Friday, May 30, 2014

Old Dude, Old Movies - "Hobson's Choice"

Sometimes, there are neat moments in a life that find you by surprise. I stumbled across this movie last week, after driving 600 miles. I thought I was too tired to watch it, but got into it after about five minutes. It was excellent.

The movie was based on the play of the same name, written by Harold Brighouse. Two earlier film versions (released in 1920 and 1931, respectively) preceded this version.

This 1954 release starred Charles Laughton. The same guy who was the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" in 1939 and Captain Bligh opposite Clark Gable in 1935's "Mutiny on the Bounty" did a splendid job in this film. He was a thoroughly unlikable character, necessary to make this story work.

Laughton is "Henry Horatio Hobson", owner of a moderately successful shoe-making business in a small British town in the 19th century. He carries on around the town like "a big fish in a small pond (his words). He is arrogant and condescending to all in his orbit: his drinking buddies at the Moonraker pub, his workers and his daughters.

Hobson, a widower, has three daughters in the home and the shop."Maggie" (Brenda De Banzie) is the eldest. She is the character who makes the plot work. She's the smartest character in the film, and drives the story. "Alice" (Daphne Anderson) and "Vicky" (Prunella Scales) are the younger two daughters. All three work in the shop without pay, and do the cooking and housework after the shop closes each night.

The younger two are of marrying age, and each has her eye on a beau. Getting wed would mean their getting out from under their father's heavy-handedness. Hobson doesn't mind that, but he objects to paying his future sons-in-law any sort of dowry. He's just that greedy and self-absorbed.

Maggie, on the other hand, is a bit older. Her father is directly insulting to her, even as she is the brains behind the business. For her future, she has broader visions than just getting married. She even admits that she may be past prime child-bearing age, but she hasn't given up on her life going forward. After a particularly rude set of comments from her father/boss, she decides she's had enough. She is going to get married, and she decides to pick a husband that will embarrass her father - "Willy Mossop" (John Mills).

Willy is one of Hobson's employees. He sits in the basement of the shop all day, every day, making shoes. He's dirty, not particularly smart, not particularly confident. Measured by social status, Willy is at or near the bottom in the community. But he has a supreme gift. He is the best cordwainer (shoemaker) in the city, if not the entire region. It's his work that nearly single-handedly brings in the profit the shop earns. Maggie knows it better than anyone, since she keeps the books & manages the day-to-day operations.

Maggie figures she can establish a new dynamic with her father in two ways: she will be married, and she will take Willy with her to open a new shop. That shop would target the high-end shoe customers her father takes for granted.

Maggie's interactions with Willy are insightful and heart-warming. She's brusque, but she has a strategic purpose for every decision she makes. What initially looked like rampant manipulation is tied to bigger goals in mind. By movie's end, everyone's position is improved directly through Maggie's vision and commitment. You could consider her a pre-feminist for either, whether in the film's setting or the year of the film's release.

As confident as Maggie is, she completely supports Willy. She knows he would be a more productive worker with her by his side. She sees a greatness in him that he never considered in himself, as a man and as a business owner. As their time together goes on, Maggie and Willy make a great team. The bond that started in perhaps a cynical way soon grows to heartfelt affection between the two. That aspect was my favorite theme in the film.

There is a scene that warmed my heart, big-time. Once the couple acquire a small home on the main street to also use as a workshop, they start to decorate it. Maggie commissions exterior signage, with Willy's full name in big letters. The first time he walks out of the shop & looks at the sign, you can see his confidence and self-worth grow in that instant. For the first time in his life, he feels appreciated and valued. It's a simple scene, but I could relate to what Willy was feeling in that moment.

Director David Lean (who later directed "The Bridge On The River Kwai", "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago") did a superb job setting up the story-telling. The scenes where Hobson staggers around drunk are innovative and really put you in his shoes. (In no way do I mean to glorify dipsomania, but the scenes are quite effective). Lean lets the scenes breathe quietly. The viewer gets a chance to inhabit what each character is thinking, feeling or seeing. I love how this film expresses its message.

Yes, this film is a product of its era. The British sensibility in film-making is evident. It's a lovely film. Some critics called it "delightful", and that description is appropriate. I loved it, and look forward to seeing it again. It's definitely one I'd buy on DVD/Blu-Ray, to watch whenever I choose.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Am I Ready? Of Course Not

(For those who’ve already thought about these issues, this is a nod of acknowledgement. For those who haven’t, it’s a heads-up – live long enough, and your turn will come.)

We laid my dad to rest in March. In looking at his obituary, he covered a lot of ground in his life. He helped and mentored a lot of people. Many of those folks attended his funeral. It was a comfort to know they thought so much of him and his efforts.

My sisters did a great job of putting his accomplishments on paper. Admittedly, I don’t think I can do his life justice in this space. Even with “how much I love my writing style”, I’m not so confident to feel I can capture what he meant to the community.

This post isn’t just to eulogize my father. Others have done it already, and done it well. This post is to cover one aspect of our going forward after his passing.

I’ve talked with close friends about this point over the years, and I want to put it in print now. Years ago, we would talk about the role patriarchs and matriarchs play in families. Those elders are a readily-available fount of support and wisdom. In some cases, they provide that needed bit of advice that gets us through tough times. Sometimes, they can provide correction, when we are off-course but don’t see it. Sometimes, it may be something as prosaic as financial support (I’m not just advocating it, merely acknowledging that it does happen).  No matter how old we get as progeny, or how many experiences we accumulate, we never possess the wisdom of our elders. Their life experiences and perspective are precious.

Then, suddenly, those elders pass away. One day, we look around and see we are given a new role in our families. Now, it may be my turn to be that source of support. Am I ready? Of course not, but “ready” may not be the right answer. Maybe the question itself doesn’t completely capture the situation.

We’ve all been hit by those real-life moments. There is no way to prepare for the nature of those challenges and what we go through after those moments change our lives.  I can’t carry on my father’s work, since I don’t have his skills. But, I can use a mindset similar to what he used. He didn’t complain about the state of the world, he tried to actively make a difference.

It could come down to the time I spend in community service. It could be providing a listening ear to someone who needs to talk through a situation. It could come down to making a public stand on an issue I’m committed to seeing through to an appropriate conclusion. I’ll have opportunities to help, just like he did. I just have to open my eyes.

No, we can’t replace what my father meant to the local community. To me, we are obligated to carry on, taking the lessons he taught us and moving further down the line. That’s how an old soldier would have done it.