Magnificent Obsession


1h 48m 1954
Magnificent Obsession

Brief Synopsis

A playboy becomes a doctor to right the wrong he's done to a sightless widow.

Film Details

Genre
Romance
Drama
Adaptation
Release Date
Aug 1954
Premiere Information
Los Angeles premiere: 20 Apr 1954; New York opening: week of 2 Aug 1954
Production Company
Universal-International Pictures Co., Inc.
Distribution Company
Universal Pictures Co., Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Chatsworth--Chatsworth Mansion, California, United States; San Bernardino County--Lake Arrowhead, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas (Chicago, 1932).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 48m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Sound System)
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.00 : 1

Synopsis

In the small town of Brightwood, millionaire playboy Bob Merrick recklessly crashes his speedboat, and after the town's only resuscitator is requisitioned to save his life, hospital head Dr. Wayne Phillips suffers a heart attack and dies without the machine. Hours later, Wayne's wife of six months, Helen Phillips, and his daughter Joyce are horrified to learn that the notoriously rude and heedless Bob has been saved instead of Wayne. Over the next few days, while Bob offends the entire hospital staff with his disrespect and insistence that he be released, a heartbroken Helen and Joyce examine Wayne's office papers, and are baffled at the preponderance of letters thanking Wayne for his selfless help. Just then, Mrs. Eden visits and tries to repay a four-thousand dollar debt to Wayne, explaining that he refused any kind of compensation for his invaluable services with the words "I've already used it all up." Although she still does not understand, Helen refuses the money, but is then dismayed to hear from her lawyer and Joyce's boyfriend, Tom Masterson, that Wayne's estate is penniless. At the same time that Helen leaves for home, Bob sneaks out of the hospital, and she finds him standing, dazed and weak, at the side of the road. Not knowing his identity, Helen drives him into town, and he flirts with her relentlessly until she informs him that she is Wayne's widow. Bob, disturbed to learn that his accident inadvertently caused Wayne's death, tries to leave the car but collapses in the road, and Helen returns him to the hospital, only then discovering his name. The following week, before checking out of the hospital, Bob visits Helen in Wayne's office and offers a $25,000 check, which she disdains as guilt money. That night, a drunken Bob crashes his car outside the home of Wayne's friend, artist Edward Randolph. He passes out on the couch, and the next morning learns from Ed that Wayne's philosophy of life decreed that people can access their source of power, and thus live out their true destinies, only by performing works of great generosity in private and without compensation. Interested, Bob, who desperately wants to earn Helen's forgiveness, practices the theory on an acquaintance who needs money to pay a hospital bill, and is gratified to bump into Helen only moments later. After he announces to her that giving away money will solve all his worries, Helen once again spurns him. While trying to elude him, she exits a taxi into the street and is struck by a car. Hours later, family doctor Derwin Dodge announces that Helen has lost her sight due to a blood clot in the brain. When Bob asks to see her, Joyce tells him he has done enough harm. In the months that follow, Helen adjusts to her blindness, refusing all visits from Bob. Unknown to her, however, he watches her as she reads by the lake with her young friend Judy. One day, Judy inadvertently alerts Helen to Bob's presence, and he introduces himself as Robbie Robinson. While Bob begins to live his life in accordance with Wayne's philosophy, he continues to visit Helen, and the two fall in love. With Tom's help, Bob secretly funnels funds into the hospital account, buys Helen's house to provide her with an income, and then gathers top European neurosurgeons in Switzerland to discern if Helen's sight can be restored. On his next visit, just as a thrilled and unsuspecting Helen informs him that she is going to Switzerland for tests, Joyce arrives and, recognizing Bob, privately urges him to leave Helen alone. Over the next month, Helen sends optimistic letters to Bob, who does not respond but tracks her progress eagerly. When the surgeons finally conclude that there is no hope, a dispirited Helen returns to her hotel room with Joyce and her best friend, Nancy Ashford. That night, Helen's despair keeps her awake, and with Joyce and Nancy out of the room, she breaks down into tears, which are interrupted by a knock at the door. Bob bursts in, and when Joyce returns moments later, she sees Helen's great joy and realizes that she is buoyed by Bob's love. That night, after a whirlwind tour of the city, Bob and Helen dance until dawn, and Bob, encouraged by Helen's clear love for him, reveals his true name. Although Helen admits that she instinctively knew his identity and loves him anyway, she fears that he is acting out of pity when he proposes, and refuses to answer until the following day. Bob is sure that they will now be together forever, but the next morning discovers that Helen and Nancy have disappeared. For weeks, he searches for her to no avail, and when he returns to America, finds inspiration in Ed's description of the magnificent obsession that grows from doing good deeds. Years later, Bob is a successful neurosurgeon who helps his patients both in and out of the hospital, informing them that he "has already used up" any repayment. After delivering Joyce and Tom's baby, Bob returns home to find Ed, who tells him that Helen is in a coma in New Mexico. They rush to her hospital, where Bob discerns from her medical charts that her old blood clot must be operated on in order to save her life. Upon discovering that no one can perform the operation, an inexperienced Bob agrees to do it, but panics just before the procedure begins. He almost backs out when Ed, who is watching from an overhead observation room, catches his eye, and Bob suddenly realizes that this is his chance to redeem his past sins and prove his love. The grueling procedure lasts hours, after which they wait through the night for Helen to recover. When she awakens, she is thrilled first to discover that Bob is beside her, and then to see a glimmer of light, proof that her sight will soon be restored. As Bob informs Helen that now they truly will be together forever, Ed's words about a magnificent obsession resound in his mind.

