David Lean is considered a master filmmaker because of such movies as "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago." But he was a master long before those epics, as anyone who has seen his 1954 "Hobson's Choice" would know.
This black-and-white English comedy, set in the 1890s, stars Charles Laughton as Hobson, the drunken, arrogant proprietor of a prosperous village boot store. The plot is triggered by his effort to keep his three daughters from marrying because they are more valuable to him as unpaid housekeepers and store clerks.
But the eldest daughter (Brenda de Banzie), who seems destined to become an old maid, outwits her father. She persuades his best cobbler (John Mills) to marry her, and they set up a competing boot store that rapidly begins to put her father out of business. This fairy tale with Dickensian overtones unfolds so cleverly and amusingly that you feel like cheering when these underdogs force Hobson to his choice.
Although Laughton's drunk scenes are wildly hilarious, the chief pleasure is watching the transformation of de Banzie and Mills from a Plain Jane and Mister Meek to a successful team, both as business partners and as a love match.
Together with Lean's fluid storytelling style, they make this intimate and endearing period piece a consummate family entertainment.
"Hobson's Choice" (1954), directed by David Lean. Based on a Harold Brighouse play. 107 minutes. Not rated.