“Once you find the way, you’ll be bound. It will obsess you. but believe me, it will be a magnificent obsession.” Douglas Sirk directed for the soap opera set. Those who have ever enjoyed an episode of Dynasty, Dallas, Melrose Place, or Empire would do well to take a walk back to the 1950s and check out Sirk’s canon of operatic melodramas. His fingerprints are all over modern-day soap operas and no movie is a better example than Magnificent Obsession. A man with a haunted past? A woman with a disability that could be cured, if only the haunted man could muster up the courage to operate? The fact that this man just happens to be a few units shy of being a full-fledged surgeon? Watching Magnificent Obsession will “bound” you and “obsess you” for sure!
Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) is a reckless playboy who crashes his boat on the same day the town doctor dies. Blamed for the death, Bob tries to make amends with the doctor’s widow, Helen (Jane Wyman). Complicating matters, another accident causes Helen to lose her sight. Eventually, Bob changes his life and becomes determined to make Helen’s life happier, the two falling in love in the process.
I’m a fan of Sirkian melodrama, the operatic, and often tangled web of romance, death, and glamour Sirk created. The apotheosis of his career, for me, is Written on the Wind (1956), but I also enjoyed There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) as well. Although Sirk’s movies are often about wealthy white people, the audience is never alienated through the mix of affluence and the familiar. Sirk’s use of choral music – as if these events are ordained by God – and the focus on the home, creates a cozy, cottage effect. These events are taking place in a world both out of time and well within it; showcasing the affluence for those who want a pick-me-up, but injecting enough tragedy that the Schadenfreude pleases the viewer.
This marks the beginning of the films falling under the heading of “Sirkian melodrama” – although, I’ve heard his work is easily recognizable prior to this – and an early starring role for Hudson. The fates converged with these two; they ended up making eight movies together. I haven’t warmed up to Hudson like other fans have. Much like Doris Day – ironic considering their pairings – I’ve found him too perfect and thus rather dull. His goody-goody character in Written on the Wind paled in comparison to the more colorful Hadley clan. Every movie needs a straight man, sure, but he hasn’t given off any specific personality. This earlier pairing allows Hudson a chance to show audiences his range, as he moves from churlish playboy to guilt-ridden drunk before being the redemptive hero. The latter trait latched onto Hudson like white on rice, becoming his persona, but the film’s earlier scenes illustrate his progression to that point.
I have to bring up an element that bugged me about the Bob Merrick character. He is a jinx to everyone he comes in contact with and only half of it is truly his fault. Stay with me here: Bob almost dies in the opening frame, his life being saved by the town’s lone “resuscitator” (is that like a defibrillator?). At the same time, Dr. Phillips, who owned said “resuscitator” dies of a heart attack and Helen and her stepdaughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush, lovely as ever) blame him. His actions were reckless and could have cost him his life, sure; but how was anyone to know that Dr. Phillips had a heart ailment that was going to conveniently happen at that same moment? The police absconded with the resuscitator, so why aren’t Joyce and Helen blaming them? Dr. Phillips probably let them borrow it, why not blame him (he ominously predicted his death to others, though). Bob’s guilty conscience is necessary for his redemption at the close, and he’s definitely more at fault for Helen’s blindness, but her and Joyce come off as over-reactors in the beginning. Ultimately, the lesson to be learned…stay away from guys named Bob Merrick.
Hudson takes over the third act, becoming the male savior for the poor, disabled Helen. Before that, Helen leads the film. Wyman played a blind woman previously, winning an Oscar for her role in Johnny Belinda (1948), and she doesn’t present a caricature of the poor blind woman. During her early learning process she needs help, but she’s never helpless; she’s eager for a cure, and goes through the process of regret and hostility, but refuses to capitulate to it. As a disabled person myself, disability in cinema always plays pathetically, and it’s rare for a character to garner sympathy and not pity. Although Helen was once a “normal,” able-bodied person (the audience has to be comfortable with Helen outside her disability first), being a victim of pity, she goes on with her life as if nothing’s wrong; she still goes to the beach, has fun, and even finds the ability to love Hudson’s Merrick (he does need to work on his alias though, Robbie Robinson?).
Sirk mastered the poetry and pathos of the melodrama, best exemplified in Magnificent Obsession (and Written on the Wind, but we’re not talking about that now). Hudson shows another side of himself, while Wyman’s sensitive portrayal of a disabled woman is refreshing by 1950s standards.
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