Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay by: Wells Root, Robert Blees, Finley Peter Dunne (uncredited)
Based on a Novel by: Lloyd C. Douglas
Also Based on a Screenplay by: Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman
Starring: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Otto Kruger, Barbara Rush, Gregg Palmer, Paul Cavanagh, Sara Shane, Judy Nugent, Richard H. Cutting
Country: USA
Running Time: 108 min
Year: 1954
BBFC Certificate: TBC

I originally planned on structuring this review in a completely different way. Criterion’s new release of Douglas Sirk’s 1954 film, Magnificent Obsession comes with Universal’s first stab at Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel of the same name, directed by John M. Stahl in 1935. As such, I was going to review the original film and Sirk’s remake separately. However, I happened to watch Sirk’s version first, for reasons I can’t be bothered to explain, and didn’t think too fondly of it. Then, a week or so later, I watched Stahl’s version and liked it even less. This experience, in turn, made a notable impact on my opinion of Sirk’s film. As such, I felt my review should focus on the 1954 version whilst referring to the 1935 one at the same time, explaining why it helped me better appreciate Sirk’s take on the material.

The 1954 version of Magnificent Obsession sees Sirk regular Rock Hudson play Bob Merrick, a wealthy, spoilt man who uses his family’s millions to enjoy himself. One such pleasure is driving his powerboat as fast as he can on the local lake. This backfires one day when he’s involved in a serious accident.

Merrick is saved when a resuscitator is rushed to the scene. However, we soon learn that the device was taken away from the hospital just before the much-loved Dr Phillips suffered from a heart attack and needed it himself.

Phillips dies, leaving his new wife, Helen (Jane Wyman), and adult daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), in grief. They also discover they’re going to face financial difficulties, as Dr Phillips was an overly generous man who was giving money to anyone who needed it, leaving his family with little to live off, following his death.

After making failed advances on Helen, Merrick discovers who she is and that he’s alive because her husband died. He tries to make amends, following the advice of Dr Phillips’ friend, Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), who learnt a philosophy of selflessness from the late doctor. Helen doesn’t want Merrick’s help or sympathy though and when it seems like the younger man’s intentions aren’t all that wholesome, she bustles out of his car and straight into the path of another.

Though she survives the accident, it causes Helen to lose her sight and makes her life even more difficult than it was before.

Merrick is troubled by this and decides to fully commit to Randolph’s way of life. He assumes a false identity in order to help Helen without her knowing who he truly is and he also goes back to medical school, which he’d quit when he was younger.

Meanwhile, the pair fall in love.

As the synopsis might allude, Magnificent Obsession can be quite an overbaked melodrama. My description above only scratches the surface of some of the contrived or far-fetched plot turns and devices. This is the prime reason I was initially quite turned off by Magnificent Obsession. Sirk’s films are rarely subtle (at least on the surface) and he’s famous for his grand melodramas, but here the boat was pushed out a bit too far for my tastes.

Some of the writing, in particular, felt quite hammy, with obvious information over-stated in the dialogue. However, after watching the 1935 version of the story, I can see that Sirk and his writers, Wells Root and Robert Blees, have made a decent effort to create a more believable narrative. Whilst, in essence, the stories are the same, some small but significant changes have been made to improve the flow.

Some more excitement is injected into Sirk’s film too, most notably in the opening act. There’s no powerboat racing in John M. Stahl’s version or falling in the road from Merrick. The initial setup and, indeed, much of the film, is driven purely by dialogue in the 1935 film, leading to a stuffier, stagey affair.

Sirk’s take on the material, meanwhile, is much more cinematic. As usual in this period of his career, he makes great use of colour, costumes, props and production design in general. It’s not quite as stunningly expressionistic as All That Heaven Allows perhaps, but it’s still a beautiful-looking film and, whilst there are quite a few clumsy lines, Sirk tries to tell the story visually when he can.

There’s much less music in the original too, which scales back the overbaked melodrama, perhaps, but means the film has much less emotional impact. Whilst I found Sirk’s film rather over-the-top, it did still have me fighting back the tears at the end. The 1935 version gave me no such reaction.

