Please 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.”
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 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 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.