|Directed by||Douglas Sirk|
Magnificent Obsession is a 1954 Universal-International Technicolor romantic feature film directed by Douglas Sirk; starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson. The screenplay was written by Robert Blees and Wells Root, after the 1929 book Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas. The film was produced by Ross Hunter. Sirk sometimes claimed that the story was based distantly on the Greek legend of Alcestis.
Spoiled playboy Bob Merrick’s (Rock Hudson) reckless behavior causes him to lose control of his speed boat. Rescuers send for the nearest resuscitator, located in Dr. Phillips’s house across the lake. While the resuscitator is being used to save Merrick, Dr. Phillips suffers a heart attack and dies. Merrick ends up a patient at Dr. Phillips’s clinic, where most of the doctors and nurses resent the fact that Merrick inadvertently caused Dr. Phillips’s death.
Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman), Dr. Phillips’s young widow, receives a flood of calls, letters and visitors all offering to pay back loans that Dr. Phillips refused to accept repayment of during his life. Many claimed he refused by saying “it was already used up.” Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), a famous artist and Dr. Phillips’s close friend, explains to Helen what that phrase means. This helps her to understand why her husband left little money, even though he had a very successful practice.
Merrick discovers why everyone dislikes him. He runs from the clinic but collapses in front of Helen’s car and ends up back at the hospital, where she learns his true identity. After his discharge, Merrick leaves a party, drunk. After running off the road, Merrick ends up at the home of Edward Randolph, who recognizes him. Randolph explains the secret belief that powered his own art and Dr. Phillips’s success. Merrick decides to try out this new philosophy. His first attempt causes Helen to step into the path of a car while trying to run away from Merrick’s advances. She is blinded by this accident.
Merrick soberly commits to becoming a doctor, trying to fulfill Dr. Phillips’s legacy. He also has fallen in love with Helen and secretly helps her adjust to her blindness under the guise of being simply a poor medical student, Robby.
Merrick secretly arranges for Helen to travel to Europe and consult the best eye surgeons in the world. After extensive tests, these surgeons tell Helen there is no hope for recovery. Right after this, Robby shows up at her hotel to provide emotional support, but eventually discovers that Helen has already guessed his real identity. Merrick asks Helen to marry him. Later that night, Helen realizes she will be a burden to him, and so runs away and disappears.
Many years pass and Merrick is now a dedicated and successful brain surgeon who secretly continues his philanthropic acts, and searches for Helen. One evening, Randolph arrives with news that Helen is very sick, possibly dying, in a small Southwest hospital. They leave immediately for this clinic. Merrick arrives to find that Helen needs complex brain surgery to save her life. As the only capable surgeon at the clinic, Merrick performs this operation. After a long night waiting for the results, Helen awakens and discovers she can now see.
Magnificent Obsession was previously filmed in 1935, also by Universal, as Magnificent Obsession with Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. Sirk began production on Magnificent Obsession, his previous production, Taza, Son of Cochise having wrapped up the month before.
Taza, a 3-D western, also starred Rock Hudson, and it was the second time the two had worked together (the first time being 1952’s Has Anybody Seen My Gal?). Hudson had just begun to start his career at that point, previously playing leading parts in Universal B-movies, usually directed by Joseph Pevney or Frederick De Cordova.
Pre-production scouting for locations began on August 26, 1953 by director Douglas Sirk, Director of Photography Russell Metty, and Unit Manager Edward K. Dodds. Rehearsals began on September 8.Second-unit footage of locations at Lake Tahoe began filming on September 14. A speedboat, “Hurricane the 4th,” was secured for the second unit footage of Hudson’s boat.
Charles Bickford was originally cast in the role of Randolph, but was withdrawn from the cast on September 15. Sirk and Wyman were ill, and Rock Hudson injured, so filming of Magnificent Obsession was delayed longer than Bickford had anticipated. Although the studio and Bickford had come to an oral agreement and trade announcements mentioned Bickford in the role, Bickford had at the same time made an agreement with Warner Bros. for another picture and walked out on the Magnificent Obsession when shooting began on the 1954 version of A Star is Born, in which he played studio head, Oliver Niles. Bickford was replaced by free-lance character actor Otto Kruger.
While second-unit footage wrapped at Lake Tahoe, screen tests of Barbara Rush, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Jane Wyman, Gigi Perreau, Donna Corcoran, and Sheila James took place on Stage 8 in Universal City on September 16 and 17. Director Sirk was ill, and utility director Joseph Pevney filled in. The next day, Corcoran, Hudson and Judy Nugent were tested by Pevney. Test shots were taken in Lake Arrowhead with the new Cinemascope anamorphic lens process, an early consideration. The production started in a flat widescreen process at an aspect ratio of 2:1, at that time Universal’s standard ratio.
Production began on September 21 at Lake Arrowhead with Sirk back in the director’s seat.
Magnificent Obsession was an early starring role for Hudson, and, according to Wyman, he was very nervous. Some of his scenes had to be re-shot thirty or forty times, but Wyman never said a word. Reportedly, years later at a party, Hudson ran into Wyman and said, “You were nice to me when you didn’t have to be, and I want you to know that I thank you and love you for it.”
Frank Skinner composed the music for this film, the theme of which inspired a song of the same title with lyrics by Frederick Herbert. The Four Lads recorded the song with the Percy Faith orchestra. Victor Young also recorded an instrumental version of the song which featured a viola solo by Anatole Kaminsky.
The Glossy Facade Gives Way To A Studio Classic
Looking back on the abbreviated career of Douglas Sirk, “Magnificent Obsession” rises above being just another “woman’s film” or “weepie”. It actually serves as a notable turning point as it is the first in a string of Technicolor melodramas Sirk helmed at Universal-International, as well as one of his most popular. It also kick-started the malnourished career of Rock Hudson and sent his fame into another realm. Despite the film’s lame-brained premise and endless implausibilities, Sirk takes the material and dishes out a sweet, moving drama that is a thinly disguised tale of Christianity.
Hudson stars as Bob Merrick, a millionaire playboy with no cares in the world. His lavish and self-serving lifestyle inadvertently leads to the death of a prominent local doctor, Wayne Phillips. Dr.Phillip’s widow, Helen(Jane Wyman)tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, while at the same time resisting the advances of Bob Merrick. His persistence results in an accident in which Helen goes blind. In a convoluted and corny twist, Bob tries to redeem himself by giving selflessly to others and devoting his life to medicine to find a way to restore Helen’s eyesight.
Every stereotype of every soap opera convention is used in overwhelming doses to tell the story of “Magnificent Obsession”. The “alternative lifestyle” of Christianity that Bob learns is a mish-mash of psychobabble that even the most detail-oriented viewer would find boring and confusing.
And the seriousness in which the actors take the material is eye-rollingly unbelievable. But this film is saved by the always-savvy direction of Douglas Sirk(who himself hated the plot)and an elegant, understated Jane Wyman who brought her own brand of sophistication to every role she played – and was Oscar-nominated for this role. Even Hudson is able to overcome his nerves in his first leading, A-list role to give a performance that is convincing. Sirk’s use of reflective surfaces and a dominating color palette give this movie a look that is undeniably sheen. And Frank Skinner’s classical score takes the ordinary material to an emotional level; although the choral “oohs and aahs” on the soundtrack are a bit pungent for such a quiet film. This is not Sirk’s best work, but it is definitely solid enough to engage first time viewers and a must for fans of the German-bred director’s work.