Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) owns a thriving shoe shop in Salford, but its success is largely due to the business sense of his eldest daughter Maggie (Brenda de Banzie) and the mad skillz of his bootmaker, Willie Mossop (John Mills,) which leaves Henry plenty of time to do what he does best, holding court with a bunch of cronies in the local pub. When Maggie takes it into her head to marry Willie, Henry sees it as a threat to this comfortable way of life and goes all-out to put a stop to the impending nuptials. Willie is terrified out of his skin, but the indomitable Maggie sets about foiling the would-be tyrant.
The source material, a play by Harold Brighouse, hasn't worn at all well, largely because Brighouse delineates his characters, and their comic entanglements, with brushstrokes so broad you could paint a barn door with them. Lean attempts to manage this problem in two seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand, he tries to contextualise the drama with beautiful, near-documentary location shooting courtesy of ace cinematographer Jack Hildyard and meticulous period costumes by John Armstrong which assert themselves upon the actors like vices. On the other hand, he goes big.
Presumably with Lean's blessing, the performances are all well over-the-top. In the case of Mills, with his rabbit-in-the-headlights gaze, jutting elbows and bandy-legged walk, the result is a patronizing caricature. But Laughton is highly watchable, shambling and tottering across the screen, his rubbery features twisted by greed and sagging with indolence. Laughton's performance, in particular, seems to prompt Lean into several one-off cinematic experiments – the mixing of live action and animation in a scene where a badly tripping Henry believes he's being assailed by giant insects, and the famous sequence where Henry drunkenly tracks the moon's reflection through a series of puddles.
Given what was to happen to Lean later in his career – an approach to his craft that was perhaps too deliberate and cerebral for his own good, resulting in the tepid Doctor Zhivago and the still-born Ryan's Daughter – it's interesting to see the director playing around and trying new things. There are hints here, perhaps, of paths not taken. For that reason, Hobson's Choice holds a special place in Lean's distinguished filmography.