Friday, February 20, 2009

Universal’s “Magnificent Obsessions”: 1935 & 1954

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I grabbed the chance to run us the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor in the roles far more famously played in the 1954 remake by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and directed by Universal’s 1930’s tear-jerker specialist, John M. Stahl. The script was by Victor Heerman and his wife, Sarah Y. Mason, with a rewrite by George O’Neil, based on a 1929 novel by minister-turned-writer Lloyd C. Douglas, whose enduring fame (such as it is) comes from the movies based on this and another one of his inspirational best-sellers, The Robe.

Magnificent Obsession
is a crazy tear-jerker about an almost saintly doctor, Dr. Hudson (never seen in the actual story), who’s endowed the Brightwood Hospital in upstate New York (“played” by Lake Arrowhead in California). At the start of the story, having been widowed some time before, he’s made a second marriage to Helen Hudson (Irene Dunne), who as the film opens is returning from an ocean voyage to Europe and is understandably eager to be reunited with her husband. Alas, when she gets to the hospital — in the company of Joyce Hudson (Betty Furness), Hudson’s adult daughter by his first wife — she’s shocked to find that her husband is dead; he had a swimming accident and fell in the lake, and though he was alive when he was pulled out he died because a lung resuscitator he’d invented was over at the other end of the lake, being used to save the life of the wastrel playboy Robert Merrick (Robert Taylor), who’d fallen in as part of a drunken party he was having with several girlfriends.

To make things even more complicated, Merrick falls for Helen Hudson at first sight — and, naturally, she loathes the sight of him because, while he didn’t outright kill her husband, he’s at least morally responsible for his death. Anxious to atone, Merrick is told by the sculptor Randolph (Ralph Morgan in an unusually sensitive performance — he was probably relieved at the opportunity to make a movie in which he didn’t play a murderer!) about “an infinite source of great power” that involves what would now be called “random acts of kindness,” doing things for other people without expecting either reward or recognition in return — one of the rules is that the help must be kept absolutely secret. Randolph, not surprisingly given that he’s a character in a novel by a Christian minister, identifies Jesus Christ as the founder of this sort of charity. Merrick tries to carry out the program but in a blatantly insincere way — he gives a high-denomination bill (Stahl’s setup and John Mescall’s camera don’t get us close enough to tell how high) to a homeless person and figures the universe has rewarded him when Helen Hudson shows up and opportunely gets car trouble.

Merrick takes her for a drive, ostensibly home, but when he tries to park out in the middle of nowhere she catches on to his game, insists she’ll walk home, gets out of the car — and just then a passing car in the other direction strikes her and knocks her to the ground. She survives but the back of her skull is fractured and her optical nerve is crushed, rendering her blind. Undaunted by the fact that he’s already caused enough trouble for this family and he really should leave them alone, Merrick continues to cruise Helen, taking advantage of the fact that she can no longer see to pose as a mysterious “Dr. Robert” and get close to her, supplying her with Braille-printed books and at one point taking her to Paris to meet with Europe’s greatest surgeons in hopes that one of them will be able to figure out how to operate on her to restore her sight. When none can, he resolves to go to medical school himself — in the later movie he does so in the U.S. but in this version he stays in Europe for his training (it’s established that when he went to college he took pre-med courses but ultimately decided not to pursue his training) — and in the climax he develops an operation and, after a momentary attack of nerves (from which he’s roused by the sight of Randolph looking into the O.R. through a window — I’m not making this up, you know!) he settles into his groove, operates on his girlfriend and saves her sight. The End.

The 1935 Magnificent Obsession was known to exist but was virtually unseeable (especially by comparison with the almost ubiquitous later version!) until its recent release by the Criterion Collection in a two-DVD package with the remake. Therefore, especially in this context, it’s impossible to judge this movie in isolation or avoid the obvious comparisons. Douglas Sirk’s direction in the remake is highly stylized, with heavily symbolic use of color by cinematographer Russell Metty and ample amounts of mood lighting and artistic framing. By contrast, John Stahl’s direction on the original is surprisingly straightforward; despite having a marvelously atmospheric cinematographer in Mescall (whose vivid chiaroscuro work on James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein and Show Boat helped those movies immeasurably), Stahl has almost every scene take place in full light and keeps going for the most obvious, bread-and-butter camera angles.

