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Magnificent Obsession

Magnificent Obsession(1936)

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teaser Magnificent Obsession (1936)

Robert Taylor was a handsome young leading man at MGM with a handful of screen appearances and a bright future in 1935, but it was a film he made on loan to Universal Studios that made him a star.

The 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession by former minister Lloyd C. Douglas had been a best-seller and something of a phenomenon for its message of enriching one's own life through philanthropy and acts of compassion done in secret. The story of redemption and romance was a natural for a big screen incarnation. Universal Studios stalwart John Stahl, a rare director/producer in the 1930s, was given the assignment and it was a good fit for Universal Studio's man of melodrama, who had made hits of Back Street (1932) and Imitation of Life (1934). He would downplay the religious aspect of Douglas' spiritual message and transform the story into a heart-tugging romantic melodrama of personal redemption through selflessness.

Helen Hudson is a newlywed married to a beloved (and much older) doctor whose public generosity was exceeded only by his private acts of charity, which are unknown even to his wife and daughter until after his sudden death (off-screen) in the opening moments of the film. While his death is a result of natural causes, the blame falls to Robert Merrick, a reckless millionaire playboy whose antics prevented life-saving equipment from reaching the aged doctor in time to resuscitate him. To add insult to injury, the self-absorbed playboy amorously pursues the widow while she's still in mourning and keeps up his insensitive attentions with a persistence that finally drives her into a tragic accident.

Irene Dunne (the star of Stahl's Back Street) was cast as Helen and her stardom was the anchor for the picture. The search for her leading man took more time. Though the dapper Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was under consideration at one point, Universal executives found their man when they saw MGM contract player Robert Taylor in Broadway Melody of 1936 (which was actually released in 1935). He was no singer but his good looks and onscreen confidence convinced both Stahl and Dunne that he was right for the role of the recklessly charming and hopelessly irresponsible wastrel who redeems himself by dedicating his life to good deeds and the service of others. The philosophy is delivered by a selfless sculptor (Ralph Morgan) who, in one scene, offers a drunk Robert a place to sleep it off. When Robert wakes up the next morning, he opens his eyes to find himself surrounded by statues of angels and Madonnas, which is both a foreshadowing of the spiritual lesson to come and a humorous sight gag (is he in heaven?). The irony is that the philosophy originates from Helen's deceased husband, who shared it with the sculptor years before and changed the man's life. "It was he who taught me how to get in contact with infinite power," he explains to Robert, introducing him to the philosophy of self-fulfillment through acts of charity performed quietly and in secret. It's the beginning of Robert's redemption from bon vivant to humanitarian, and the first step to repairing the harm he has caused Helen.

Dunne was 35 and Taylor only 24 at the time they made the film but the age difference doesn't seem all that great on screen, thanks largely to Taylor's cocky confidence and almost ageless good looks. When his character makes the transition from self-absorbed playboy to dedicated doctor and committed philanthropist, you can see the guilt and regret in his face and the seriousness in his new demeanor. Once bouncing with energy, he becomes more measured and restrained, a man doing penance for a wasted life and feeling the weight of every sin of his past. Dunne brings both dignity and strength to the role of Helen, who bravely faces every tragic turn with courage and optimism. Betty Furness plays her protective stepdaughter, deft character actor Charles Butterworth (whose dry comic style and deadpan countenance made him look older than he really was) is the "young" man wooing the stepdaughter and Sara Haden (who later played Aunt Polly in over a dozen "Andy Hardy" films) is Helen's best friend, a no-nonsense nurse who tangles with Robert in his playboy days but comes to respect him. Cinematographer John J. Mescall, famed for the shadowy gothic visuals of Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934), shot the film with a cool B&W palette and composer Franz Waxman is credited as "Musical Director."

The romantic tearjerker with a spiritual message became a big hit and catapulted Taylor, up until then a light leading man, to stardom. It was remade almost two decades later by Douglas Sirk, who in some ways was Stahl's heir apparent as Universal's maestro of the melodrama. His 1954 film remained true to Stahl's adaptation, keeping many of the romantic additions and melodramatic complications added for the 1935 film. And as with Stahl's film, the remake raised its male lead, contract player and light romantic lead Rock Hudson, to stardom.

Producer: John M. Stahl
Director: John M. Stahl
Screenplay: Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, George O'Neil; Lloyd C. Douglas (novel)
Cinematography: John J. Mescall
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Franz Waxman (uncredited)
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Cast: Irene Dunne (Helen Hudson), Robert Taylor (Dr. Robert Merrick), Charles Butterworth (Tommy Masterson), Betty Furness (Joyce Hudson), Sara Haden (Nancy Ashford), Ralph Morgan (Randolph), Henry Armetta (Tony), Gilbert Emery (Dr. Ramsay), Arthur Treacher (Horace), Beryl Mercer (Mrs. Eden), Alyce Ardell (The French maid), Theodore von Eltz (Dr. Preston), Sidney Bracey (Butler), Arthur Hoyt (Perry), Cora Sue Collins (Ruth).
BW-102m.

by Sean Axmaker

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