Photo Collections

Magnificent Obsession (1954) - Movie Poster
Magnificent Obsession (1954) - Movie Poster

Videos

Movie Clip

Trailer

Hosted Intro

Film Details

Genre
Romance
Drama
Adaptation
Release Date
Aug 1954
Premiere Information
Los Angeles premiere: 20 Apr 1954; New York opening: week of 2 Aug 1954
Production Company
Universal-International Pictures Co., Inc.
Distribution Company
Universal Pictures Co., Inc.
Country
United States
Location
Chatsworth--Chatsworth Mansion, California, United States; San Bernardino County--Lake Arrowhead, California, United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas (Chicago, 1932).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 48m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Sound System)
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.00 : 1

Award Nominations

Best Actress

1954
Jane Wyman

Articles

Magnificent Obsession (1954) - Magnificent Obsession (1954)


"Once you find the way, you'll be bound. It'll obsess you. But believe me, it'll be a magnificent obsession."
Paul Cavanagh in Magnificent Obsession

For most of the audience that viewed Magnificent Obsession on its initial release in 1954 it was the height of inspirational drama -- the story of a reckless playboy who redeems himself through selfless, anonymous devotion to good works. For most of the audience seeking it out today, it's high camp -- a satirical look at the spiritual pretensions of upwardly mobile Americans in the '50s. That one film could inspire two such divergent 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 Lutheran pastor Lloyd Douglas published his first novel, an attempt to make fiction out of his most cherished beliefs. The novel was a runaway best seller, leading to a series of similar works from Douglas, most notably his epic of ancient Rome, The Robe, filmed with Richard Burton and Jean Simmons in 1953.

Magnificent Obsession first reached the screen in 1935 as one of Universal Studios' premier productions for the year. Irene Dunne, still thought of primarily as a romantic leading lady, starred as the widow whose life is ruined then saved by the leading man, a role that helped establish Robert Taylor as a star. With John M. Stahl directing, the film maintained a sincere attitude toward its subject, making it one of the most profitable films of 1935.

With the success of the original version, a remake, although inevitable, seemed highly superfluous. But that wasn't reckoning with a major directing talent waiting in the wings. It's not that Danish-born Douglas Sirk had never made a major film before. After leaving his career in theatre to direct films for UFA in Germany, he produced a series of melodramas, rarely seen in the U.S., in which he developed many of the themes he would later draw on for his American films. The film's middle-class characters were confined and often smothered by their chic possessions, as their repressed passions burst forth in surprising, often destructive ways.

