Friday, 10 August 2018

Catch 1920… Hobson's Choice (1920), BFI Player

When I started this silent film jog, the rehabilitation of British silent film had already begun to gather pace and now critical opinion is much more positive than perhaps at any point since Maurice, Anthony, Percy and the rest, decided to “go live” with cinematic presentation. So many things worked against British film, including America most of all – bigger budgets, same language, same actors (in so many cases) and that little extra you gain from shooting, far away in a sunny country.

Percy Nash’s Hobson's Choice is not perfect, but it is a very entertaining adaption of Harold Brighouse’s play that retains much of the characterisation that makes the subsequent adaption with Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie and John Mills such a favourite.

A drunken father, a strong woman who sees the way forward and the skilled craftsman needing to be set free by such a woman… It may be slow in parts but, by gum, this film has a satisfying story. First performed, perhaps surprisingly, in New York in 1915 (Brighouse was from Eccles, Lancashire) before a London transfer the following year, its message of emancipation and self-determination had even more impact in 1920… just after a war won with women’s help laid the foundation for concessions on suffrage (broadly speaking),

Joan Ritz, Joe Nightingale and Arthur Pitt
Our silent stand-ins for the mighty trio above are Arthur Pitt as Henry Horatio Hobson, Joan Ritz as his daughter Maggie and Joe Nightingale, who’d played the role in that first London run, as William Mossop. As with everything else you can’t view this from the hindsight of Hobson’s to come but it was the first film adaptation and was potentially truer to the stage origins than David Lean’s 1954 classic.

It is what it is and it’s delightful even if Joe’s Billie Mossop is nowhere near the catch that John’s is/will be. The three leads are especially good and Ritz especially to modern eyes, up against a cartoonish drunk and a cobbler without a clue (setting aside his ways with leather and nail, mind…).

Set in 1880’s Salford – not a dozen miles from the Pankhurst’s - Emmeline having been born in Moss Side in 1858, Sylvia in a place called Old Trafford in 1882 - the scene is Hobson’s shoe shop, managed by a father with three daughters. In his middle age, Hobson (‘obson, surely…) believes himself to be lord of all he surveys but in reality, his eldest daughter Maggie is holding the business together with her acumen. Amongst other things, Maggie keeps on top of the cash flow as her father spends increasing amounts of time drinking his dividend away in the local alehouse.

The King and his three daughters
He has long since ceased to be a key asset for the business and the quality is now all down to the skill of young William Mossop, one of two shoe-smiths who works under the shop. Mossop is so good that a regular customer, the well-to-do Mrs. Alethea Hepworth (Ada King) of Hope Hall, Salford, insists that only he should make shoes for her family. She also tells Hobson not to left him leave and, practical as she probably always is, tells William to contact her when the inevitable parting happens.

Maggie can see the way things are going and, even though William’s get up and go has seemingly already gone, she hatches a plan to not only set him up but also to marry him: she’s done the maths and everything!

Before Hobson can feel exactly how much sharper than a serpents tooth Maggie’s pragmatism is, we get his appreciation of his two younger and ostensibly prettier daughters, Alice (Phyllis Birkett) and Vickey (Joan Cockram), both are well placed with young male admirers,  but just as Hobson can see them happily married he tells Maggie that, at 30, she’s already missed the boat (or boot…): she’s on the shelf.

An offer Willie can't refuse?
Not quite and certainly not from Maggie’s point of view although there is the small matter of William’s free will and his attachment to the flighty Ada Figgins (Mary Byron).  Maggie is a wonderful creation – a Lancashire lass with her head crewed on who takes charge of her family and like a benign Mancunian Machiavelli edges everyone exactly where they need to be.

Old Hobson’s no help at all, guzzling away in drunken delusion at the Moonraker’s Arms tragedy of a very northern kind turned into comedy and indeed the play’s points are struck home inside locally-loomed cotton gloves. How many of us have tales of drunken forebears and how many families were saved by strong women taking charge as worn-out husbands and fathers collapsed in middle age unable to sustain their effort and hold onto their sense.

We laugh at the men because we know them as ourselves… even in the lauded production of the play at Deyes High School, Maghull in the late seventies (I was on curtains).

Hobson extracates himself from the troublesome cellar...
Once Hobson has fallen drunkenly down into Beenstock’s storage cellar, his fate is sealed as Maggie get’s the Fred Beenstock (Charles Heslop), Vicky’s intended, to raise a claim for trespass, damage to corn sacks and spying on trade secrets… She also gets, Alice’s beau, solicitor Albert Prosser (George Wynn), to make the complaint. With his health failing – he is drinking himself to death - Henry’s snookered, stuck between a rock and his daughter, left with no choice but Hobson’s…

It’s a delight, everyone is set-up, the couples married, William in awe and – the penny dropping – in love and Hobson starting to see the upside of being cared for by his “thankless daughter” … but only because one woman saw how it could be…

There are so many phrases to savour in the play, but this version works with some snappy title cards and string performances especially from Joan Ritz, who is well cast and anchors the narrative with some determination and insight. Joe Nightingale and Arthur Pitt both get through some excellent gurning but they’re supporting characters in a play that revolves around Maggie’s vision.

Whilst the action rarely shifts from the sets, there are some lovely locations – misty Salford streets, the Hobson’s shopfront, the walk/stagger to and from The Moonrakers… whether they were anywhere further north than Acton I can’t say.

I watched the film on BFI Player and it’s also one of a number of copyright-free “orphaned” films the Institute released onto YouTube last year - see below. Sometimes the folks in Stephen Street really spoil us!

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