Magnificent Obsession (1954, Douglas Sirk)

Magnificent Obsession 6Please note I do discuss the whole plot of this film.  So far I’ve written about a couple of lesser-known Douglas Sirk films. Now I’m on to one of his more famous melodramas, the glossy romance Magnificent Obsession – said to be one of the greatest weepies of all time. I’ll admit I stayed dry-eyed. For me the problem is that the soapy plot is just so far-fetched, even by the standards of this genre, and it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to go with the emotions. Having said that, lead actors Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson are both excellent, Sirk’s direction is seductively smooth, and there are many great scenes and moments along the way.

One of those is the film’s opening. It is exciting, glamorous – and likely to hook most viewers from the start.  Handsome, rich playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) is at the helm of a hydroplane which clearly cost a fortune, ignoring warnings from bystanders as he heads out across the lake and piles on speed. In an action film, this kind of sequence would be designed to make the audience marvel at the hero’s daring – for instance, with the pre-credits stunts in Bond films. It has much the same effect in this “women’s emotion picture”, as you find yourself willing Bob to avoid the inevitable crash. Yet, at the same time as demonstrating his courage, it also shows the character’s fatal recklessness and self-absorption – something underlined by the comments of those surrounding him. “Doesn’t that guy have a brain?” “He doesn’t need to, he’s got four million bucks.”

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman

Within minutes, it’s discovered that Bob’s self-inflicted accident has had fatal consequences for someone else. The rescue team borrow resuscitation equipment from a doctor living nearby, who has it constantly on hand because he suffers from a heart condition. Tragically, the doctor collapses and dies while Bob’s life is being saved. Everyone in the film seems to blame him for the death, which doesn’t seem quite fair, as surely it would be a good idea to have a resuscitator available for the general public too – but this whole storyline does underline the selfishness of Bob’s character. It also contrasts two kinds of heroism, the showy antics Bob favours and the quiet service which Doctor Phillips dedicated his life to. This goes on to be a major theme of the film, but, unfortunately, the audience isn’t left to draw the contrast. Instead, characters within the film keep on delivering lectures about the need to help others silently – and spelling out what should go without saying.  This especially applies to artist Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), an old friend of the doctor’s who now befriends Bob and starts to organise his life. An essay about Sirk and Hudson at the Criterion website suggests that Kruger, who looked like Sirk, is his representative within the film and becomes a father figure to Bob, just as Sirk was to Hudson in real life. Although I like that idea, their conversations tend to become far too preachy and stop the film in its tracks. 

I haven’t as yet seen the 1930s John Stahl version of Lloyd C Douglas’s novel, starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, which isn’t available in the UK. However, I’ve read about it and seen a few clips at the TCM website, and get the impression that Bob’s self-destructive qualities have been stepped up in Sirk’s remake. In the original, Bobby Merrick (even the hero’s name is more macho in 1954) falls in the lake during a drunken party – no heroics or apparent death wish involved.  Also, in the earlier film, the couple first meet when Helen’s car has broken down and Bobby comes to her rescue, attempting to charm her in a scene which is almost like something from a screwball comedy. In 1954, it’s the other way round. Helen is the one to rescue Bob, who has discharged himself from hospital despite still being ill from his accident – and, when he collapses in the road, she takes him back to the nurses.  

The couple enjoy some calm amid the storms

The couple enjoy some calm amid the storms

The plot plunges further into wild melodrama when Bob arrogantly tries to pursue Helen (Wyman), who suffers an accident while fleeing his advances and is blinded as a result. This proves a turning-point for our hero, and he is soon devoting his life to making amends. He starts to give his money away surreptitiously, just as the doctor did, and he also goes back to the medical training he had abandoned.  In some of the film’s most poignant scenes, he befriends the blind Helen on the beach, adopting another name (Robbie) and building a tentative friendship with her which starts to blossom into romance as time passes. He also secretly arranges for her to travel to Europe in the hope that top surgeons can restore her sight, but they say it can’t be done.

After he declares his love and his identity, she runs away, getting her friend Nancy (Agnes Moorehead) to help her disappear. She has forgiven him and loves him too but nobly thinks she will be a burden to him.  This doesn’t seem at all like something that Helen would do, since up to that point she has been quiet, matter-of-fact and mainly positive about her blindness. It also means that she deserts her stepdaughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), which again seems out of character. I haven’t seen much of Wyman’s work, but she gives a gentle, surprisingly understated performance in this film which makes Helen a believable character – so it is hard to accept it when the wild plot twists make her act in a larger-than-life, soapy way. A heartbroken Bob now devotes himself to his medical career, becoming a top neurosurgeon at amazing speed… until at last the opportunity arises for him to prove his skill by operating on Helen, to make her see again. Like the previous Sirk film I’ve written about here, All I Desire, this is another tale of a prodigal who proves there is more to their character than disapproving small-town gossip assumes – but he proves it in a far more dramatic way.  Sirk favoured downbeat, open endings which left the audience having to decide what happened next, but the ending here is pure Hollywood, as the couple embrace and are reunited in the final frame.

