Screening Classic Hollywood:  “Magnificent Obsession”

Today on “Screening Classic Hollywood,” I’m going to talk about Douglas Sirk’s 1954 film Magnificent Obsession, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.  The film tells the story of Bob Merrick (Hudson), a careless playboy whose actions inadvertently cause the blindness of saintly Helen Phillips (Wyman).  Merrick, haunted by both guilt and his growing love for Helen, gradually turns his life around, becomes a doctor and, after a period of estrangement, ends up curing Helen of both a debilitating illness and, in melodramatic fashion, her blindness as well.

The film is based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, the pastor-turned-author who was also responsible for the bestselling historical novel The Robe (which was also adapted into a film, released in 1953.  For my review of said film, see here).  Not surprisingly, this film also bears traces of that religious spirit, in the person of Edward Randolph, a thoroughly Christian painter who gradually but inexorably leads Bob to the way of Christ (indeed, it is the Christ-inspired service to others that, Randolph says, will become a “magnificent obsession”).  Though more understated than its biblical epic predecessor, Magnificent Obsession nevertheless shows the ways in which mid-century American culture saw Christian conversion as a means of taming the ribald and undisciplined energy of the hegemonic male into more appropriate channels.  The fact that the act of submission required of male conversion was itself incompatible with notions of dominant masculinity is here at least somewhat ameliorated by Hudson’s strong jaw-line and stoic performance, which betray little of the manic and hysterical intensity of Burton’s portrayal of Christian conversion in The Robe.  

Sirk has become known (some might say infamous) for the biting sense of irony suffusing many of his best-known films.  Often filmed in a colour palette verging on the garish (thanks in no small part to his use of the Technicolor process), Sirk’s films typically take vicious aim at the stultifying and superficial nature of mid-century bourgeois America.  One need only think of the needling rebuke of middle-class hypocrisy of All That Heaven Allows or the exposure of the seedy and deviant sexuality of the upper class in Written on the Wind to see how this often plays out in Sirk’s work.

While some of that is present in Magnificent Obsession–the film sometimes hovers on the tense border between genuine sentiment and cloying sentimentality–all in all I actually found myself quite moved by the film.  Wyman seems less restrained and uptight than in All That Heaven Allows, and this allows her a bit more flexibility in the range of emotions that she can convey, ranging from her initial iciness toward Bob to her moment of tender desperation at the possibility of a cure for blindness and her subsequent resignation.  It would be a heart of stone that would not be moved at Helen’s sad recognition that she must still wear her darkened sunglasses, or her fumbling through her apartment and inadvertent knocking over of a plant (whose piercing crash is jarring in its aural intensity).

Still, there are a few ripples of discontent on the surface of this seemingly placid film.  Agnes Moorehead, who made a career out of playing waspish matrons, brings a fair amount of bite to her character of Nancy, though she does also have a trace of softness and tenderness toward Helen.  What’s more, the scene with the burning witch in a street festival carries with it sinister overtones of the specter of nuclear oblivion that seemed to hover so permanently over most of the 1950s.  And no discussion of a Sirk film would be complete without mentioning the orchestral score (no one puts the melos in melodrama like Sirk).  Indeed, Frank Skinner’s score, full of swells and angelic choruses, is in many instances even more overwrought than the Technicolor visuals.  Of course, this is hardly surprising in a Sirk film, and it provides something of an ironic counterpoint to the otherwise genuine-seeming emotions evoked throughout the film.

All in all, Magnificent Obsession, like so many of Douglas Sirk’s finest films, offers both the pleasures of the sentimental (for those who want it), as well as the bitter bite of irony (for those who desire such).  Truly, few directors have so ably managed to manage what American audiences seem to want and, at the same time, what they desperately need.

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