Fleeing the Nazis in the late '30s, he re-settled in Hollywood, where he started a long climb back to prominence. After a decade of low-budget films, he hooked up with his ideal producer, Ross Hunter, to take on the second film version of a novel he hadn't been able to read all the way through, Magnificent Obsession. The result was equal parts unapologetic schmaltz and social satire. Sirk placed his characters in a world of haute couture and modernist architecture, then imbued them with intense, primal emotions like figures in a modern morality play. Serious critics at the time were flabbergasted, particularly when the picture became one of the year's top moneymakers, but by the '70s, his films were being re-evaluated, often hailed as the most trenchant social criticism of the '50s.

Helping tremendously were the film's leading players. After years as a glorified chorus girl at Warner Bros., Jane Wyman had emerged as a dramatic star with performances as a hard-nosed farm woman in The Yearling (1946) and a deaf mute in Johnny Belinda (1948), the latter bringing her an Oscar® for Best Actress. Her performance as a nurse caring for unwanted children in The Blue Veil (1951) established her as the screen's reigning soap opera queen. Working with Sirk on Magnificent Obsession and its 1956 follow-up, All That Heaven Allows, she emerged as the genre's patron saint. Little wonder she would move effortlessly in later years into the prime-time television soap Falcon Crest.

And just as it had two decades before, the role of the playboy reformed by faith turned a Hollywood lightweight into a major star. Sirk had just worked with Rock Hudson (and his Magnificent Obsession co-stars Barbara Rush and Gregg Palmer) in the 3-D Western Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). With his sincere performance in Magnificent Obsession, Hudson rose from standard beefcake roles to become one of the great stars of the decade. He would re-unite with Sirk and Wyman for All That Heaven Allows and continue with Sirk on Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1958), both films often cited as the director's best.

Besides bringing Sirk more opportunities to direct opulent soap operas and making Hunter Universal's top producer, Magnificent Obsession has become one of the '50s most influential films. In the '70s, German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder openly acknowledged Sirk's influence on his 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 and themes, for his deconstructed soap opera Far from Heaven (2002), starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert. Hong Kong action director John Woo copied from Magnificent Obsession in The Killer (1989), in which a hired killer finds redemption by helping a woman 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 gay subtext of Hudson's films, Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992), prominently features scenes between Hudson and his spiritual mentor, played by Otto Kruger, as an example of "pedagogical Eros" in the actor's films. According to Rappaport and other queer theorists, the prevalence of on-screen relationships between Hudson and older mentors carries a distinctly homoerotic subtext. Well, Kruger certainly does introduce Hudson's character to a new lifestyle, though Rappaport's interpretation is probably far removed from what the Rev. Douglas originally had in mind. Then again, that's another thing about cult movies, they often reveal meanings their original audiences and even some of their creators never considered.

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
Magnificent Obsession (1954)  - Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Magnificent Obsession (1954) - Magnificent Obsession (1954)