The Paris idyll between the (sort-of) lovers is by far the best-looking sequence in the film, full of mysterious half-lights and Universal’s marvelous mittel-Europan sets that only underscores the surprising lack of visual distinction in the rest of the movie. Even odder is the almost complete absence of background music — at times this looks more like a 1931 movie than one from 1935 — aside from the Romeo and Juliet overture by Tchaikovsky heard over the opening credits and a few bits of source music — though Universal had Franz Waxman on their staff and, judging from his music for Rebecca five years later, he would have been more than qualified to write a score for this film that would have immeasurably improved its emotional impact.

One curious aspect of the severity of Stahl’s style — the straightforward photography and absence of a background score — is it does force us to contemplate the moral issues behind the story a good deal more than the stylized Sirk version does; Ralph Morgan’s character sounds more like a lay minister whereas Otto Kruger, playing the same role in the Sirk, comes off more as a precursor of the 1960’s counter-culture, dropping out of the “success” treadmill to pursue his artistic ambitions. The acting is about a wash; Irene Dunne was probably intrinsically more talented than Jane Wyman but Stahl lets her get away with way too much overacting in the big moments; and Robert Taylor has to cope with a conception of his character that made him a good deal more insufferable at the beginning and more unbelievably saintly at the end (Hudson actually does a better job at striking just enough of a note of gravitas that the character’s transformation seems at least a bit more believable) — though frankly neither Taylor nor Hudson were the best imaginable actors for this role at their respective times and I can’t help wishing it had been Fredric March in the 1935 version and Montgomery Clift in the remake.

It also doesn’t help that Heerman, Mason and O’Neil both begin and end their script embarrassingly quickly — the Sirk version gets off to a much more powerful start in that we actually get to see the dual accidents that kick off the story, and whereas I faulted the Sirk version for not showing the point-of-view shot at the end of Merrick being the first thing Helen sees when she actually does regain her sight (an inexplicable omission from an otherwise marvelously stylishly directed film!), the Stahl version doesn’t even give us that much — Merrick visits Helen in her hospital room and notices her sight is recovering enough so that she can distinguish light from dark, he promises her that the rest of her sight will soon come back — and the the film fades out and the end title (a 1940’s-style Universal credit — just as the version of the studio logo was the “New Universal” one from 1937-1946 instead of the airplane logo which would have been on the film originally, suggesting that the source of Criterion’s print was a late-1930’s or early-1940’s reissue) comes up.

Charles made the point that it’s hard to compare the films because much of the difference between them is simply that between the standard Hollywood moviemaking style of the 1930’s and that of the 1950’s (and there isn’t a complicating issue like the one between the Stahl and Sirk versions of Imitation of Life, in which Sirk’s version is again more stylish visually and a good deal better acted, but suffers from eliminating the “Aunt Jemima” story thread and using a white actress, Susan Kohner, as the light-skinned African-American “passing” for white where Stahl had used a Black one, Fredi Washington); the 1935 Magnificent Obsession emerges as a real curio, a quite capable attempt to dramatize a story that’s so frankly unbelievable on its face it really takes all the stylization Sirk threw at it in the remake even to be faintly credible on screen.


The 1954 Magnificent Obsession — a star-maker for both Sirk and his male lead, Rock Hudson [in their third of eight films together — the others were Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1), Taza, Son of Cochise (2), Captain Lightfoot (4), All That Heaven Allows (5), Written on the Wind (6), Battle Hymn (7) and The Tarnished Angels (8)] — is something else again, a grandiose melodrama with religious trappings based on a 1929 novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, a former minister who also wrote a more explicitly Biblical book called The Robe.