I quite enjoyed the lead actor in the original, Robert Taylor. He’s fairly charismatic, in his earlier scenes in particular. I thought his performance was less convincing than Hudson’s in marking his change in character though. Hudson does a better job of showing pangs of conscience earlier on, even whilst portraying a less redeemable character in the first act. Taylor also becomes rather bland once his character becomes more saintly. Hudson, on the other hand, proves that he wasn’t quite as wooden as a lot of critics at the time had called him. Whilst he’s not the greatest actor of his generation, he delivers a fine, fairly nuanced performance here and I felt his character had a greater impact on me than Wyman’s, which was the opposite of how I felt about their later collaboration, All That Heaven Allows. This is likely down to the writing and focus of each story, but Wyman wasn’t quite as eye-openingly impressive here whilst Hudson made me sit up and take notice.

Overall then, whilst I found Magnificent Obsession all a bit much, with Sirk amping the melodrama up to eleven, after watching an earlier take on the source material, I can appreciate the director’s skill behind the camera. His version is cinematically ravishing and, ultimately, emotionally satisfying, even if I wished he’d scaled things back even further.

Film:

Magnificent Obsession is out on 13th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. There are some typical Technicolour alignment issues in the transfer that are from the source material but largely the film looks fantastic, with gorgeous colours and an impressive level of detail. The sound is flawless too.

The film comes with plenty of extra features. These include:

– High-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
– Audio commentary from 2008 featuring film scholar Thomas Doherty
– Magnificent Obsession, John M. Stahl’s 1935 adaptation of the same novel, newly restored
– From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers (1991), a documentary by Eckhart Schmidt
– Interview from 2009 with screenwriter Robert Blees
– Interviews from 2008 with filmmakers Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, in which they pay tribute to director Douglas Sirk
– Trailer
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien

It looks like a short list of extras on paper, but there are some impressive, lengthy supplements here. The biggest bonus, of course, is the inclusion of the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession. As noted in my review of Sirk’s film, I wasn’t much of a fan of John M. Stahl’s original, finding it rather stuffy and the story’s twists and turns even harder to swallow. However, it’s great to have the film included here and it made me better appreciate Sirk’s work in adapting the novel they’re both based on.

The 1935 version isn’t without merit either. Though his change in character is less believable, I quite enjoyed Robert Taylor in the lead role and he brings some much-needed levity to the first half of the film through his roguish behaviour. As the melodrama piles on in the second half, however, the film goes downhill and becomes a bit of a slog.

The other hefty addition to the set is a 1hr 22m German interview with Sirk, which allows him to tell some lengthy stories about his career and discuss his approach. He begins by talking in great detail about how he discovered Zarah Leander and brought her to Germany, before moving on to describe his transition to Hollywood filmmaking. The subjects are linked as he explains how he felt the star system was very important in Hollywood and how his relationship with Leander helped prepare him for this. He talks a lot about Written in the Wind and Tarnished Angels and not much about Magnificent Obsession, but it’s still fascinating to hear Sirk’s thoughts on the filmmaking process.

Thomas Doherty’s commentary does a great job of setting Magnificent Obsession in context, analysing some of Sirk’s techniques and briefly exploring the lives and careers of some of the key cast and crew.

Robert Blees’ interview tells the writer’s story, how his career started and developed, before focusing on his work with Sirk. He reportedly came across the original Magnificent Obsession film and suggested it as a remake project for the studio. He didn’t write the initial adaptation but was brought in to ‘fix’ it. He claims to have worked with Sirk to make the film’s ‘cornball’ plot turns more believable.

In her interview, Alison Anders describes why she loves Sirk’s work so much. I also appreciated her comments on the power of restoration. She gives a great example of why these older films are so much better when watched in a polished, clean and sharp print instead of a ropey, compressed version on YouTube or similar.

Kathryn Bigelow also talks about how Sirk influenced her work. She’d actually met the director and interviewed him for an article. Despite the personal connection, I didn’t find her piece quite as fulfilling as Anders’ though, it must be said. She doesn’t seem quite as clear and confident in what she wants to say, though she makes some interesting points here and there.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.

Despite any misgivings I have about the film, Criterion’s release of Magnificent Obsession is highly commendable and certainly worth the time and money of any Douglas Sirk fan.

Disc/Package:

Magnificent Obsession - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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