Movie Review – Magnificent Obsession

Magnificent Obsession (1954)
Written by Robert Blees, Wells Root, Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, and Finley Peter Dunne
Directed by Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk discovered a love for the performing arts at a young age. While being born to Danish parents, the future director’s homeland would be Germany. In his teenage years, Sirk discovered Shakespeare and went to the cinema more often. He would speak about this period as introducing him to the intensity of emotion and the drama that comes with that. After that, Sirk studied the law and wrote for his father’s newspaper but kept wandering back to the arts. By the early 1920s, he would be directing stageplays, set on the path the rest of his professional life would follow. But, if you know anything of history, then you know Germany in the 1920s was a prelude to something terrible, and Sirk experienced it in a cruel & painful way.

Sirk fathered a son, Klaus, with his first wife, Lydia Brincken. They divorced when Klaus was eleven years old. (1934). It was during that time when Lydia joined the Nazi Party. Sirk would remarry to a Jewish woman, actress Hilde Jary, and this caveat legally allowed Lydia to bar Sirk from ever seeing their son. Even worse, Lydia allowed the Nazis to turn Klaus into a prominent child star in their propaganda films. Sirk departed from Germany in 1937 because he was a Leftist and wanted to protect his wife. Sirk never saw Klaus again. His son would die in 1944, around nineteen years old, fighting for the Nazis in Ukraine.

Sirk and Hilde wandered around Europe for a bit, spending time in Switzerland and The Netherlands making movies. Upon arriving in the United States, the director secured a contract with Columbia Pictures, and one of his first films was a strongly anti-Nazi picture titled Hitler’s Madman. Sirk would return to Germany briefly after the war ended but returned to the United States, where he would spend the next fifteen years. Eventually, he established a reputation as a director of colorful melodramas, often referred to as “women’s pictures,” with their emphasis on female protagonists dealing with issues of family or romance. And four of these films are what I’ll be focusing on in this review series.

Magnificent Obsession opens with wealthy playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) losing control of his speedboat after recklessly driving it around a lake. Rescuers go for the resuscitator held at the home of local Dr. Phillips. Unfortunately, at the same time, Dr. Phillips suffers a heart attack and dies, something that could have been prevented if the resuscitator had remained there. Phillips’ widow, Helen (Jane Wyman), receives a flood of responses from people in the community who want to pay back loans the doctor had quietly given them over the years. However, Helen learns that the doctor would always tell them “it had already been used up” when they tried to give back the money. Merrick becomes overwhelmed with guilt when he learns his behavior led to Phillips’ death, especially after he sees how much the doctor had helped the community. 

Merrick and Helen cross paths; at first, she doesn’t know who he is. She tells the man she wants nothing to do with him and seeks advice from Edward Randolph, a famous artist, and friend of Phillips. Merrick adopts this philosophy of paying it forward, but his first attempt causes Helen to get hit by a car and become blind. Having made things worse for this woman, Merrick returns to the medical degree he abandoned and works to study the brain to help Helen. Meanwhile, she is spending her days by the lake under the care of her stepdaughter when she falls in love with a mysterious man who claims to be a neighbor. It’s never hidden from the audience that this is Merrick, and the two fall in love. It’s all very melodramatic.

The film was a remake of a movie made in 1935, which in turn had been based on a didactic novel penned by Lloyd C. Douglas, a pastor who based it on a sermon about charity but filled the book with all sorts of rants about The Jazz Age. The way the morals are conveyed in the 1954 movie feels almost like a precursor to the New Age/vibes philosophy of the 80s/90s. It’s not horrible, a message of using the resources you have to help others; it’s presented straightforwardly. However, Sirk doesn’t allow his actors to become maudlin; the performances are restrained. Thus, the characters feel very nuanced & authentic. Sirk’s writers have helped by culling away the avalanche of subplots in the original novel and focusing the story entirely on the relationship of Merrick and Helen, the sort of things that would appeal to the ladies coming to see the picture. It’s a relatable female protagonist and a male lead who falls in love with her at the level of devotion the swooning audience was probably fantasizing about in their own lives. 

For Sirk, Magnificent Obsession served as a sea change, announcing his shift into these Technicolor melodramas. They would not be as straightforward as this genre of movie typically was, and it would become a way for Sirk to voice his disgust with the conformity and bourgeoisie nature of 1950s America. The plot is far more over-the-top than the three other films we’ll examine. Here we have so many coincidences and silly plot twists that it becomes comical from a contemporary perspective. 

Sirk would later comment that it was Jane Wyman who wanted the film remade so she could play the part of Helen. The director would say he never saw the original movie, and when he tried to read the book, it was “the most confused book you can imagine. It is so abstract in many respects that I couldn’t see a picture in it.” Sirk brought Rock Hudson into the picture, having worked with him twice before. It ends up being a potent combination of elements as Wyman and Hudson have remarkable chemistry. That energy between them will carry over into the next film we review and arguably Sirk’s greatest film, All That Heaven Allows.


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