The piece had been filmed earlier by director John C. Stahl for the Laemmles’ Universal in 1935, with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne in the leads played in Sirk’s version by Hudson and Jane Wyman. According to Sirk, Wyman brought the project to Universal producer Ross Hunter by suggesting she’d be willing to make a film there if they would remake this property for her; according to American Movie Classics host Bob Dorian, the piece was originally planned by Hunter as a vehicle for Loretta Young, to be directed by Joseph Pevney — only Young turned it down and Pevney dropped out of the project. (Given that the entire plot turns on anonymous altruism as a direct route to “contact with a source of infinite power” — i.e., God — one could readily imagine why a hard-core Roman Catholic like Loretta Young would turn down a movie that dramatized the Protestant belief that one can reach God directly without going through the priests and the Church hierarchy.)

Anyway, Sirk got involved in the project after Jane Wyman agreed to star; he tried to read the book and couldn’t get through it (“It is the most confused book you can imagine, it is so abstract in many respects that I didn’t see a picture in it,” Sirk told Halliday), then read a script outline based on the Victor Heerman/Sarah Y. Mason adaptation for Stahl’s film (Sirk said he never actually screened the earlier version), “wandered around the house in a deep depression for a couple of days, and then, thinking it over, I realized that maybe Jane Wyman was right and this goddamned awful story could be a success. And it was; it topped the receipts of the old Stahl picture by more than ten times; it was Universal’s most successful enterprise for years.” Indeed, it was such a success that two years later Universal brought back stars (Wyman, Hudson and Agnes Moorehead), director (Sirk) and cinematographer (Russell Metty) for a follow-up, All That Heaven Allows, which is a far more coherent and believable story but does not have the — pardon the inevitable pun — obsessive quality that gives Magnificent Obsession the grip it’s had on its makers, its audiences and (at least in later generations — at the time it was released it was the sort of film critics savaged but ticket buyers flocked to see anyway) intellectual film writers ever since.

Magnificent Obsession is such an over-the-top piece of melodramatic storytelling that even Jon Halliday, with his agenda of building up Sirk’s reputation as a truly great director, calls it “an appalling weepie, remarkable for Sirk’s stunning direction.” The story deals with Robert Merrick (Hudson), heir to an auto-company fortune, who once attended medical school but decided it would take too long to become a doctor and offer too little psychological satisfaction. Instead he became an irresponsible playboy, interested mainly in setting speed records. When we first meet him he and one of his many disposable girlfriends are in his hydroplane on an increasingly choppy lake attempting to break the world’s water speed record; after putting her ashore he makes another record run, only to crash his boat and severely injure himself. He’s brought back to life by a heart respirator borrowed from a nearby hospital, but when its inventor, Dr. Wayne Phillips, coincidentally suffers a heart attack of his own the respirator isn’t available because it’s being used on Merrick, so the saintly (almost literally!) Dr. Phillips dies and, quite naturally, his widow Helen (Wyman) blames Merrick for her husband’s death — as does Joyce (Barbara Rush, in a quite good and authoritative performance), his daughter (by a previous wife; it’s established early on that Helen was a second wife and they’d only been married a few months when Dr. Phillips died).

As if that wasn’t enough to stir the melodramatic pot, Merrick starts hanging around Helen, either to win her absolution or to get into her pants (or both), and at one point he gets into her cab, she gets out to get away from him — and at that moment a passing car hits her and leaves her with a brain tumor that renders her permanently blind. This propels Merrick on a new career track; he returns to medical school and also secretly helps Helen financially as well as romancing her (since she can’t see him she doesn’t know who her new lover really is — though one would think she would have recognized his voice well before she does — and Joyce, who sees him with her stepmother, briefly threatens to “out” him but has a change of heart and decides to help him keep his secret); he also sneaks her the money to go to Switzerland where the world’s leading experts on her condition examine her, and though they conclude it’s hopeless finally, when she’s about to die from the tumor, Merrick, now a credentialed surgeon, flies out to New Mexico, performs the operation, saves her life, restores her eyesight and they presumably live happily ever after.

