Directed By: Douglas Sirk
Starring: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead
Tag line: "THE STORY OF A WOMAN'S NEED FOR A MAN that will become one of the great emotional thrills of your lifetime!"
Trivia: Jeff Chandler turned down the role of Bob Merrick because he thought the story was too "soppy"
Over the course of his career, Douglas Sirk (a German filmmaker who emigrated to the United States in the 1930s) directed nearly 50 movies (including shorts), yet it’s the half dozen or so melodramas he turned out in the mid to late 1950s that have put him on the cinematic map. Lush and colorful on the outside, these films explored a variety of social issues, such as societal conformity (All That Heaven Allows), racial bigotry (Imitation of Life), and the breakdown of the American family (Written on the Wind). Released in 1954, Magnificent Obsession was the film that kicked off this creative phase of Sirk’s career, and while its message may be lost on modern viewers, it is nonetheless a beautiful, occasionally moving motion picture.
While out in his speedboat one afternoon, millionaire Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) has a serious accident. To revive him, paramedics borrow a resuscitator from Dr. Phillips, who, because of his weak heart, keeps one around in case he should need it. Merrick does survive the ordeal, but before the resuscitator can be returned to Dr. Phillips, the physician suffers a fatal heart attack and dies.
Dr. Phillips' widow, Helen (Jane Wyman) and daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) blame Bob Merrick for the death of their loved one (it’s believed that, had it been there, the resuscitator would have saved him). Even Merrick himself, normally an egotistical playboy, feels remorse for what has happened, and a chance meeting with Dr. Phillips’ good friend Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) introduces the young millionaire to a whole new way of life. According to Randolph, the late Dr. Phillips adhered to a most unusual philosophy, one that required him to help others with no thought whatsoever of repayment. Inspired by these words, Merrick decides to change his selfish ways, but it isn’t until his disastrous attempt to reconcile with Helen that he realizes how truly powerful this philosophy can be.
On paper, Magnificent Obsession, with its various tragedies and unlikely love story (over time, Merrick falls for Helen Phillips), had all the makings of a sappy soap opera. Even its so-called “philosophy”, which is religious in nature (Randolph tells Merrick the first person to lead a selfless life “went to the Cross at the age of thirty-three”), brought the film dangerously close to schmaltz territory. Yet while the story itself may seem a bit over-the-top, Sirk’s gentle approach to the material, aided by the sincere performances of his entire cast, keeps the proceedings firmly grounded in reality (Wyman is especially strong as the oft-suffering Helen, who, despite the calamities that befall her, remains convincingly upbeat).
With its theme of personal accountability, Magnificent Obsession isn’t as hard-hitting as Sirk’s other melodramas, most of which tackled loftier social issues. But thanks to the fine work of its director and cast, this 1954 movie will, at the very least, give you something to think about.