TV: ‘HOBSON’S CHOICE,’ AN ADAPTATION ON CBS
By John J. O’Connor
The New York Times – Dec. 21, 1983
”HOBSON’S CHOICE” finally may have run out of gas. It started out as a three-act play, written in 1916 by Harold Brighouse and set in the Lancashire, England, of 1880. Then, in 1954, David Lean directed a film version starring Charles Laughton, John Mills and Brenda De Banzie. There was even a 1966 Broadway musical, called ”Walking Happy,” based on the play. Now, television has decided to adapt the story to its own special needs, and the disappointing result can be seen tonight at 9 on CBS.
Burt Prelutsky’s script transposes the setting to New Orleans, and the year, for whatever arbitrary reason, is 1914. Henry Horatio Hobson, owner of a successful shoe store, is still a carousing drunk, complaining about how fate has saddled him with three daughters. Maggie, his eldest, can barely conceal her contempt for daddy’s more outrageous ways, and she is determined to get out from under his domination. As her vehicle toward that end, she chooses Will, a gentle and illiterate master shoemaker working in Hobson’s basement.
Will is a bit dazed by Maggie’s overwhelming confidence but, in the end, he accepts her proposals for marriage and going into business together. As she puts it, ”Nobody can make shoes the way you can, and nobody can sell shoes the way I can.” The basic situation should work comfortably in this age of women’s liberation, but this film, directed by Gilbert Cates, is never quite as sharp, or even convincing, as it should be.
Much of the problem would seem to be rooted in the casting. Jack Warden is an accomplished actor but he is at his best in the big-city settings of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. He is not terribly persuasive as a New Orleans gentleman, albeit a drunken one. Sharon Gless is more successful with Maggie, giving the character an admirably unyielding integrity. But her performance doesn’t quite jibe with that of Richard Thomas as Will. There is an imbalance. Will is supposed to be timid, granted, but Mr. Thomas, a gifted actor who is not afraid of taking chances, miscalculates and turns him into a somewhat unsympathetic wimp.
This ”Hobson’s Choice” proceeds staunchly to an ending decidedly more upbeat than in the original, but the scenes don’t quite hang together. They seem suspended in an emotional void. One casting decision, though, is inspired. Miss Molly Winkle is played by the now legendary film star Lillian Gish, and she is twinklingly delightful as the rich old lady who takes a fancy to Will’s shoes. A no-nonsense paragon, Miss Winkle responds to a simple ”How do you do?” with the crisp observation, ”I do most things badly, others not at all.” Miss Gish handles her beautifully.
Tonight’s ”Live From the Met” presentation, on WNET, Channel 13, at 8, was recorded at a Metropolitan Opera matinee last Saturday. The fully edited tape was not available for review, but I did attend the Saturday performance, sitting not very far behind one of the television cameras on the edge of the orchestra pit, and can report that this was indeed a special occasion.
The opera is Verdi’s ”Ernani,” an early work and, in certain circles, not one of the composer’s more lauded efforts. The plot does indeed verge on the ludicrous but, after all, this is grand opera. This production, though, with acres of dramatic stairs designed by Pier Luigi Samaritani, offers countless opportunites for bravura singing, and the stellar cast, perhaps ”up” a notch or two extra for the television cameras, responds magnificently. Luciano Pavarotti is on hand as Ernani, Leona Mitchell as Elvira, Sherrill Milnes as Don Carlo and Ruggero Raimondi as Silva. The Met has rarely sounded better.