As excessive and over-the-top as this story is (though it’s a celebration of altruism rather than a denunciation of it — that mysterious dialogue about “mak[ing] contact with an infinite power” turns out to refer to the late Dr. Phillips’ practice of secretly giving away his money, swearing his recipients never to reveal the identity of their benefactor, and brushing away their attempts to repay him by saying “it’s all used up” — indicating his desire to give away money until he has none left, which is how his widow finds out after his death that he left her absolutely nothing but the house they lived in, and the interlocutor who explains all this to Merrick — and to us — is one of the most interesting and loosely tied-in characters in the entire story: Randolph [Otto Kruger], an artist Dr. Phillips helped and in later reels almost literally the personification of God on Earth — it has the same quasi-operatic intensity of an Ayn Rand novel), Magnificent Obsession has one welcome attribute: though it may deal with them in a manipulative and ham-handed way it does deal with big philosophical issues (as ex-minister Lloyd C. Douglas clearly intended it to when he wrote the source novel two decades earlier!): why are we here and what does God expect of us?

The haunting quality of the script (however silly it verges on being, and sometimes goes over) conveys a surprisingly radical view of the Christian ethos for a big-budget Hollywood spectacular shot in 1953 and released in 1954: the Christ that artist Randolph evokes as a precedent for Dr. Phillips’ behavior is certainly not the safe, “Establishment” Christ worshiped in mainline Protestantism in mid-20th Century America, nor the success-oriented, go-getter Christ of Bruce Barton’s (in)famous book The Man Nobody Knows. Robert Merrick is a hateful character in the opening reels not just because he’s a playboy but because he has more money than he knows what to do with and he hasn’t accepted the idea of his fortune as a sacred trust with which he’s supposed to help others rather than himself — a conception one would more readily expect in a 1960’s movie than in a 1950’s one, and proof once again that there were quite a few 1950’s artists (many of them very popular with audiences) who were far more cynical of the values of “success” and conformism than the modern-day idolaters of the 1950’s as America’s Golden Decade!

Magnificent Obsession manages the fascinating feat of presenting its outlandish material honestly and not condescending to it (at least not in Sirk’s direction and in the performances he got out of his cast — screenwriter Robert Blees, working from Wells Root’s adaptation of the earlier Heerman-Mason script, was far less sensitive to the subversive implications of the tale than Sirk was; and Frank Skinner, who composed the musical score with some major help from Chopin, sometimes sailed over the top and back again with his Chopin-based arrangements for full string orchestra, piano soloist and wordless chorus!). As Halliday put it right after his admission that this story was “an appalling weepie,” “Numerous demonstrations of lighting, camerawork, music — in short, style — redeem an otherwise atrocious tale.” Certainly this movie wouldn’t still be shown if Joseph Pevney (whose early-1950’s films at Universal-International show a certain command of noir visual style but nothing of the peculiar intensity of Sirk’s!) had directed it with Loretta Young as star!

Sirk’s direction isn’t perfect — I can’t imagine how, in a plot that turns so much on sight (and the lack of same), he missed the opportunity to film at least part of the climax from Helen’s point of view (the sight of Rock Hudson’s face emerging before her from the darkness in which she’s spent most of the film would have been a perfect capstone to a surprisingly moving story) — but he gets superb performances out of his women (Wyman, Moorehead surprisingly sympathetic as her confidante — a role she’d repeat in All That Heaven Allows at a time when every other director in Hollywood cast her only as a bitch) and (as they would later in All That Heaven Allows) Sirk and cinematographer Metty create absolutely astonishing, painterly scenes, so richly colored and so evocative of the story they tell that modern directors and cinematographers should be forced to watch this film before they unleash another dull, dirty-looking past-is-brown drama on us. One quirk of Sirk’s direction is that his experience in German films (even under Hitler) and American noirs taught him the value of these dark, chiaroscuro scenes — and, unlike a lot of other noir directors, he saw the value of an occasional noir visual even in telling a decidedly different kind of story.