Hudson, Wyman and Barbara Rush

Hudson, Wyman and Barbara Rush

Hudson and Wyman must have made a surprising couple when the film was released, as she was nearly eight years older than him and doesn’t look particularly glamorous here, which must have been a deliberate decision. Indeed, she emphasises her age in the trailer, below, as she is seen with greying hair.  She almost seems to be an island of reality and common sense amid all the fevered Technicolor and the religious music whipping up emotions on the soundtrack.  However, the couple’s relationship on screen is convincing despite the age gap, contrast in appearance and unlikely plot, and Sirk went on to pair them again in All That Heaven Allows (1955).

I do intend to watch this film again in the future and may warm to it more then, but, although I’m glad to have seen it, for me it isn’t one of Sirk’s greatest, because it is just so over the top. However, it has left me wanting to see more of both Wyman and Hudson. The UK/region 2 DVD in the Directed by Douglas Sirk collection is once again a barebones presentation, with gorgeous colour but no extras. The region 1 Criterion set has a tempting set of extras including the earlier version of the film.

Magnificent Obsession 4

 

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15 thoughts on “Magnificent Obsession (1954, Douglas Sirk)

  1. Well, Judy, just as you like Laurence Olivier and I don’t much care for him, I happen to like this movie a lot (4 stars for me), but you don’t overly care for it. Once again, we all have very different tastes, don’t we?

    I like this one and the Dunne/Taylor version about the same. I prefer Irene Dunne to Jane Wyman, but I adore both Rock and Robert Taylor. Rock more than makes up for Jane in my opinion.

    Did you ever consider applying for membership in the CMBA? You have an awesome blog…it’s one of my favorites…and I think you would be a wonderful addition to the CMBA.

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    • Patti, you’re right, we can’t all like the same things – sometimes I do find that my taste changes when I re-watch a film, though, so it’s possible that if I’m in more of a melodrama mood next time round I will react differently, and like it as much as you do! I love Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor too – hope to catch their version of the story before too long, though I think it might be a bit much to watch them too close together.

      Thanks very much for the kind comments about my blog, which are very much appreciated – as you know, I’m a big fan of yours and a regular visitor there. To be honest, I don’t really feel I have time to get involved in CMBA (my blogging tends to be a bit hand to mouth as it is), but thanks very much for the suggestion about that too.

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  2. Oh,gosh, now that you spell it out in black and white, it does sound very melodramatic. I do agree with a lot of your comments on the plot, but I still love it! I thought Jane Wyman looked great . Your highlighting of the age difference seems funny when you think of the decades-older men who played opposite younger actresses.
    I always thought Merrick’s rise to fame was ridiculously fast. I’d like to have seen more of Agnes Moorehead and less of the pseudo- religion.
    Love the music too.
    Actually I think I prefer ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and look forward to your review if you are doing one?

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    • Vienna, yeah, he does seem to reach the top of his profession even faster than he drives that hydroplane at the start! I agree with you that the age difference is really very small compared to all those the other way round in a host of films – also I’ve actually just seen Jane Wyman in a Hitchcock film made only four years earlier (Stage Fright) where she is playing a young girl! (I’ll be writing that one up for the ‘sleuthathon’.) She was still only in her 30s here, despite being an “older” woman.

      Totally agree that this film could do with more Agnes Moorhead and less pseudo-religion – well put. I’ll try to squeeze in an ‘All That Heaven Allows’ review in the next few days before moving on to writing about Marlene Dietrich. Thanks very much for your comment!

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  3. I’ve seen the last 20 minutes of this film, so it was great to have the opportunity to catch up on the beginning. Hudson and Wyman struck me as an odd couple because I’d never think to pair them, but I agree that the actors make it believable.

    I’m not sure this is my kind of film but, like you, I may give it another chance.

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    • Ruth, I’ve occasionally done the same thing and caught the end of a film first, so I know the feeling… I probably liked the first part of the film the best, so I hope you do get a chance to catch up with it. The opening scene with Hudson in the hydroplane is a must! Thanks for dropping by!

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  4. Judy,
    In 1929, Minister of Religion, and soon to be successful author, Lloyd C. Douglas released his book, “Magnificent Obsession”. He became one of the most popular American authors of his time and three of his novels “White Banners” – 1939; “The Robe”- 1942; and “The Big Fisherman – 1948, were later filmed with great success.

    The theme of this first novel, and the subsequent two films that evolved therefrom, was based upon the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 6 – 1-4 ). During a radio broadcast on April 26, 1936, Douglas revealed that he had “become possessed of an idea that demanded a wider hearing”. That idea was developed into his first novel, “Magnificent Obsession”. Douglas described his work as ” a purpose novel” written to extol a lifestyle that required giving assistance, (monetary or otherwise), to those less fortunate, but not to seek publicity nor earthly reward. In a less cynical era, this met with wide public approval, hence the acceptance of his novel.

