her hand up his ass every time the man utters a single word that isn’t “By gum!” He is the epitomy of the ‘perfect man’ as defined by single women everywhere – capable, stable income, and without a single vertebral bone in his body. On his wedding night, she gives the order for him to enter the nuptial bedchamber, and he marches in like a soldier leaving the trench for the desolation of no-man’s land. A fair attitude, since he more likely to be on the receiving end of any penetration for a while. Once that ring hits their finger, their humanity departs in favor of cool calculation – this is true, but to have a film endorse this predatory nature is unforgivable.
Giving this film a great deal of thought, it almost takes the shape of a deep satire on the hateful bliss of marriage, and of the potential liability of giving up control of a critical part of the business. Almost. In either case, the only way to live with women is to give complete control to them or suffer a lifetime of pain and chronic, progressive emasculation at their hands. And there is no choice in this matter – if you do not go along with this, you will likely drink yourself to death in the depressing void of being womanless, childless, and sprinting in the general direction of the grave. What complete, whinging bullshit. If anything, marriage to a ballbreaker like Maggie would be followed quickly by a host of screaming children (because she would demand it) and the only peace would come from various drug and alcohol combinations as one pines for the days when one was woman-free and child-free (apologies to Cale). Fuck me, I desperately need a drink just thinking about it. If you need to see Hobson’s Choice to fill your David Lean oeuvre, have Lawrence of Arabia handy to flush it from your tender frontal lobes, and sharpish.