And the visual richness is matched by a richness of theme — the “punch line” of this film, if it can be called that, being that having been responsible for the death of the saintly Dr. Phillips, Merrick atones by literally taking his place — as the doctor in charge of the Brightwood clinic; as the secret philanthropist; and, of course, as Helen’s husband. Sirk himself compared the story to Euripides’ play Alcestis (in which the title character is a Greek queen who offers her own life in exchange for that of her husband, killed in war: “The husband hesitates. If he accepts he is ruined. If he doesn’t he is dead. It is an impossible situation”), and it’s fascinating to note the parallels not only to acknowledged “great” literature but to other films. Charles noted the similarity to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in the concept of a super-rich man atoning for his sins by giving his money away — and I thought of two films released shortly after Lloyd C. Douglas published his novel, both of which also quite closely associate secret philanthropy and physical disability: John Adolfi’s The Man Who Played God (another film that, at least to me, transcends its origins as a tear-jerker and becomes quite intense and moving) and Charles Chaplin’s City Lights.

In The Man Who Played God it is the secret philanthropist, not one of his recipients, who is disabled (and the disability is deafness, not blindness), but we are clearly meant to see the protagonist’s change from healthy egomania to disabled altruism as a sign of moral progress. In City Lights, of course, the blind girl’s benefactor is Chaplin’s penniless “tramp,” and he has got the money to fund her operation by stealing (and serving a prison term), so the big last-reel revelation once she sees him for the first time is not that he’s super-rich but that he’s super-poor (and his benefactor was an alcoholic who befriended and helped him when he was drunk and gave him the cold shoulder when sober — an interesting variation on the duality of Robert Merrick’s character!) — but certainly all three films have in common a fascinating interchange of perception and philanthropy, of real and false identity (Halliday, in one of his questions to Sirk, drew the “internal balance between the blindness of Jane Wyman and the false identity of Hudson, so the film has a structure, with contrasting characters, which heightens the impact”), of love and responsibility, of sensual pleasure and spirituality — a remarkably sophisticated conception of humans and their place in the universe for works intended “merely” as entertainment! — 5/5/03


I watched the 1954 version of Magnificent Obsession, which remains one of the great frustration films of all time because it’s better than it has any right to be given the bizarre silliness of the story. The director, Douglas Sirk, was clearly as ambivalent about it as anyone else; asled by Jon Halliday how he could treat a story like that, he said, “You have to do your utmost to hate it — and to love it. … If I had had to stage Magnificent Obsession as a play I wouldn’t have survived. It is a combination of kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness. But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession. This is the dialectic — there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”

As silly as the story is (a 1929 novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, author of The Robe, that had already been filmed by Universal in 1935, with John M. Stahl as director, Victor Heerman and his wife Sarah Y. Mason as screenwriters and Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor as stars — the American Film Institute Catalog reports this as “print viewed,” which means it still exists, but to the best of my knowledge — or John’s — it’s never been shown on TV or revived) — playboy and auto-company heir Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) causes the death of philanthropic doctor Warren Phillips (who’s never actually seen in the film, giving him a sort of god-like quality that no doubt only accentuated Douglas’s clear intent at making him a Christ-like figure in his modern-day religious parable) by tying up the one resuscitator available when he has a motorboat accident; then causes Phillips’ widow Helen (Jane Wyman) to go blind when she flees a taxi where he’s making a pass at her and gets herself run over by a car coming down the road on the other side; to make amends for his actions he picks up his abandoned plans to go to medical school, secretly pays for her care with the world’s top-flight experts on her condition; and finally operates on her himself and restores her eyesight, all under the guru-like guidance of Randolph (Otto Kruger, in a sympathetic role for a change), a successful painter whom the late Dr. Phillips had helped and told of a “source of infinite power” that could be tapped as long as one helped out others without asking for repayment or allowing one’s help to be revealed — Magnificent Obsession fully lives up to the title: there is a quite literally obsessive quality to this plot line that Sirk and his writer (Robert Blees, adapting the Heerman-Mason script for the 1935 film rather than working directly from the novel) and especially his cinematographer, Russell Metty, vividly capture and evoke from a group of competent if not especially great actors.