"Once you find the way, you'll be bound. It'll obsess you. But believe me, it'll be a magnificent obsession." Paul Cavanagh in Magnificent Obsession For most of the audience that viewed Magnificent Obsession on its initial release in 1954 it was the height of inspirational drama -- the story of a reckless playboy who redeems himself through selfless, anonymous devotion to good works. For most of the audience seeking it out today, it's high camp -- a satirical look at the spiritual pretensions of upwardly mobile Americans in the '50s. That one film could inspire two such divergent 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 Lutheran pastor Lloyd Douglas published his first novel, an attempt to make fiction out of his most cherished beliefs. The novel was a runaway best seller, leading to a series of similar works from Douglas, most notably his epic of ancient Rome, The Robe, filmed with Richard Burton and Jean Simmons in 1953. Magnificent Obsession first reached the screen in 1935 as one of Universal Studios' premier productions for the year. Irene Dunne, still thought of primarily as a romantic leading lady, starred as the widow whose life is ruined then saved by the leading man, a role that helped establish Robert Taylor as a star. With John M. Stahl directing, the film maintained a sincere attitude toward its subject, making it one of the most profitable films of 1935. With the success of the original version, a remake, although inevitable, seemed highly superfluous. But that wasn't reckoning with a major directing talent waiting in the wings. It's not that Danish-born Douglas Sirk had never made a major film before. After leaving his career in theatre to direct films for UFA in Germany, he produced a series of melodramas, rarely seen in the U.S., in which he developed many of the themes he would later draw on for his American films. The film's middle-class characters were confined and often smothered by their chic possessions, as their repressed passions burst forth in surprising, often destructive ways. Fleeing the Nazis in the late '30s, he re-settled in Hollywood, where he started a long climb back to prominence. After a decade of low-budget films, he hooked up with his ideal producer, Ross Hunter, to take on the second film version of a novel he hadn't been able to read all the way through, Magnificent Obsession. The result was equal parts unapologetic schmaltz and social satire. Sirk placed his characters in a world of haute couture and modernist architecture, then imbued them with intense, primal emotions like figures in a modern morality play. Serious critics at the time were flabbergasted, particularly when the picture became one of the year's top moneymakers, but by the '70s, his films were being re-evaluated, often hailed as the most trenchant social criticism of the '50s. Helping tremendously were the film's leading players. After years as a glorified chorus girl at Warner Bros., Jane Wyman had emerged as a dramatic star with performances as a hard-nosed farm woman in The Yearling (1946) and a deaf mute in Johnny Belinda (1948), the latter bringing her an Oscar® for Best Actress. Her performance as a nurse caring for unwanted children in The Blue Veil (1951) established her as the screen's reigning soap opera queen. Working with Sirk on Magnificent Obsession and its 1956 follow-up, All That Heaven Allows, she emerged as the genre's patron saint. Little wonder she would move effortlessly in later years into the prime-time television soap Falcon Crest. And just as it had two decades before, the role of the playboy reformed by faith turned a Hollywood lightweight into a major star. Sirk had just worked with Rock Hudson (and his Magnificent Obsession co-stars Barbara Rush and Gregg Palmer) in the 3-D Western Taza, Son of Cochise (1954). With his sincere performance in Magnificent Obsession, Hudson rose from standard beefcake roles to become one of the great stars of the decade. He would re-unite with Sirk and Wyman for All That Heaven Allows and continue with Sirk on Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1958), both films often cited as the director's best. Besides bringing Sirk more opportunities to direct opulent soap operas and making Hunter Universal's top producer, Magnificent Obsession has become one of the '50s most influential films. In the '70s, German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder openly acknowledged Sirk's influence on his 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 and themes, for his deconstructed soap opera Far from Heaven (2002), starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert. Hong Kong action director John Woo copied from Magnificent Obsession in The Killer (1989), in which a hired killer finds redemption by helping a woman 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 gay subtext of Hudson's films, Rock Hudson's Home Movies (1992), prominently features scenes between Hudson and his spiritual mentor, played by Otto Kruger, as an example of "pedagogical Eros" in the actor's films. According to Rappaport and other queer theorists, the prevalence of on-screen relationships between Hudson and older mentors carries a distinctly homoerotic subtext. Well, Kruger certainly does introduce Hudson's character to a new lifestyle, though Rappaport's interpretation is probably far removed from what the Rev. Douglas originally had in mind. Then again, that's another thing about cult movies, they often reveal meanings their original audiences and even some of their creators never considered. 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

Magnificent Obsession - Jane Wyman & Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk's 1954 version of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION


