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Criterion Collection honors have fallen on Douglas Sirk before, with his high-octane 50's soap operas All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. Beloved by critical studies film graduates for their easily outlined visual themes, Sirk's movies were immensely popular when new. 1954's Magnificent Obsession stands apart as one of the highpoints of 1950s kitsch insanity. It's a ghastly blend of outrageous plotting in support of a strange self-realization "philosophy".
Magnificent Obsession is a remake of an only marginally less grotesque 1935 film. Universal adapted Lutheran-ordained minister Lloyd C. Douglas's 1929 novel into a glossy, artificial soaper that downplayed the miraculous aspect of the story in favor of absurd melodrama. The 1935 Magnificent Obsession (included in Criterion's 2-disc set) is a rickety stack of accidents and ironies. 1
(Spoilers follow.) A famous brain surgeon dies because a needed resuscitation device is being used to save the life of an irresponsible playboy. The playboy at first brushes off his responsibility, but is drawn to the surgeon's young widow. His thoughtlessly unwelcome attentions inadvertently lead to another terrible accident, in which the widow is blinded. Inspired by the dead surgeon's philosophy, the young playboy helps the widow from afar, completes his medical school training and becomes a prominent surgeon himself. When he finally finds his lost love, he restores her sight. 2
If the plot sounds preposterous, rest assured that it is. One lightning-fast ellipsis jumps over a number of years, instantly transforming Robert Taylor's playboy into a Nobel Prize-winning (!) surgeon. The utterly charming Irene Dunne is left adrift in a plot that effects a transcendent finish by curing a serious handicap. Comedy relief is sandwiched in between the sober sermonizing and sacrificial nobility. It's all a sublimated fantasy of erotic longing. Audiences apparently ate it up.
By the 1950s, when star Jane Wyman was looking for a hot vehicle, Magnificent Obsession must have seemed just the ticket. Wyman's stint as the deaf mute in Johnny Belinda had scored an Oscar. Playing blind was probably a more desirable alternative than losing a leg, as James Stewart had done in 1949's The Stratton Story. Stories about serious handicaps are a genre unto their own.
Sirk's 1954 remake of Magnificent Obsession is a fascinating cultural aberration. The story has been fleshed out with much more oddball philosophy. With a strange smile on his face, Otto Kruger drifts in and out of scenes lecturing about a magical secret of happiness and self improvement that involves contacting one's "power source". One's "power" can be accessed by helping other people, but only in secret. Unfortunately, what we see is a contrite millionaire playboy -- now played by the handsome Rock Hudson -- manipulating the widow's life behind her back. The rest of the characters seem to think this is the way one expresses love, but that's nothing odd, because they all seem to exist in a fantasy bubble of maudlin emotions and noble self-sacrifice.
The creepiest addition is the music score by Frank Skinner, which regularly reaches for ethereal effects, including a heavenly choir. It's downright sinister. The dialogue is painfully trite and often unintentionally funny; we can easily imagine an Airplane!- like parody version. Rock Hudson became a full-fledged star playing the Jekyll-Hyde playboy, while Agnes Moorehead soldiers through, doing the heavy lifting in a storyline overloaded with highly unlikely events and motivations. Jane Wyman is a consistent "women's magazine" cliché from start to finish. It's more than a little ironic when Mrs. Ronald Reagan's romantic fling in Switzerland includes a folk festival that involves burning a witch -- a straw dummy -- on a bonfire.
Douglas Sirk's approach is fundamentally cinematic: in his best work his intense visual stylization doesn't express the film's themes as much as embody them. As essayist Geoffrey O'Brien states, his method goes deeper than simple irony. Sirk's best movies indeed cut under the surface of the Fifties Consumer Lie, and it is possible to see the films as attempts to subvert the artificial construction of "Hollywood Movie Reality".