According to Sirk, the idea of doing Magnificent Obsession came originally from Jane Wyman. Universal, desperate for stars, was anxious to get her to work for them and, after she turned down a succession of scripts they offered her, they asked her what she’d be willing to do and she suggested this remake. (Though I’ve never seen the 1935 film, the AFI Catalog’s plot synopsis suggests the two are very close plot-wise.) Sirk said he tried to read the novel, couldn’t, did accept the story based on a synopsis of the earlier film and insisted on Rock Hudson for the male lead because he was trying to build Hudson into a star and he figured the role would be a star-making part for him (which it was, as the 1935 original had been for Robert Taylor).

What strikes one about the 1954 Magnificent Obsession now is its triumph of style over content; in setup after setup, Sirk and Metty achieve the burnished look of Old Masters’ paintings (especially noteworthy are the twilight scenes in Jane Wyman’s hotel room in Switzerland, where she has gone for consultations with the world’s most eminent specialists in brain lesions, which are so perfectly composed and lit they look like Rembrandt could have painted them ); and the richness of themes Sirk and Blees built into this story. Sirk compared the piece to Euripides’ Alcestis — the classic Greek tragedy in which a woman offers her own life in exchange for her recently deceased husband’s — and it’s clear that the parallel informed his direction and shaped the story towards one in which Merrick actually assumes the identity and unfinished business of the late Dr. Phillips in all respects (as a doctor, as a philanthropist and, eventually, as Helen’s love object). There are plenty of other aspects that add richness to the tale, including the marvelous irony that when she still has her eyesight Helen rejects Merrick but, once she’s blind, he can work his way into her affections — as if being literally blinded opens her inner sight (in Greek mythology blind characters like the seer Tiresias were generally thought of as having unusual powers of perception that visual sight would only have interfered with) to his essential goodness even before he is aware of it himself.

There are glitches in this film — we’re told the story opens in 1948 but the cars we see in the opening sequence are clearly those of 1953 (when the film was shot — for some reason it was held back from release for almost a year after production) — and perhaps a certain bit of opportunism in Jane Wyman’s insistence on playing it (I couldn’t help thinking that her eagerness to play a blind woman on screen may have stemmed from her having won an Academy Award for playing a deaf-mute in Johnny Belinda five years earlier) — and I still can’t imagine how a director so otherwise sensitive as Sirk could have missed the seemingly obligatory point-of-view shot of Merrick as Helen regains her sight and he is the first thing she sees, but otherwise Magnificent Obsession is a peculiarly great film, ably summed up by Jon Halliday as “an appalling weepie, remarkable for Sirk’s stunning direction. Numerous demonstrations of lighting, camerawork, music — in short, style — redeem an otherwise atrocious tale.”

At the same time Magnificent Obsession is also noteworthy for its cynical attitude towards success and its worship; a plot line about a rich man who gives all his money away and goes to his death believing he has profited by the deal in terms of the things that really matter was certainly nervier in 1954 than it had been in the middle of the Depression, and even the explicit identification of Dr. Phillips’ ideals with those of Jesus Christ seems amazingly radical for the time — this is not the “success-oriented” Christ of Bruce Barton and Norman Vincent Peale but the Christ of Martin Luther King and the liberation theologians to follow. In a sense, Magnificent Obsession is a New Age film at a time when the New Age wasn’t cool (though as Charles pointed out the ideals later known as “New Age” are at least 160 years old, and certainly works expressing similar philosophies would have been available to Lloyd C. Douglas when he wrote the source novel), and it seems surprising that such a fundamentally anti-materialist film (albeit one whose visual look is drenched in the characters’ comfortable materialistic world — unlike the similarly plotted Depression-era The Man Who Played God, no one here is in visible want) would have been made in such a seemingly materialistic, success-oriented decade as the 1950’s — and it’s even more surprising that the film would have been such an enormous hit! — 6/28/04