Program Notes: The Magnificent Obsession (1954)
Resolved: The Magnificent Obsession is Hollywood hyper-melodrama at its greatest.
Resolved: The Magnificent Obsession is the most ridiculous movie ever made.
A solid case can be made for both of these viewpoints.
Douglas Sirk’s 1954 box office smash can evoke both world-class romantic swooning and forehead-slapping disbelief.
Sirk (1897-1987) specialized in what have been disparaged as “women’s pictures” (All I Desire, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life). But while his work drips with oversaturated emotions (and colors), this German immigrant was also a brilliant film technician who organized his frames with the precision of an Old Master. (Some would argue that his films are best watched with the sound turned off.)
Sirk was aware that dramatically the material he often was given was pretty awful. In fact, he didn’t want to make The Magnificent Obsession but was required to by his contract with Universal.
So he dived into the project, noting later that Shakespeare made a career of turning unremarkable plots into great art. The Bard did so though his use of the English language. Sirk attempted it with cinematic language.
So even if you find his films narratively laughable, visually each is jammed with tour de force moments.
Obsession — it was the second film based on the best-seller by minister/novelist Lloyd C. Douglas (The Robe, The Big Fisherman) — centers on rich, spoiled playboy Robert Merrick (Rock Hudson in the role that made him a star).
Through his reckless speedboat driving Merrick inadvertently contributes to the death of a much-beloved physician. It slowly dawns on this rich idiot that he’s been living his life all wrong.
He decides to use his millions for good...he’s sort of like Elvis wandering the streets in December giving away pink Cadillacs.
And in addition to becoming a one-man charity, Merrick becomes obsessed with the late physician’s wife, Helen (Jane Wyman in an Oscar-nominated turn).
Even here this doofus messes up, contributing to an auto accident that leaves Helen blind. But at least he can now pursue the sightless woman under a false identity (since she might not be too crazy about being wooed by the man who made her a widow).
Merrick also finds a mentor in a sage old pipe puffer (Otto Kruger), from whom he learns not only about the saint-like life of Helen’s late husband, but also of his religious philosophy, something about establishing contact with “a source of infinite power.” Given that author Douglas was a Lutheran minister, you might assume he’s talking about Christianity. But everything in this film is presented in code. So it’s a kind of vague, New Age-y version of Christianity without all that pesky dogma.
You can tell the film has spiritual ambitions because the big emotional moments are accompanied by the offscreen “aaaaahhhhh”-ing of a heavenly choir...it’s almost like a sword-and-sandal Biblical epic.
Obsession was such a hit that Hudson and Sirk teamed up for a half dozen other movies. And Sirk, despite his reputation as a maker of “weepies,” managed to cram into his four decades of filmmaking a fair number of “macho” movies like Taza, Son of Cochise, Captain Lightfoot, Battle Hymn, A Time to Love and a Time to Die and The Tarnished Angels.
Perhaps he considered them palate cleansers.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.