Blog Directory CineVerse: Cinderella and Pygmalion meet 1880s Britain

Cinderella and Pygmalion meet 1880s Britain

Thursday, September 14, 2017

David Lean is rightly known for his visionary, sprawling epics. But arguably it's his British films of the 1940s and early 1950s that bring out the best sensibilities in this talented filmmaker. "Hobson's Choice," Lean's underrated effort from 1954, blends the best elements of comedy, drama, and period piece into a highly entertaining tale about a clever daughter turning the tables on her outspoken and irascible father. Our film discussion group came away with many truths after digging deeper into this lesser-known gem, including the following observations:

  • There will always be conflicts between parents and their children, and expectations that parents have for their offspring.
  • Yet, the woman’s role in the house and the family have changed dramatically since the setting of this 1880s British story and since 1954, the year the film was made.
    • It’s laughable today to think that a woman unmarried by age 30 would be expected to die an old maid and/or be fated to indentured servitude to her aging parents.
    • Maggie’s character can be seen today as an inspirational feminist trapped back in a time when being so would wholly unacceptable to many in society.
  • The idiom “Hobson’s choice,” which means that there’s really only once choice to make with no alternative, has gone out of style; but the concept of having a lack of options or choosing the least of all evils will never go away.
  • Class struggles and trying to make a living in a challenging capitalist world are themes that resonate today. Yet, in world dominated today by large corporations, the family-owned business is quickly becoming an endangered species.
  • As foreign and passé as many of the character traits, vernaculars and idiosyncrasies exhibited by the film’s main characters may seem nowadays, these characters can still speak to us. Per Criterion Collection essayist Armond White, “As in so many Lean films, the eccentricities displayed by Henry, Maggie, and Will are observed, revealed, and discovered to be timeless human attributes, as in classic British literature. Their comic actions recall the histrionic undercurrents that propel the Dickens melodramas.”
  • A clash of wills: as White wrote: “the father wrestles with his loss of authority, the daughter fights for her individuality, and the workman gains self-esteem and self-determination.”
  • Triangles: a twisted love triangle, represented by the father, the daughter, and the workman—each of which has something to gain and lose. Other triangles: the three sisters, the three grooms, and Willie, Maggie and his old girlfriend.
  • Pygmalion and Cinderella, only inverted: “In fairy tales, the lowly commoner invited to join the royalty is usually a deserving girl who happens to be beautiful as well as virtuous. The Cinderella character in Hobson's Choice is Willie Mossup. His beauty is a commercially viable talent,” wrote film reviewer Glenn Erickson.
  • Great things grow from small: this is a quote in the film from Willie, which summarizes a major message of the picture. Consider how Willie and Maggie start at the bottom of the ladder but by the end of the movie they’re on top and running the shop.
  • The benefits of being a practical fantasist: Blogger Normand Holland posited the following: “Lean’s heroes, like Maggie, are dreamers. Think of Laura Jessup in Brief Encounter, Pip (in Great Expectations), T. E. Lawrence (in Lawrence of Arabia), and Col. Nicholson (in Bridge on the River Kwai)…like Maggie, they may dream of great expectations, but they are pragmatic; they accomplish things; they adjust to realities. The lovers in Brief Encounter know from the outset that their love is impossible, and they accept that.”
  • Comeuppance: Hobson is overdue for a fall.
  • Boots: they symbolize ruggedness, utilitarianism and practicality; they also serve on the lowest level of the body.
  • Levels: the film depicts various levels of architecture, class distinction and rank. Hobson resides in the “upper level” (upstairs), Maggie works on the middle (street) level, and Willie exists on the lower level early in the film. Consider how Willie’s lower-class girlfriend lives on a lower level street; how Hobson falls to a lower level and literally and figuratively “hits bottom” when he falls through the hole, emerging only to be humbled and placed at Willie’s former level—seeing boots at eye level for the first time in the film.
  • 1945 Blithe Spirit
  • 1945 Brief Encounter
  • 1946 Great Expectations
  • 1948 Oliver Twist
  • 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • 1962 Lawrence of Arabia
  • 1965    Doctor Zhivago
  • 1984 A Passage to India

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