In 1929, a fifty-one-year-old Congregationalist pastor named Lloyd C. Douglas published his first novel. It was a ramshackle sort of book, at its core an undiluted Christian sermon on the life-transforming power of charitable works. But it was a sermon wrapped in the format of a romance novel and spruced up with a veneer of up-to-the-minute pseudoscientific parlance that made Christianity sound like the latest marvel sprung from the imagination of H. G. Wells. (The New Testament was described as “the actual textbook of a science relating to the expansion and development of the human personality.”) Magnificent Obsession was a mélange of half-baked and drastically underdramatized subplots, but it began and ended memorably. In the first chapter, a feckless young playboy got knocked on the head in a sailing accident and was saved by the use of an inhalator, while unbeknownst to him a great brain surgeon died for want of the same inhalator. In very nearly the last chapter, the same young man, having in the meantime himself become a great brain surgeon in order to atone for the earlier event, employed his skills to save the woman he loved, none other than the young widow of the doctor who died in his place.
However rudimentary Douglas’s narrative technique, his book became and remained a best seller. (It has rarely, if ever, been out of print.) His condemnation of Jazz Age frivolity arrived in perfect time for the onset of the Great Depression, and his modernized version of the message of the Gospels managed to impart the key to spiritual power—it was a matter of performing service for others while making sure that the service remained a closely held secret—and still wrap up with a satisfying fade-out kiss.
Little wonder that Universal snapped up the movie rights. When John M. Stahl’s film was released in 1935, however, Douglas was none too happy with the results. Although the team of screenwriters had retained the beginning and ending, little of what came between had made it to the screen. The writers had done an excellent job of extracting the usable plot points, while jettisoning most of the homilies. The great brain surgeon’s philosophy of acquiring spiritual power by doing good for others in secret was still there, to be sure, but it had been essentially reduced to a single expository scene, in which young Bobby Merrick (Robert Taylor) was initiated by an avuncular artist, played rather charmingly by Ralph Morgan. To fill the rest of the running time, the writers had fabricated an emotionally wrenching series of narrative twists and turns.
It was from Stahl’s movie rather than the novel that Douglas Sirk inherited most of the elements that gave his 1954 remake its aura of excessiveness. This film was a major turning point in Sirk’s career: its success sealed his identification with glossy material and led directly to the string of late masterpieces that includes All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life and that would influence so decisively filmmakers from Fassbinder to Todd Haynes. Of all his films, Magnificent Obsession stands out for its uniquely over-the-top plotline, and that very outrageousness seems to have prompted a corresponding vigor in Sirk’s direction. Instead of toning down the story’s emotional extremes, he accepts them and allows their full and somewhat demented force to emerge.
In 1935, it all seemed normal: this was what used to be called “giving it the Hollywood treatment.” It wasn’t enough for Bobby to be saved at the expense of Dr. Hudson’s life; he must also be indirectly responsible for the accident that leaves the doctor’s young wife, Helen (Irene Dunne), blinded. The whole incomparably weepy second movement—in which Bobby befriends Helen under a false identity, secretly pays for her to be treated by the greatest brain surgeons in Europe, and rescues her from suicidal despair, only to have her run away because she doesn’t want his pity—is a pure Hollywood concoction, the culmination and quintessence of early thirties melodrama. The religious elements became mere flavoring for a transcendently morbid love story, and in the process the movie came near to equating Christ’s sacrifice for all humanity with Robert Taylor’s sacrifice for Irene Dunne.
In some respects, the 1935 version would have looked quite creaky by the early 1950s, not just for the grandiloquence of the weepy bits but for the heavy-handed comic touches with which it was thought necessary to lard the proceedings, from Charles Butterworth’s tedious mugging as Betty Furness’s dim-witted beau to Arthur Treacher’s predictable turn as a silly-ass valet. Sirk would achieve a far more restrained and unified tone, but Stahl’s direction did undercut the script’s shenanigans with an impressively somber visual design. Seen today, his Magnificent Obsession looks like an art deco symphony in which figures standing in a middle distance are framed in cathedral-like fashion by expressive swatches of black, gray, and white. The final hospital scenes, with their dominant whites and their starkly invoked sign of the cross, achieve an almost overwhelming solemnity of tone, especially in the prolonged horizontal composition of Taylor leaning over Dunne on her hospital bed, an embrace just barely withheld, hovering on the border between life and death. Such were the secret rituals enacted by thirties movie melodramas, no less serious in their purposes for being reliant on such transparently absurd mechanisms.
