To continue with our series of silent film titles that you are able to access for free online during these strange times of lockdowns (you can find the American drama The Italian (1915) here), our very own British Silent Film expert Mark Fuller turns our attention to Percy Nash’s 1920 adaptation of Hobson’s Choice which you can find at the bottom of this page, with thanks to the BFI:
Hobson’s Choice is an intriguing play. Written by Harold Brighouse in 1916, it’s striking how its centre isn’t the titular, nominal head of the family, the father and head of the small boot making firm, Henry Hobson, but his unmarried daughter Maggie, who despite only being thirty, is the business brain, the housekeeper and gatekeeper to her two younger, also unmarried sisters. It is her story, she is in charge, and will tell you so.
This is less surprising when you know that Brighouse was a member of The Manchester School, a loose collective of writers based around and supported by The Gaiety Theatre, Manchester: founded and owned by the incredibly influential Annie Horniman, lately founder of the legendary Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Her programme consisted of early productions, even premieres, of works by Shaw, Ibsen, and local writers. The other well remembered member of the ‘School’ is Stanley Houghton, author of the equally oft-performed and oft-filmed proto-feminist drama Hindle Wakes; and now the proto-feminist angle of Hobson’s Choice comes into focus.
This is a comedy drama, but unlike so many comedy plays and films of the pre-suffrage era, the jokes are not at the expense of the women. This is a matriarchal film; Maggie is in charge; her sisters are younger but they know what they want; the freedom to marry who they choose, and when, and also freedom from the family business. And the other main female character, the wealthy Mrs Hepworth has the wherewithal and business foresight to invest wisely, in the right place, when the time comes.
The men on the other hand; the widowed father is already a sleeping head of the business, late to rise after his evening sessions at The Moonraker’s Inn, drinking and setting the world to right with his cronies, all oblivious that the women are doing just that in their absence. In the basement workshop sits the equally oblivious Willie Mossop, a talented artisan, but ill-educated, indeed illiterate, and a bit of a dim lunk.
Nothing will stand in Maggie’s way; not her father, not the niceties of the times, certainly not her rival for Willie’s affections. All are dealt with, in a ruthless but admirable determination to be able to self-determine. There is no mention of Votes for Women, but there doesn’t have to be. It must have been obvious at the time, when the play was written, when this film was made, that this was the subtext.
The play has become a mainstay of repertory theatre, and indeed cinema, since, but this is the first film adaptation; made by Masters’ Films (ironically) and directed by Percy Nash in 1920. There would be a later, 1931 talkie version, and the far more famous David Lean/Charles Laughton version in the fifties. But I think this is the version closest to its Gaiety Theatre roots, for good or ill.
The acting is broad, but forgivably so in a comedy; and in 1920 not many British actors had much screen experience, as the UK film business went into semi-hibernation towards the end of WW1. Joan Ritz, our Maggie, hadn’t acted for five years, though had been successful up to 1915. This would be the film debut for both Arthur Pitt (Hobson) and Joe Nightingale (Mossop), though Joe had been Mossop in The Gaiety production. Nightingale has a propensity to gurn, but physically is absolutely right for the role, and I prefer his permanently terrified Mossop to that of John Mills. Pitt has a menacing physicality as Hobson, at least until he finally becomes a more working-class King Lear, when he displays a bewildered but outraged pathos; contrasting hugely with Laughton’s more overtly slapstick performance; and Joan Ritz is really very good, self-possessed as Maggie, but then she does have the best lines.
This being 1920, we are still at the stage when we see dialogue written in the titles, and then see the same dialogue repeated in full by the actors; really good for practicing your lip-reading skills, but it does hinder the pacing of the film. The titles are a joy; not just that they all survive with their beautiful calligraphy, but they are sharp and witty. I laughed out loud several times, and that seldom happens watching a silent silent on a TV.
That is the one drawback here; while one might quibble that the picture isn’t as stable as we are now used to, or that the print is a bit dark in places, the film isn’t helped by the lack of a musical score on the presentation here. Having seen it a few years ago at the British Silent Film Festival I can attest that it can bring a house down. It has a great deal of humour, charm and its heart is definitely in the right place. There are glimpses of location exterior work in Northern cobbled streets that really establish the period as not being then in the dim and distant past. But it could do with someone commissioning a permanent score for this rather good early British comedy feature. Then the joys to be had from within the film can be more easily accessed and the film more widely appreciated… but experienced silent film viewers will still enjoy the 1920 Hobson’s Choice as it stands.
Our thanks to both Mark Fuller and the BFI. We will have another title for you all to read about and watch next week. Stay safe!