You could call Magnificent Obsession the defining film in the career of the Douglas Sirk, the German-born director who came to cinema from avant-garde theater and found an unlikely marriage of the two in a string of Hollywood melodramas. It was a long road to find and perfect that alchemy. Sirk was born in 1900 to Danish parents in Hamburg, Germany. He had become one of the most successful directors at Germany's state-run UFA studios when he fled Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife in 1937. He eventually landed in Hollywood and moved between genres and studios until the continental sophisticate found a home at Universal Studios, turning out bubbly Americana and romantic comedies with a light touch and a hearty affection for the trappings of social conventions and domestic drama. It was there that he first teamed up with Ross Hunter, who proved to have an unerring instinct for commercial properties, and Universal contract player Rock Hudson, who Sirk helped transform into a leading man and rising star. Everything came together when Hunter put Sirk and Hudson together with leading lady Jane Wyman. She wanted to star in a remake of the 1935 melodrama Magnificent Obsession, based on the 1929 best-selling novel by Congregationalist pastor Lloyd C. Douglas. Sirk was resistant to the project at first ("Ross Hunter gave me the book and I tried to read it, but I just couldn't," he revealed to Jon Halliday in the interview book Sirk on Sirk. "It is the most confused book you can imagine...") and was still dubious when he read the treatment, which was based more on Stahl's film (which Sirk had never seen) than the book. "My immediate reaction to Magnificent Obsession was bewilderment and discouragement. But still I was attracted by something irrational in it. Something mad, in a way – well, obsessed, because this is a damned crazy story if there ever was one."

The film opens on the buzzing a speedboat charging across a jewel of a lake. Arrogant, self-absorbed millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) is doing what he does best: disrupting the natural calm and beauty with his whims and impulses. When this reckless adrenaline junkie cracks up on the water, the measures taken to save his life result in the death of a self-sacrificing doctor and all-around humanitarian, a veritable saint and the husband of almost newlywed Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman). She's preparing their anniversary party when she comes home to find him dead because his respirator was needed to save Bob Merrick from his rash, childish stunts. "A complete waste," echoes the chorus of disapproval, which only sends Bob on a bender and into another crack-up, this one at the home of paternal painter Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), lifelong friend of the deceased doctor and a proponent of a spiritual philosophy of secret charity and self-sacrifice. In the original novel and 1935 film, this "magnificent obsession" is a specifically Christian ideal. It's introduced here with references to Jesus while a choir of heavenly voices rises on the soundtrack like a benediction, but the explanation is all in secular terms and the film is decidedly focused about mortal (if rarified) emotions.

Bob tries to ease his conscience with a check to the widow (written out as a donation to the hospital), and then by trying out this secret charity thing, sort of like gambling on a number to see if it pays off. And sure enough, he sees Helen again and, with little preamble, starts putting the make on her (barely a week since her husband's death). It doesn't just end badly, he literally drives her into a terrible accident that leaves her blind. It's the beginning of a serious soul-searching and his transformation from playboy to dedicated doctor and secret humanitarian, with a plot that includes Bob hiding his identity to romance Helen and spending his fortune to get her the best medical care in the world. The plot is a contrivance, a trial for our characters to suffer through and come out the other end "earning" their ultimate happiness, and Sirk embraces the outrageous twists and reflexive, irrational, emotional responses.

Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda) receives top billing as Helen, playing the part with a quiet sadness and a plucky mask of cheery hopefulness hiding her slip into depression and hopelessness. Multiple Oscar nominee Agnes Moorehead, who came to Hollywood as part of Orson Welles' company of Mercury Players, is her best friend and devoted nurse, a take-charge character who takes no guff from playboy Bob. Otto Kruger, a character actor who played his share of sinister Nazi roles in the war years, is altogether more kindly and fatherly as the charitable painter who becomes Bob's mentor. And the film made a star of Rock Hudson, who went on to become Sirk's perfect leading man: solid, stolid, pretty and a little bland, whether he's the preening, self-absorbed playboy or the soulful philanthropist who has given into the magnificent obsession of service and generosity. He's seven years younger than Wyman and, though nothing is made of the apparent age difference, he's very much the object of desire here while she's the suffering saint.