According to Sirk, Magnificent Obsession got remade primarily because Jane Wyman wanted to play the Dunne part. She had the right idea: more subdued and vulnerable than Dunne—who had been unable to entirely suppress her screwball-comedy instincts and managed to seem fairly chipper even when miming blindness—Wyman brought a hint of plausible feeling to a tale that at nearly every point strained credulity. Sirk had no particular stake in the material; he had never seen the Stahl movie, and of the novel he said: “Ross Hunter gave me the book, and I tried to read it, but I just couldn’t. It is the most confused book you can imagine. It is so abstract in many respects that I couldn’t see a picture in it.” He worked from an outline of the Stahl version, many scenes of which were faithfully preserved even as the comic dross was weeded out. In the end, he spoke with considerable affection of Magnificent Obsession’s “combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness.” The movie was in fact one of the great successes of his career, and it firmly certified Rock Hudson as the resident dreamboat of the American cinema, just as the earlier version had established Robert Taylor. The ease and sincerity of Hudson’s performance help greatly in anchoring the proceedings in some kind of almost-real world.
Sirk was fifty-three when he made the film. He had already had an extraordinary career, but of a kind largely forgotten or unperceived. In the 1920s and ’30s, he had been an important figure in the German theater, working notably with Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser on their music drama The Silver Lake. (Ultimately, he would go back to stage work after returning to Europe in the 1960s.) He made nine features with UFA between 1935 and 1937, then got out of Germany and did some work in France and Holland before accepting an invitation to Hollywood in 1939. His early American films—Summer Storm (1944), A Scandal in Paris (1946), Lured (1947)—were notable for their quite literary and European tone, but by 1950 he was a contract director at Universal, working (sometimes dazzlingly, always intelligently) on the full range of available genres: war films, thrillers, farces, musicals, even a western (the much-underrated Taza, Son of Cochise ). The best of his first ten films for Universal was All I Desire (1953), a black-and-white Barbara Stanwyck vehicle solidly in the “woman’s picture” mode, a genre that had dominated the 1940s but was now slipping out of fashion.
With Magnificent Obsession, Sirk returned to this genre, but this time with a visual style that was pure 1950s: bright, wide, and jammed with the latest furnishings and consumer goods. He had found the terrain on which he would work for the rest of the decade. Perhaps 1954 was the last time this material could have been filmed with a straight face, and Sirk films it with a ferociously straight face, one might say a demonically straight face. A contemporary audience might receive the picture with peals of knowing laughter as one staggeringly fraught melodramatic moment follows another—I can remember my own jaw dropping in disbelief the first time I saw it—but what most impresses on repeated viewings of Magnificent Obsession is the strict faith Sirk keeps with his materials. He does not distort them—he merely adds layers of nuance and implicit ironic commentary that are perceptible in every composition, every gesture, every intricately swiveling camera movement, every delicately calibrated shift in lighting. (Sirk: “The angles are the director’s thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy.”)
He puts the story under a microscope, where we can study it like Hudson’s Bobby Merrick studying the anatomy of the brain, each ridge and lesion made sharply visible. Nothing could be further from the mood of Magnificent Obsession than cynical mockery, no matter how acute the director’s awareness that “this is a damned crazy story if there ever was one.” Crazy it may be, but so were the situations favored by so many of the playwrights whose work Sirk had staged: Calderón, Kleist, Strindberg, Pirandello. He forces the questions: What if this weren’t crazy? What if it were real? What sort of a world would that be, and how different would it be from the one we inhabit?
