Monday, January 21, 2013

Bad Movie Theatre: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

I'm afraid I can't agree with the trailer.
Let me begin by stating that I hold big screen soaps in great affection (I'm always game to revisit A Summer Place). And while I favor director Delmer Daves over Douglas Sirk in this genre, I admire Sirk's classy Imitation of Life  (1959) and his quintessential sudser All That Heaven Allows (1955). So, it's with heavy heart that--after recently rewatching Magnificent Obsession--I must pronounce it a dreadful way to spend 108 minutes.

The film's promotional spots highlighted
Douglas's novel (and Jane's hand).
The plot owes more to the 1935 film version than to Lloyd C. Douglas' best-selling 1929 novel. Rock Hudson, in his first starring role in an "A" picture, portrays irresponsible, millionaire playboy Robert Merrick. Following a reckless boating accident, Merrick is revived with the hospital's only resuscitator. Without that critical piece of medical equipment, philanthropist Dr. Phillips dies from a heart attack. Merrick tries to purge his guilt by writing a $25,000 check to Phillips' widow, Helen (Jane Wyman)--but she refuses the money.

Merrick (Hudson) begins to get serious.
After a drunken Merrick crashes his car, he meets Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), a close friend of Phillips, who shares a common "pay it forward" philosophy. Inspired by Randolph, Merrick tries to make amends with Helen, but inadvertently causes her to be struck by a car...and lose her sight.

One day, Merrick encounters Helen by the lake and the two begin talking. He calls himself Robinson (Robby for short) to avoid revealing his identity. As love begins to grow, Merrick starts pursuing his medical studies again and vows to do all that he can to restore Helen's sight.

Lana Turner in the superior
Imitation of Life.
It's easy to see why a Magnificent Obsession remake appealed to Douglas Sirk. The novel and the earlier film adaptation were character-driven dramas that focused on changing the course of one's life for the better. That's a theme that Sirk explores in later (better ) films. In Imitation of Life, Lora (Lana Turner) progresses from a low-income single parent to a Broadway star--with the help of African American best friend Annie (Juanita Moore). In All That Heaven Allows, affluent widow Cary (Jane Wyman) eventually realizes that true happiness lies with the simple life espoused by Ron, her young, handsome gardener (Rock Hudson). Incidentally, both these films also tackled the challenges of being a social outcast: Ron is rejected by Cary's friends and family; in Imitation of Life, Annie's daughter tries to pass herself off as white.

Alas, while Magnificent Obsession has good intentions, it never comes close to becoming a good film. The screenplay condenses Lloyd C. Douglas' philosophical underpinnings to a ten-minute conversation that sounds like a paid ad for a self-help book. The banal dialogue doesn't help, with my favorite line being Merrick's response to a comment about painting: "As far as I'm concerned, art is just a guy's name." But the script's biggest problem is that nothing much happens after Helen reveals she has known Robby's identity for a long time. There's no conflict in the film's final 40 minutes as it lumbers toward its obvious conclusion.

Hudson and Wyman share an embrace.
Jane Wyman (who was Oscar-nominated) does what she can with her character, but Rock Hudson struggles to get a handle on the playboy-turned-surgeon. I also think he was still honing his skills as an actor, especially given some of his wooden line readings. Magnificent Obsession catapulted Hudson to bigger and better parts (he made Giant two years later)--although I believe his success with this film had more to do with his good looks and earnestness than to his performance.

From a production standpoint, Magnificent Obsession is a blotch on Sirk's otherwise stellar career as a celluloid craftsman. While the color scheme is interesting, the use of painted backdrops and rear screens give the film a cheap look (that said, there are some stunning outdoor shots at the beginning of the film). However, the biggest distraction is the overly melodramatic score by Frank Skinner, which opts for sweeping violins and a chorus of "ah"'s at the tiniest whiff of emotion.

Magnificent Obsession has its share of admirers...and you may be one. (Heck, it was even released in a deluxe edition by Criterion). If you're among its fans, I encourage you to leave a dissenting comment. However, I was obsessed to write this review and state how magnificently lame I found it to be.


  1. Well, I do happen to be one of those who enjoys this film. I'm a sucker for sappy/sentimental films...far prefer tearjerkers/melodramas to comedic films. I also like the Irene Dunne/Robert Taylor version.

    That said, a couple of the movies I completely and totally despise are "Bringing Up Baby," "His Girl Friday," and "The Awful Truth," all of which are very beloved to most classic film fans. So, I am used to being "odd man out."

  2. Merrick tries to make amends with Helen, but inadvertently causes her to be struck by a car...and lose her sight. Zoinks, you weren't kiddin' about soap opera plot! Man, if it turns out they're long lost twins....

    Interesting review! You've got me intrigued. Nothing like a good bad movie!

  3. I confess, I don't care for either version of 'Magnificent Obsession,' neither the 30s nor 50s one. I wonder if the fault may lie in the original novel (which I haven't read) rather than the adaptations? Or is it that the story just seems too riddled with coincidences and schmaltz to be convincing on screen?

  4. Rick...I could not agree more...see the 1935 version by John M. Stahl!!! doctom666

  5. I haven't seen this in years, Rick. I know I saw it in the theater when I was young and probably liked it well enough. Though I'm cringing reading your synopsis of the script. Ha. It really does sound dreadful.

    I do love ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS though. And I liked the film done a few years ago with Julianne Moore which was a kind of homage to Sirk. Heaven something or other.

  6. Rick, I watched the 30s version with Irene Dunne, a favorite of mine, awhile back and found it so weak and unbelievable that it killed any desire to see Sirk's remake. It's interesting that in the earlier version Robert Taylor played the role Rock Hudson had in the remake, because early in their careers both were considered strong on looks and weak on acting ability.

  7. I agree with your assessment of "Magnificent Obsession." In revisiting it recently I was particularly struck by the overwrought, profoundly melodramatic music. Aargh! I am, however, glad that another pairing of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman occurred with "All That Heaven Allows." It is an enormous improvement on the soap formula. Excellent blog, Rick and all!

  8. Awww, dreadful, really? (Sigh). I agree it's nowhere near as good as All That Heaven Allows, but I kind of enjoy Rock underacting and Jane overacting, reuniting with each other and Agnes Moorehead for a soapy slide downward into weepy melodrama...I guess you just have to be in the mood, curled up on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, with a pint of Haagen Dazs on your chest to truly appreciate it.