    Being a socialist and a silent critic of what he considered to be the avaricious American society at that time, it is little wonder that Douglas Sirk was attracted to a re-make of Director John M. Stahl 1935 original production. Sirk realised that this was his ” ideal melodrama” and his “first real opportunity” . He took this “crazy story “, (the auteur’s own words), embraced its excesses and, assisted by cameraman, Russel Metty, bedazzled his target audiences with an array of colour, light and music. “Throughout my pictures I employ a lighting that is not realistic. With colour too, I did this to attain a lighting that is almost surrealistic.”

    Much has been written about this film but I must confess that I favour the theory that, on this occasion, Sirk, the Auteur, employed an act of sublime irony. He has reversed the gender of the protagonists. Rather than the more mature, but still handsome male supporting the beautiful, young female through various emotional trials and tribulations encountered in most melodramas, he has presented Helen Phillips, ( Jane Wyman), as the “more mature, but still handsome” protagonist whose influence rescues “beautiful” (?), young, spoilt, playboy, Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), from becoming a wastrel.

    By the conclusion of this film, Helen has succeeded in fashioning Bob into a “mirror-image” of her husband, Doctor Phillips, a dedicated and respected Brain Surgeon, whose unheralded philanthropic acts reflect the theme of both Douglas’s novel and this film.

    Judy, once again my enthusiasm has gotten the better of me, and I apologise, if I am too verbose.

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    • Rod, thanks so much for all this great information and sharing your thoughts. I like the idea of the protagonists’ gender being reversed with the “older” woman rescuing the beautiful younger man – and it’s certainly true that she turns him into a replica of her original husband.

      Also fascinating to hear about the heightening of the lighting and colour. Sirk is a director who becomes increasingly compelling the more I learn about him. Thanks again for all this and for spending your time on this thoughtful comment, which is very much appreciated!

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  5. Judy, I also find the film lays the melodrama and soapy elements on a little too thick for my taste. Having said that, the visual style of Sirk more than makes up for it in my opinion.

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    • Sounds as if we are on the same page with this one, Colin. I do agree that the visual style in this is really something – I’d like the chance to see it on the big screen.

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  6. “I’ll admit I stayed dry-eyed. For me the problem is that the soapy plot is just so far-fetched, even by the standards of this genre, and it’s hard to suspend disbelief enough to go with the emotions.”

    I completely understand why you would feel this way Judy, but this is one instance where I must politely express a different view. Sure this is (especially) over the top, but this is Sirk, and Sirk is largely over the top. He’s the pre-eminent stylist with this kind of irresistible melodrama, and he has been aided but superlative contributions by both cinematographer Russell Metty and composer Frank Skinner. I saw this film months ago at the Film Forum as part of the Universal 100th Anniversary Festival, and I actually rated it with five stars (the same rating I handed out to ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and WRITTEN ON THE WIND) and thought it easily superior to John M. Stahl’s 30’s version. However, in a reversal I did and still do think Stahl’s version of IMITATION OF LIFE bests Sirk’s, but I’ll save that discussion for another day after you have had a chance to see it. (or maybe you did see it, and are referring in your review here only to the earlier MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION?) Yes, Hudson and Wyman are wonderful here, and the film is a real treat for fans of the director.

    Again, you have written an absolutely extraordinary piece here Judy!

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    • Sam, you are right to mention the cinematographer and composer, which I failed to do in my piece, as their contributions are vital to the mood of the whole film. I do think it would be bound to make a stronger impression on the big screen and am interested to hear that you think it is superior to the earlier film. I haven’t seen the earlier version of ‘Imitation of Life’ either, but I do love Sirk’s film, so you’ve now made me all the more keen to catch up with the Stahl version as you say it is even better. Thanks so much for your kind comment.

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  7. Judy,
    The remarks made by both Colin and Sam were confirmed in interviews completed with Sirk, himself, well after he had retired –
    “If I can say one thing for my pictures, it is a certain craftsmanship. A thought which has gone into every angle. There is nothing without an optical reason. I never regarded my pictures as very much to be proud of, except in this, the craft, the style.”

    The Auteur explained that he would “take on a lousy project”, just to have a chance to “work my plan”.

    It is the “panache” – the stylish, original and very confident manner in which he has presented his more “appreciated” films, rather than their content, that has attracted the admiration of his peers.

    On his website, “Riding The High Country”, Colin has reviewed MGM’s “House of the Seven Hawks”, directed by the prolific Richard Thorpe who was noted for his ability to get a film completed “on time and on budget; it is interesting to contrast Sirk’s approach to that of Thorpe.

    Judy, I am pleased that you find Sirk “compelling”, as I most certainly do.

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  8. Pingback: Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950) | Movie classics

  9. Pingback: All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) | Movie classics

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