While never a slave to realism, Sirk uses the studio resources and the Technicolor palette to transform the screen into a canvas of exaggerated sets and artificially recreated settings. The lakeside village of Brightwood is a sleepy little place in the heart of God's country: part idyllic, unspoiled small town, part playground for the rich, all wooded and bright. But apart from a few location shots, the Eden-like town is artificially created in the movie studio to give the director a painter's control of his backdrop. And paint he does, embracing the unreal hues and playing with his lighting schemes as if he was directing a piece of expressionist theater. "You must never forget that this is not reality," he explained in an interview. "This is a motion picture. It is a tale you are telling." His lighting is not expressive of the physical world but of the emotional temperature of the scenes, rising and falling like the lush score. When Helen loses all hope of regaining her sight, the room around her is suddenly swallowed in shadow, even though the previous scene was brightly lit in the classic Hollywood manner. Yet for all its artificiality, he never breaks the spell of his heightened world of American affluence and emotional turmoil, or of his fantasy of picture-postcard Europe. When Bob arrives to pick up Helen's spirits (brightening the room by his very arrival – apparently the dimmers are powered by the human glow of desire), he takes her for a tour of the local countryside (narrating the sights for her), ending up in an idyllic Swiss village. It is, of course, yet another studio creation, this one of a timeless European town of ancient stone masonry and a cobblestone town square where the peasants celebrate the harvest with a roaring bonfire that stands in for the lovers' unspoken passions.

Sirk never denies the overwrought emotions and mawkish sentimentality; he pours on the exaggeration and irony in equal doses. The film's unreal exaggerations offer a fantasy world of beautiful people and tortured emotions and audiences willingly and eagerly surrendered to his American opera. Magnificent Obsession was Universal's top-grossing film of the year, a smash hit that prompted Universal to immediately reteam Sirk and his stars in All That Heaven Allows. Yet the film was critically snubbed on release and dismissed for years as a mere woman's picture, a "weepy." It wasn't until after he left Hollywood at the height of his success that Sirk's operatic heightening of the conventions of Hollywood melodrama was recognized. But whether you view it as a committed melodrama with a visual style rife with emotional metaphors bordering on the surreal or an expressionist exaggeration of genre conventions – or both – this cinematic aria is just as irresistible and expressive today as it was in 1954.

Criterion's two-disc edition is beautifully mastered at a "Superscope" widescreen ratio of 2.00:1 from an excellent print, sharp and clear and saturated in the magnificent hues of Technicolor (apart from a few brief shots, lasting only seconds, of soft, oversaturated footage from what appears to be an inferior print). The commentary by film scholar Thomas Dohery is well researched and prepared, and his presentation is engaging and accessible. Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow offer tributes to Sirk and his influence on their work in short video interviews. The second disc features a fine print of the original 1935 adaptation of the Lloyd Douglas novel directed by John Stahl and starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, and the 1991 feature-length documentary From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers, featuring on-camera interviews with Sirk (speaking in German, with English subtitles). The accompanying booklet features an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien.

For more information about Magnificent Obsession, visit Criterion Collection. To order Magnificent Obsession, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker

Magnificent Obsession - Jane Wyman & Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk's 1954 version of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

