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"Once you find the way, you'll be bound. It'll obsess you. But believeme, it'll be a magnificent obsession."
Paul Cavanagh in Magnificent Obsession
For most of the audience that viewed Magnificent Obsession on itsinitial release in 1954 it was the height of inspirational drama -- thestory of a reckless playboy who redeems himself through selfless, anonymousdevotion to good works. For most of the audience seeking it out today,it's high camp -- a satirical look at the spiritual pretensions of upwardlymobile Americans in the '50s. That one film could inspire two suchdivergent interpretations suggests one characteristic common to cult films,their ability to exist on several often mutually exclusive levels.
The saga of Magnificent Obsession started in 1929, when Lutheranpastor Lloyd Douglas published his first novel, an attempt to makefiction out of his most cherished beliefs. The novel was a runaway bestseller, leading to a series of similar works from Douglas, most notably hisepic of ancient Rome, The Robe, filmed with Richard Burton and JeanSimmons in 1953.
Magnificent Obsession first reached the screen in 1935 as one ofUniversal Studios' premier productions for the year. Irene Dunne, stillthought of primarily as a romantic leading lady, starred as the widow whoselife is ruined then saved by the leading man, a role that helped establishRobert Taylor as a star. With John M. Stahl directing, the film maintaineda sincere attitude toward its subject, making it one of the most profitablefilms of 1935.
With the success of the original version, a remake, although inevitable,seemed highly superfluous. But that wasn't reckoning with a majordirecting talent waiting in the wings. It's not that Danish-born DouglasSirk had never made a major film before. After leaving his career intheatre to direct films for UFA in Germany, he produced a series ofmelodramas, rarely seen in the U.S., in which he developed many of thethemes he would later draw on for his American films. The film'smiddle-class characters were confined and often smothered by their chicpossessions, as their repressed passions burst forth in surprising, oftendestructive ways.
Fleeing the Nazis in the late '30s, he re-settled inHollywood, where he started a long climb back to prominence. After adecade of low-budget films, he hooked up with his ideal producer, RossHunter, to take on the second film version of a novel he hadn't been ableto read all the way through, Magnificent Obsession. The result wasequal parts unapologetic schmaltz and social satire. Sirk placed hischaracters in a world of haute couture and modernist architecture, thenimbued them with intense, primal emotions like figures in a modern moralityplay. Serious critics at the time were flabbergasted, particularly whenthe picture became one of the year's top moneymakers, but by the '70s, hisfilms were being re-evaluated, often hailed as the most trenchant socialcriticism of the '50s.
Helping tremendously were the film's leading players. After years as aglorified chorus girl at Warner Bros., Jane Wyman had emerged as a dramaticstar with performances as a hard-nosed farm woman in The Yearling(1946) and a deaf mute in Johnny Belinda (1948), the latter bringingher an Oscar® for Best Actress. Her performance as a nurse caring forunwanted children in The Blue Veil (1951) established her as thescreen's reigning soap opera queen. Working with Sirk on MagnificentObsession and its 1956 follow-up, All That Heaven Allows, sheemerged as the genre's patron saint. Little wonder she would moveeffortlessly in later years into the prime-time television soap FalconCrest.
And just as it had two decades before, the role of the playboy reformed byfaith turned a Hollywood lightweight into a major star. Sirk had justworked with Rock Hudson (and his Magnificent Obsession co-stars Barbara Rush and Gregg Palmer) in the 3-D Western Taza, Son ofCochise (1954). With his sincere performance in Magnificent Obsession,Hudson rose from standard beefcake roles to become one of the great stars of thedecade. He would re-unite with Sirk and Wyman for All That HeavenAllows and continue with Sirk on Written on the Wind (1956) andThe Tarnished Angels (1958), both films often cited as the director'sbest.
Besides bringing Sirk more opportunities to direct opulent soap operas andmaking Hunter Universal's top producer, Magnificent Obsession hasbecome one of the '50s most influential films. In the '70s, Germandirector Rainer Werner Fassbinder openly acknowledged Sirk's influence onhis own high-octane romances like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant(1972) and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). More recently,director Todd Haynes imitated Sirk's style, along with key scenes andthemes, for his deconstructed soap opera Far from Heaven (2002),starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert. Hong Kongaction director John Woo copied from Magnificent Obsession in TheKiller (1989), in which a hired killer finds redemption by helping awoman blinded when caught in the middle of one of his hits.
One of the more unusual tributes to Magnificent Obsession, however,came from independent U.S. filmmaker Mark Rappaport. His study of the gaysubtext of Hudson's films, Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992),prominently features scenes between Hudson and his spiritual mentor, playedby Otto Kruger, as an example of "pedagogical Eros" in the actor's films.According to Rappaport and other queer theorists, the prevalence ofon-screen relationships between Hudson and older mentors carries adistinctly homoerotic subtext. Well, Kruger certainly does introduceHudson's character to a new lifestyle, though Rappaport's interpretation isprobably far removed from what the Rev. Douglas originally had in mind.Then again, that's another thing about cult movies, they often revealmeanings their original audiences and even some of their creators neverconsidered.
Producer: Ross Hunter
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Robert Blees, Wells Root
Based on the Novel by Lloyd C. Douglas
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Emrich Nicholson
Score: Frank Skinner
Principal Cast: Jane Wyman (Helen Phillips), Rock Hudson (Dr. Bob Merrick),Barbara Rush (Joyce Phillips), Agnes Moorehead (Nancy Ashford), Otto Kruger(Edward Randolph), Gregg Palmer (Tom Masterson), Mae Clarke (Mrs. Miller),Theodore Kosloff (Electricity, "Ballet Mechanique").
C-108m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller