One of my absolute favorite quotes from Douglas Sirk—and he has a million of ’em—was made in reference to Magnificent Obsession. “It is a combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness,” he said (this isn’t the quote quite yet). “But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession.” (Okay, here we go.) “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” I swoon every time I revisit these words.
The story told in Magnificent Obsession is, without a doubt, total trash. Based less on the source novel by Lloyd C. Douglas
and more on the screenplay for John M. Stahl’s 1935 film adaptation, the plot
careens from one implausibility to another. The film opens with millionaire
playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) recklessly jetting around a lake on his
speedboat until he suffers an almost fatal crash. The nearest resuscitator
belongs to a beloved local surgeon, who coincidentally is suffering his own medical emergency at exactly
the same time as Bob’s life is being saved. Without access to the life-saving
device, the surgeon dies, and Bob
tries to buy the sympathy and
affection of his widow, Helen (Jane Wyman), with a check. But she wants
nothing to do with the man who inadvertently caused her husband’s death. As she avoids him one day, she ends up
in an accident of her own, struck by a car that gives her “an inoperable
lesion” that causes her to go completely blind. Bob, who has by now fallen head
over heels in love with Helen, tries to contact her to make amends, but she sends
him away. (The dialogue, which could have been “She wants to be left alone,” is
instead much more pointed: “She won’t see you.”)
This screenplay may be a mess of kitschy histrionics, but Sirk subverts it with thoughtful, melancholy performances and his usual top-notch mise-en-scène, which is as close to “high art” as anything else in cinema history. These elements can all be found in one aching little scene in the dead center of the movie. Helen makes the journey to the beach below her house alone, where she meets a wisecracking little tomboy named Judy. After some affable banter between the two, Helen asks Judy to describe what’s happening on the lake. As the child goes to get a closer view, she walks past Bob, sitting in a tree and smoking a cigarette. At first he doesn’t say anything; he just watches Helen and Judy. But then the child has to leave, and she asks Bob (“Hey, handsome! Yeah, you, Tarzan!”) to help her push her little boat onto the lake. He obliges, and Helen acknowledges Bob and introduces herself. She asks his name and he lies, replying, “Rob . . . My name’s Robinson.” It’s chilly on the beach, and she asks him to help her find her shawl. He does, and this simple gesture opens up a world where a relationship can finally bloom between them. He asks if he can come by from time to time, and she says, “We’ll hope to see you again very soon.”
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