But Magnificent Obsession is not a good movie, and it's only Good Sirk to those completely sold on the director's style. The prevailing critical assessment of Sirk -- that his glossy films subvert their own subject matter, that he's on a secret mission to undermine the hypocrisy of the 1950s -- goes a little too far. Sirk directs Magnificent Obsession without betraying a hint of irony. Unlike his other melodramas, it makes no comment on modern life beyond an endorsement of a fantasy philosophy that's as fuzzy as "The Force" in Star Wars. I think Sirk is a master stylist who does best when he sticks to a certain kind of content. His Battle Hymn is a distasteful mix of religion and Cold War propaganda, yet it has the exact same lush Sirk surface. 3
In 2002, director Todd Haynes undertook a "Sirk Revival" movie called Far from Heaven. Haynes accurately imitates Sirk's women's magazine imagery and Russell Metty's Technicolor sheen, producing an odd sort of parody. Far goes straight for the facile notion that the 1950s was the decade of sexual repression and ends up a collection of nostalgic effects. Sirk's originals, being a strange confluence of art, crass commerciality and cultural context, were more than the sum of their parts.
Magnificent Obsession is a jaw dropper to be sure, and a truly odd window on Hollywood in the 1950s. Criterion's handsome 2-Disc DVD contains a beautiful transfer with vibrant colors, transferred at the correct 2.00:1 aspect ratio. Some scenes seem a bit grainy, and color registration slips during a couple of optical transitions, but over all the presentation is fine.
The disc extras accept Magnificent Obsession as a masterpiece. Outside of the commentary, little or no mention is made of Sirk's influential producer Ross Hunter or the films' writers. Disc one features the personable commentary of Thomas Doherty, who lends ample support to the theories about the film. Directors Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow appear in interviews, praising Sirk and explaining their personal relationship to his work.
The trailer features a personal appearance by Jane Wyman, who walks on-screen to assure us she was very moved when offered the script. It also emphasizes the main reason the film was made -- it's a follow-up to the previous year's hit The Robe, which began with another novel by Lloyd C. Douglas.
Disc two starts with the earlier version of Magnificent Obsession (102 min.) from 1935, in a good-looking B&W flat transfer. Then comes the best extra, Eckhart Schmidt's feature length 1991 interview piece in which the highly intelligent Sirk discusses his career and movies. For a capper, the film assembles several long takes filmed from a car moving down Hollywood Blvd. in early 1980, possibly taken by Gary Graver. Kramer vs. Kramer is playing at the Warner Pacific and The Ninth Configuration is on the marquee at Grauman's Chinese. We also get a look at the legendary Larry Edmunds Bookstore in its old location next to The Supply Sergeant, a surplus store. Back in the 1970s, Larry Edmunds was one of the few places to go to find literature on directors like Douglas Sirk.
Critic Geoffrey O'Brien contributes an informative and persuasive essay. I was sold on Sirk's eminence as a consummate auteur, until I caught up with pictures like Battle Hymn and Magnificent Obsession!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The 1935 Magnificent Obsession stars Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. Its director John M. Stahl helmed the Claudette Colbert version of Imitation of Life, also remade by Sirk.
2. To my mind, Magnificent Obsession's story suffers from a specific kind of Presbyterian Guilt, an exaggerated sense of responsibility & moral obligation. The playboy is of course not really responsible for the death of the famous surgeon, but the movie insists on a guilt dependent on a moral judgment: The playboy wasn't grossly less "worthy" than the surgeon. People who get lost in the woods "cause" rescuers to risk their lives to save them, sometimes unreasonably. The playboy's reckless accident is obviously negligence, but where does one draw the line? If the playboy had an ordinary accident, the widow and her friends would be just as willing to condemn him.
When I was a kid, I was discouraged from playing with the flashlight because it might deplete the batteries, leaving us dark in an emergency. The telephone was for "important" calls, so I wasn't allowed to chat with my friends -- what if an emergency call came in? Using the car was much less problematic, but if I had an accident, it had better not be for some petty personal errand! That's core Presbyterian Guilt -- all the rules were joy-killers.
3. Battle Hymn, also produced by Ross Hunter, has some very exciting action scenes with P-51 fighter planes. It stars Rock Hudson as a pilot who atones for bombing an orphanage in WW2 by becoming a Korean War pilot and helping displaced orphans. Hudson finds inspiration in the good book, while grateful Korean peasants thank him for strafing civilian refugees on the roads, because he's eliminating the Commie infiltrators hidden in their ranks. Morally, the movie is appalling.
Is my verdict on Battle Hymn a critic's opinion or an unnecessary judgmental imposition?
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.