You could call Magnificent Obsession the defining film in the career of the Douglas Sirk, the German-born director who came to cinema from avant-garde theater and found an unlikely marriage of the two in a string of Hollywood melodramas. It was a long road to find and perfect that alchemy. Sirk was born in 1900 to Danish parents in Hamburg, Germany. He had become one of the most successful directors at Germany's state-run UFA studios when he fled Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife in 1937. He eventually landed in Hollywood and moved between genres and studios until the continental sophisticate found a home at Universal Studios, turning out bubbly Americana and romantic comedies with a light touch and a hearty affection for the trappings of social conventions and domestic drama. It was there that he first teamed up with Ross Hunter, who proved to have an unerring instinct for commercial properties, and Universal contract player Rock Hudson, who Sirk helped transform into a leading man and rising star. Everything came together when Hunter put Sirk and Hudson together with leading lady Jane Wyman. She wanted to star in a remake of the 1935 melodrama Magnificent Obsession, based on the 1929 best-selling novel by Congregationalist pastor Lloyd C. Douglas. Sirk was resistant to the project at first ("Ross Hunter gave me the book and I tried to read it, but I just couldn't," he revealed to Jon Halliday in the interview book Sirk on Sirk. "It is the most confused book you can imagine...") and was still dubious when he read the treatment, which was based more on Stahl's film (which Sirk had never seen) than the book. "My immediate reaction to Magnificent Obsession was bewilderment and discouragement. But still I was attracted by something irrational in it. Something mad, in a way – well, obsessed, because this is a damned crazy story if there ever was one." The film opens on the buzzing a speedboat charging across a jewel of a lake. Arrogant, self-absorbed millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) is doing what he does best: disrupting the natural calm and beauty with his whims and impulses. When this reckless adrenaline junkie cracks up on the water, the measures taken to save his life result in the death of a self-sacrificing doctor and all-around humanitarian, a veritable saint and the husband of almost newlywed Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman). She's preparing their anniversary party when she comes home to find him dead because his respirator was needed to save Bob Merrick from his rash, childish stunts. "A complete waste," echoes the chorus of disapproval, which only sends Bob on a bender and into another crack-up, this one at the home of paternal painter Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), lifelong friend of the deceased doctor and a proponent of a spiritual philosophy of secret charity and self-sacrifice. In the original novel and 1935 film, this "magnificent obsession" is a specifically Christian ideal. It's introduced here with references to Jesus while a choir of heavenly voices rises on the soundtrack like a benediction, but the explanation is all in secular terms and the film is decidedly focused about mortal (if rarified) emotions. Bob tries to ease his conscience with a check to the widow (written out as a donation to the hospital), and then by trying out this secret charity thing, sort of like gambling on a number to see if it pays off. And sure enough, he sees Helen again and, with little preamble, starts putting the make on her (barely a week since her husband's death). It doesn't just end badly, he literally drives her into a terrible accident that leaves her blind. It's the beginning of a serious soul-searching and his transformation from playboy to dedicated doctor and secret humanitarian, with a plot that includes Bob hiding his identity to romance Helen and spending his fortune to get her the best medical care in the world. The plot is a contrivance, a trial for our characters to suffer through and come out the other end "earning" their ultimate happiness, and Sirk embraces the outrageous twists and reflexive, irrational, emotional responses. Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda) receives top billing as Helen, playing the part with a quiet sadness and a plucky mask of cheery hopefulness hiding her slip into depression and hopelessness. Multiple Oscar nominee Agnes Moorehead, who came to Hollywood as part of Orson Welles' company of Mercury Players, is her best friend and devoted nurse, a take-charge character who takes no guff from playboy Bob. Otto Kruger, a character actor who played his share of sinister Nazi roles in the war years, is altogether more kindly and fatherly as the charitable painter who becomes Bob's mentor. And the film made a star of Rock Hudson, who went on to become Sirk's perfect leading man: solid, stolid, pretty and a little bland, whether he's the preening, self-absorbed playboy or the soulful philanthropist who has given into the magnificent obsession of service and generosity. He's seven years younger than Wyman and, though nothing is made of the apparent age difference, he's very much the object of desire here while she's the suffering saint. While never a slave to realism, Sirk uses the studio resources and the Technicolor palette to transform the screen into a canvas of exaggerated sets and artificially recreated settings. The lakeside village of Brightwood is a sleepy little place in the heart of God's country: part idyllic, unspoiled small town, part playground for the rich, all wooded and bright. But apart from a few location shots, the Eden-like town is artificially created in the movie studio to give the director a painter's control of his backdrop. And paint he does, embracing the unreal hues and playing with his lighting schemes as if he was directing a piece of expressionist theater. "You must never forget that this is not reality," he explained in an interview. "This is a motion picture. It is a tale you are telling." His lighting is not expressive of the physical world but of the emotional temperature of the scenes, rising and falling like the lush score. When Helen loses all hope of regaining her sight, the room around her is suddenly swallowed in shadow, even though the previous scene was brightly lit in the classic Hollywood manner. Yet for all its artificiality, he never breaks the spell of his heightened world of American affluence and emotional turmoil, or of his fantasy of picture-postcard Europe. When Bob arrives to pick up Helen's spirits (brightening the room by his very arrival – apparently the dimmers are powered by the human glow of desire), he takes her for a tour of the local countryside (narrating the sights for her), ending up in an idyllic Swiss village. It is, of course, yet another studio creation, this one of a timeless European town of ancient stone masonry and a cobblestone town square where the peasants celebrate the harvest with a roaring bonfire that stands in for the lovers' unspoken passions. Sirk never denies the overwrought emotions and mawkish sentimentality; he pours on the exaggeration and irony in equal doses. The film's unreal exaggerations offer a fantasy world of beautiful people and tortured emotions and audiences willingly and eagerly surrendered to his American opera. Magnificent Obsession was Universal's top-grossing film of the year, a smash hit that prompted Universal to immediately reteam Sirk and his stars in All That Heaven Allows. Yet the film was critically snubbed on release and dismissed for years as a mere woman's picture, a "weepy." It wasn't until after he left Hollywood at the height of his success that Sirk's operatic heightening of the conventions of Hollywood melodrama was recognized. But whether you view it as a committed melodrama with a visual style rife with emotional metaphors bordering on the surreal or an expressionist exaggeration of genre conventions – or both – this cinematic aria is just as irresistible and expressive today as it was in 1954. Criterion's two-disc edition is beautifully mastered at a "Superscope" widescreen ratio of 2.00:1 from an excellent print, sharp and clear and saturated in the magnificent hues of Technicolor (apart from a few brief shots, lasting only seconds, of soft, oversaturated footage from what appears to be an inferior print). The commentary by film scholar Thomas Dohery is well researched and prepared, and his presentation is engaging and accessible. Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow offer tributes to Sirk and his influence on their work in short video interviews. The second disc features a fine print of the original 1935 adaptation of the Lloyd Douglas novel directed by John Stahl and starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, and the 1991 feature-length documentary From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers, featuring on-camera interviews with Sirk (speaking in German, with English subtitles). The accompanying booklet features an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien. For more information about Magnificent Obsession, visit Criterion Collection. To order Magnificent Obsession, go to TCM Shopping. by Sean Axmaker

