Willie Mossop (John Mills) is a gifted but unappreciated bootmaker employed by the tyrannical Henry Horatio Hobson (Charles Laughton) in his moderately upmarket shop in 1880s Salford in Lancashire. Hard-drinking widower Hobson has three daughters. Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) and her younger sisters Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales) have worked in their father's establishment without wages and are eager to be married and free of the shop. Alice has been seeing Albert Prosser (Richard Wattis), a young up-and-coming solicitor, while Vicky prefers Freddy Beenstock (Derek Blomfield), the son of a respectable corn merchant. Hobson does not object to losing Alice and Vicky, but Maggie is far too useful to part with. To his friends, he mocks the plain, severe Maggie as a spinster "a bit on the ripe side" at 30 years of age.
Her pride injured, Maggie bullies the browbeaten, unambitious Willie into an engagement. When Hobson objects to her choice of his own lowly employee as husband and refuses to start paying her, Maggie announces that she and Willie will set up in a shop of their own. For capital, they turn to a satisfied customer for a loan. With money in hand, they are married, and, between Maggie's business sense and Willie's shoemaking genius, the enterprise is successful. Within a year, they have not only paid off their business loan, but have also taken away nearly all of Hobson's clientele. Under Maggie's tutelage, the formerly meek and illiterate Willie has become an educated, self-confident man of business, and he and Maggie have fallen deeply in love.
When Hobson's drinking finally catches up with him, Dr. MacFarlane (John Laurie) sends for Maggie. At her urging, Mossop offers to go into partnership with Hobson, on condition that Hobson be only a silent partner. After a tussle over the new name of the business, Hobson agrees.Charles Laughton as Henry Horatio Hobson
John Mills as Will Mossop
Brenda De Banzie as Maggie Hobson
Daphne Anderson as Alice Hobson
Prunella Scales as Vicky Hobson
Richard Wattis as Albert Prosser
Derek Blomfield as Freddy Beenstock
Helen Haye as Mrs. Hepworth, the financial backer
Jack Howarth as Tubby Wadlow, another Hobson employee
Joseph Tomelty as Jim Heeler
Julien Mitchell as Sam Minns, the publican
Gibb McLaughlin as Tudsbury
Philip Stainton as Denton
John Laurie as Dr. MacFarlane
Dorothy Gordon as Ada Figgins
Robert Donat was originally cast in the role of Will Mossop but had to pull out due to his asthma. The outdoor location scenes were filmed around the Salford area with Peel Park serving as the courting place for Maggie Hobson and William Mossop.
Malcolm Arnold took the comical main theme for the film from his opera The Dancing Master. Throughout the film, it is linked to Hobson so often that he even whistles it at one point. Arnold wrote the score for a small pit orchestra of 22 players, and he enlisted the help of a Belgian cafe owner to play the musical saw for one pivotal scene. After a night of drinking at The Moonraker, Hobson is seeing double, and he fixates on the reflection of the moon in the puddles outside the pub. Arnold deploys the musical saw to represent the willowy allure of the moon, as the clumsy Hobson stomps from puddle to puddle, chasing its reflection.
In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther called Hobson's Choice "a delightful and rewarding British film", and praised the performances of the three leads and its producer/director. TV Guide gave the film four stars, characterising it as "a fully developed comedy of human foibles and follies with Laughton rendering a masterful, sly performance, beautifully supported by de Banzie and Mills." In the opinion of Daniel Etherington of Channel 4, the "character interactions between the couple and the old bugger of a dad are fascinating, funny and moving." His verdict is, "Displays the Lean mark of quality and sterling work from its leads. A gem."
The film won the Golden Bear at the 4th Berlin International Film Festival in 1954 and British Film Academy Award Best British Film 1954.
Hobson's Choice is available on VHS (Warner Home Video in the UK), DVD (as part of The Criterion Collection), Blu-ray, and LaserDisc.