HOBSON’S CHOICE and THE SOUND BARRIER
I saw two early films by David Lean last night. A neglected masterpiece in HOBSON’S CHOICE, and a justly neglected disasterpiece in THE SOUND BARRIER.
Charles Laughton shows off his comic chops in David Lean’s film of HOBSON’S CHOICE. He overplays, he underplays, he smiles frowns grimaces and walks into walls. It is a delicious performance in a delicious movie, one that I love almost every moment of.
Laughton’s Hobson, like a comic Lear, is having a rough time of it. His three daughters do most of the work in the bootmaker’s shop he owns, and there are mutinous rumblings. The two youngest daughters are entertaining thoughts of marrying local young men, and the eldest daughter Maggie (who is really the brains of the enterprise) is thinking that she needs some kind of life of her own. In a fit of pique, Hobson refuses to bestow dowries on the two marriage minded daughters. Maggie, bristling at Hobson’s characterization of her as an old maid, embarks on a briskly businesslike sort-of romance with the shop’s bootmaker, one Willy Mossop. And the fun begins.
The comedy is well-played for the most part, with a couple of alcoholic visions for Laughton and an extended Chaplinesque bit for John Mills’ Mossop being the only drags on the film. Maggie’s taking up of Mossop moves from being a mostly business proposition into one of the loveliest depictions of a loving relationship I can think of. These two are nuts about each other, and it is all done with great taste and no sentimentality at all. A particular shout out has to go to Brenda de Banzie, who is able to show both the strength to stand up to Charles Laughton’s thunderstorms and the tenderness to get Mills’ confidence going.
I’d been looking forward to THE SPEED BARRIER, and was deeply disappointed in it. The screenplay by Terrence Rattigan is a batch of cliches, and it would take better actors than Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick make it live onscreen. Ralph Richardson seems frankly lost as an apparently heartless industrialist who seems to have no problem sending young pilots to what might be their deaths in his quest to Break The Sound Barrier. Only Denholm Elliott, an impossibly young and attractive Denholm Elliott, manages to transcend his character’s blatantly cliched role as a Doomed Mis-Understood Youth.
The filmmaking is good enough, I guess. There are some well done aerial sequences, and a couple of really tense sequences. Lean’s camera and editing make the airplanes soar, but the actors are resolutely earthbound. There's nowhere the delight in filmmaking that characterizes Lean's best work, way too much of it is simply by the numbers. It is no shame to say that it isn't in the standard of Lean’s earlier GREAT EXPECTATIONS and BRIEF ENCOUNTER, to say nothing of HOBSON’S CHOICE which followed two years later. Nobody makes a masterpiece every time out, that's only fair. But in THE SOUND BARRIER Lean seems to be coasting, and it is not a pretty sight. It could have been made by any studio director for hire, which is about the worst thing I can think of to say about a film by David Lean.
Let it stay in the vaults where it belongs. Only the devout Lean completists need see it. And even they might want to reconsider.