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Although Barbara Rush is billed before Agnes Moorehead and Otto Kruger in the opening credits, she is listed after them in the closing credits. According to a contemporary interview with director Douglas Sirk, Jane Wyman approached him with the idea of adapting the Lloyd C. Douglas novel Magnificent Obsession, which Universal had previously made into a film in 1936, directed by John M. Stahl and starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40). Sirk stated that although he found the novel "abstract" and "confused," an outline by producer Ross Hunter, based on the 1936 picture, convinced him that the story was filmable.
       A December 1952 Los Angeles Examiner news item announced that Joan Crawford and Olivia De Havilland were being considered for the role of "Helen Phillips," and a March 1953 Hollywood Reporter "Rambling Reporter" column listed Eleanor Parker as a casting choice. According to a February 1935 Los Angeles Times article, Jeff Chandler was considered for the role of "Bob Merrick." In addition, Hollywood Reporter announced in June 1953 that Charles Bickford was to play "Edward Randolph," a role subsequently assigned to Otto Kruger. Universal borrowed Wyman from Warner Bros. for this film.
       Studio press materials and Hollywood Reporter news items add Emmy Lou Kelley and Guy Doleman to the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. According to press materials, some scenes were shot at Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County, CA, while a September Hollywood Reporter news item identifies the Phillipses home as the Chatsworth Mansion in Chatsworth, CA. Wyman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, but lost to Grace Kelly for her performance in The Country Girl. Magnificent Obsession was the first of two films to star Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson; the second was 1955's All That Heaven Allows, also directed by Douglas Sirk.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States July 1999

Released in United States Summer August 1954

Remake of "Magnificent Obsession" (1935) directed by John Stahl.

Began shooting September 1953.

Completed shooting October 1953.

Released in United States July 1999 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Universal Sirk" July 9-22, 1999.)

Released in United States Summer August 1954