Friday, November 5, 2021

Laughing (and Shivering) with Charles Laughton

 “Hobson’s Choice” is a British expression dating back to Shakespeare’s day. An apparent tribute to a Cambridge livery stable owner named Thomas Hobson (1544–1631)), it implies a choice that turns out to be no choice at all, as in “take it or leave it.” Circa 1916, Hobson’s Choice was a popular British play about a shoe shop owner with three unmarried daughters, The play was ultimately made into several films, in 1920, 1931, and (memorably) in 1954, when the great David Lean—not yet the director of epics like Lawrence of Arabia—turned it into a small, delightful comedy.

In Lean’s film, the role of the demanding, though often drunk, Hobson is played by Charles Laughton,  who had already made his mark as King Henry (winning an Oscar for 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII), Captain Bligh (in 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty), and Quasimodo (in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Laughton was a big man with a complicated inner life. (He was married until his death to British actress Elsa Lanchester, but his sexuality remains an open question.) As Henry Horatio Hobson, a shopkeeper in a small Victorian town, he is both charming and dictatorial. He permits his two younger daughters to flirt with their admirers, but tries hard to prevent his eldest from having her own life because—through her efficient running of the shop while he’s off on yet another bender—she’s much too valuable to lose.

 But that daughter, Maggie, turns the tables. Tired out from doing all the work and receiving none of the credit, she persuades her father’s #1 cobbler to marry her. Played by John Mills as a talented but self-effacing fellow who’s content to make shoes for a pittance in the basement of Hobson’s shop, he’s a wonderful example of a mouse who ends up roaring. Therein lies most of the comedy, with Mills and his new wife finally making Laughton an offer he can hardly refuse.

 Laughton’s deftness at comedy is not called upon in the sole film he’s credited with directing. It was made just one year after Hobson’s Choice, and I chose to see it last Sunday, because it offers spine-tingling Halloween entertainment. The Night of the Hunter, a novel adapted for the screen by James Agee, features Robert Mitchum in one of his creepiest performances. Mitchum plays Harry Powell, a phony preacher who uses his sermonizing and a mellow baritone voice to prey on credulous locals in Depression-era West Virginia. His game is to marry widows, gain access to their nest eggs, murder them with a switchblade in the name of doing the Lord’s work, and go on his way. (He’s based on an actual serial killer hanged in 1932.)

 In the film, Mitchum’s character is defined by the tattoos on his fists, one proclaiming LOVE and the other HATE. There’s a recently bereaved young mother (Shelley Winters), and her two small children who know where their dead father hid a cache of money. It’s easy work for Powell to worm his way into the family, marrying the naïve widow and then disposing of her. Now he’s after the kids. There’s also a key role for a member of moviedom’s royalty, Lillian Gish, who had been making movies since 1912. Here her character’s genuine piety makes a vivid contrast with Powell’s phony religious pronouncements.

 Laughton chose to shoot the black & white movie in a powerfully expressionistic style, using visual devices from silent film. But he also relies on period music: Mitchum’s warbling of  “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” can’t possibly sound more sinister.


  1. Hi Beverly, interesting piece, learned a lot about Laughton, thanks. Just as a side bar attached to your recent piece about Spike and “Do The Right Thing”. I’m sure you know Spike “stole,” with acknowledgment, the Mitchem “Love” “Hare” tattoo speech for DTRT but had them as gold rings for his neighborhood rapper. Best. Bob

  2. Yes, I did know about Spike Lee's "borrowing" from The Night of the Hunter (thanks to what I learned in the Spike Lee exhibit at the new Academy Museum.) Thanks for chiming in on this fascinating movie, Bob.

  3. I remember Hobson's Choice as having a subtle but distinct feminist vibe. Considering that it was made in 1954, that was quite an accomplishment.

    1. You're right, Marcia. I believe the previous versions of the stage play also led in the same direction -- toward the eldest daughter's success in taking over the family business. Of course since the father is inept and a drunk, I don't think too many viewers would be on his side. (I've seen the basic plot compared to King Lear, curiously enough!) Thanks for writing --and congratulations on your recent book!