Here, as in his other films, Sirk’s impulse is always to disclose—even if only to demonstrate that nothing is more elusive or uncertain than disclosure. But we are given every chance to see: the world is laid open in all its materiality, in color and widescreen if possible, and we are given perfect vantage points from which to appreciate its forms and the behavior of its inhabitants. He even forces our gaze at moments when we might be inclined to look away, brings us in by dint of those melodramatic mechanisms whose workings he grasps so intimately.
Magnificent Obsession’s exposition is handled with breathtaking speed: we start in the midst of a widescreen speedboat ride, with Hudson and a female companion heading straight into the camera in full close-up, and the pace scarcely slackens. The tight shot of the companion screaming from the shore as she watches Hudson’s boat capsizing is worthy of a horror movie, injecting a note of panic borne out by the catastrophes still in store. Within moments, Helen Phillips (Wyman) and her stepdaughter (Barbara Rush) are pulling into the driveway of their spacious lakeside residence, gaily planning the evening’s festivities in what looks like a dramatization of an advertising spread from Life, but the movie has been moving so breathlessly that we already know the disastrous news that awaits them. Every forward movement lurches into some further layer of shock or confusion or despair. There is a shot of Wyman, who has just learned of her husband’s sudden death, strolling across the lawn toward the lake, her head down, her back to the camera, that encapsulates in a single image the desperate attempt of grief to somehow escape from itself: nature, instead of consoling, closes in.
The literal collision, soon after, in which Wyman (fleeing Hudson’s clumsy attempt at seduction) loses her sight is prefigured by countless minor intrusions, retreats, collapses, and movements at cross-purposes. As Hudson—recovering from his accident and still in full-blown arrogant-playboy mode—has an angry exchange with a resident doctor, their overlapping dialogue is further crisscrossed by the interruptions of radio and cigarette and telephone. At crucial moments, as hints about the late doctor’s mysterious activities begin to emerge, scenes are paced and lit like a suspense film. Without belaboring any point too much, Sirk creates an atmosphere of near intolerable stress just barely kept within the bounds of polite behavior, never more than in the sleekly streamlined barroom where isolated customers are pressed on each other as if brutally contesting every spare inch of widescreen space; we linger in this modern hell for not more than a few seconds but it leaves an indelible mark.
Hudson’s drunken encounter with the artist Randolph (Otto Kruger), who indoctrinates him with the late surgeon’s secret of spiritual power, is imbued with real mystery, as if some occult transference were occurring before our eyes, an effect encouraged by the somewhat Mephistophelian overtones of Kruger’s performance. He is made to seem a messenger between worlds, guiding the otherwise bewildered Hudson along invisible fault lines. The words of his dialogue matter less than the faintly mocking smile that accompanies them, as if he were a higher intelligence condescending to communicate with earthlings. That he is a painter, living among artworks, makes him an ideal Sirkian psychopomp, especially in a film whose central disaster is the loss of sight.
If the film’s first half belongs to Hudson and America—a world of beaches and fast cars and brilliant colors—the second belongs to Wyman and the Alpine Europe to which she goes in search of healing. Here the palette darkens, the compositions become more frankly expressionistic, and the local festivities involve a symbolic witch burning. Helen’s inner crisis after she learns that her condition is inoperable—“I know when I wake up in the morning there won’t be any dawn”—becomes the emotional center of the film, the full acknowledgment of a suffering without hope of respite. The taut interplay between Wyman and the camera as she moves haltingly through the darkened hotel room toward the balcony and possible suicide—a suicide averted only by the shock of a falling flowerpot—is like condensed opera.
There will be further episodes as we move inexorably through the contingencies that have been laid down, all the way to the inevitable life-or-death operation (in a sanitarium pitched in a most artificial desert), the trembling hands, the miraculous restoration of sight. If, at last, the implausibility of the whole enterprise becomes too glaringly apparent—if the simulacrum of reality begins to appear played out—there is the sense that we have, at least, in whatever condition, gotten to the end and whatever promise it has left us with. And there to send us off is Kruger as the artist Randolph, poised above the operating theater like some supernatural stage manager glancing down—whether benevolently or skeptically—at the theater of the world.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image Planet, The Browser’s Ecstasy, and The Phantom Empire. He is editor in chief of the Library of America.