John Mills’ excellent turn as Willie Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE is a terrific bit of physical acting and character design. He has two hairstyles, one of which is spectacularly disfiguring — both of which seem to be real, so they must have shot the later scenes first, before barbering him into grotesquerie.

Mills’ other uglified role is in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, where he’s just hideous. Strange to think he won an Oscar for it — if he’d repeated his Early Mossop performance in that context it would have been too much — instead, he goes even further, beyond Mr. Laughton’s Quasimodo. I guess it’s an interesting choice to make the “village idiot” uncharming and unphotogenic, where such characters are usually sentimentalized, but Mills’ choices plunge him into the unpleasant domain of caricaturing the afflicted, an error of judgement, to put it mildly, that lands him in the same camp as Alec Guinness’ whole look in OLIVER TWIST (a film made three years after the Holocaust, if you need reminding).

Mossop, on the other hand, is a wonderful creation. Any discomfort felt about laughing at this ill-educated and ill-dressed man is joyously dissipated as the film shows him blossoming in confidence and erudition, a Galatea sculpted by his partner Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also wonderful).

Costume designer John Armstrong has collaborated with the actor to subtly deform and distort his trim chorus boy’s body. A little pot belly has been added — I assume it’s prosthetic. The trousers hang in a strange manner, suggesting scrawniness and waste beneath, as well as an ill fit.

Mills enhances the effect by doing a lot of QUALITY ass-work: he sticks out his backside to suggest poor posture rather than pugilistic sauciness, and this seems to do unwelcome things to the clothing. There’s a perfect storm in those trousers — pants and stance in total disharmony.

Kevin Brownlow’s magisterial book David Lean tells us that originally, Robert Donat was cast, and had to shoot a test to convince himself he could do it. He went down the trap door a prematurely aged asthmatic, then came up as Willie Mossop. But he failed the medical, the stress bringing on an attack of wheezing. (Movie medicals, made to satisfy the insurance people, were generally a bit lax. Roy Kinnear said of PIRATES, “A number of us were quite long in the tooth. We all had to do a physical examination. You went in a room and got on a couch, and you could manage that, you were in.”)

Losing his co-lead days before the shoot, Lean had to deal with a rebellious Laughton, who felt betrayed — Korda basically blackmailed him into doing it — “If you go to the scandal sheets, so will I.” Which is… wow. But it certainly helped Lean that his producer was prepared to play the bad guy. Lean and Laughton then enjoyed a good relationship. Lean recalled Mills, on a boat outing, feigning seasickness, and realised what a good physical comic he was. He had imagined Mossop as hulking, but the physical contrast between Mills and Laughton plays brilliantly: Lorre and Greenstreet in Lancashire.

Original author Harold Brighouse wasn’t heavily involved in the film version, but he did advise Lean that he could play the wedding night scene where Mossop tremulously prepares for bed “as long as you like” and it would bring the house down. As with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Omar Sharif’s long approach, Lean lost his nerve, as he put it, and so Mossop’s preparations are truncated by an awkward dissolve. If only he’d test screened it… that kind of thing can give confidence as well as shatter it. He was able to go back and extend Sharif’s approach for the LAWRENCE restoration, but alas HOBSON’S never got that treatment and no doubt the footage was swiftly disposed of.

But still… HOBSON’S is a fascinating case of the duties of a main character being split among three superb players. Laughton brings the lion’s share of the entertainment, a bumptious and sodden Lear, but he never learns anything, he’s simply reduced in power until his mean spirits can’t hurt anyone. De Banzie’s Maggie is the hero who makes things happen — a bit of fancy footwork by Brighouse allows her to triumph due to a complete accident — Hobson falling down a hole — that she could never have anticipated. But she’s unchanging. Mossop is manipulated and coerced every step of the way, a character lacking any form of proactive self-determination, but he’s the one with the arc — more than his circumstances change, he grows in stature and becomes master of the house, albeit one put in that position and kept there by a strong woman who is the real power in the relationship. Mossop knows he’s a mere figurehead, but Maggie gives him confidence at every turn by praising his skill as shoemaker. I’ve seen productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW where they’ve tried to make Kate and Petrucchio partners in a role-playing game put on for the benefit of society, but I don’t think you can make that entirely convince as Shakespeare’s intent, but Brighouse was a suffragist and the feminist underpinnings of his play are strikingly modern (see also Stanley Houghton’s oft-filmed HINDLE WAKES) — Maggie and Willie agree to play the roles of strong man and supportive wife, while both know that the reality is more the other way around.

Anyway — we raise our glasses to John Mills and Willie Mossop. He may never have gotten another role like it, but it opened up the range of parts he could be considered for and gave him a new lease of screen life, which he certainly ran with.

Next must-see Millses are ICE-COLD IN ALEX and TUNES OF GLORY.

4 Responses to “Mossop”

  1. Trivium: When daughter Hayley starred in Disney’s “The Parent Trap”, Mills was scheduled to play a bit as Brian Keith’s caddy. It didn’t quite happen, but Mills seized the opportunity to golf while the sequence was being shot on location, and Hayley claims in the DVD commentary you can see him striding by in the far background.

    Mills got his own Disney movie with “Swiss Family Robinson”, one of the best things of its kind. There he’s an idealized father, treating his sons to a boy’s fantasy life of Tarzan treehouse, wild pets, and creatively killing pirates … all the while placating his sensible wife. That location shoot was more of a physical challenge than an artistic one — he has to swing on a vine over a lagoon — but he’s plausible and appealing.

  2. That’s one of the bigger Disney live-actioners I haven’t seen, though the pirate attack was always being excerpted on Disney Time or The Wonderful World of Disney or whatever it was called that week.

  3. Did Disney have a presence on British TV in the 60s?

    Here the anthology hour (Disneyland, Walt Disney Presents, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, and after Walt died, Wonderful World of Disney) was a sturdy institution for decades, mostly as a Sunday night juggernaut until the news show 60 Minutes finally licked it in the ratings. Then it faded out, with a few attempted revivals. Now that Disney owns whole networks the name is applied to occasional TV specials and home video products.

    Since Disney never sold or leased his vault to television, the hour show was usually the sole TV outlet for Disney theatrical product, including the cartoons. Imagine a time when Disney wasn’t saturating the airwaves (although its total pop culture footprint was huge — the last movie studio to have a clear public identity). It was popular enough that they could devote whole episodes to plugging upcoming movies and the theme park. And Disney B movies often seemed to be designed with a semi-ending halfway through so they’d function as two-parters if they didn’t look re-releasable. Some films actually went BACK to theaters after being used in the early years of the show.

    Incidentally, Disney shot and released films in Europe that never got an American theatrical release. Their stateside debut was on the TV show. These ranged from the cult favorite “Doctor Syn, Alias the Scarecrow” to sanitized bios of composers to “The Horse Without a Head”, a kiddie caper film set in contemporary France but shot in England with a nearly all-Brit cast (henchmen would preface lines with “Right!”).

    To close this late-night bloviation, I suggest checking out “Swiss Family Robinson” in close proximity to “In Search of the Castaways”. The former, for all its Disneyness, has a visual reality. The latter is almost pure artifice, full of matte paintings, soundstage “exteriors” and models that are oddly charming in their artificiality.

  4. I’m sure Disney conquered our airwaves in the sixties but I only knew them in the seventies. Holiday specials, mostly.

    Swiss Family was the one where props man Eddie Fowlie (David Lean’s dedicated maniac) was sent home early after knifing a fellow crewmember in a dispute over Janet Munro. He couldn’t fly home as he’d spent all his money at the bar, so took a slow boat back to Blighty.

    “The best films for drugs,” Dudley Sutton told me, “were the Disney films.” Californian crews in England with really high-quality gear…

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