Magnificent Obsession (1935): Stahl Vs. Sirk Again

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As I continue my mini odyssey considering the differences between the melodrama of John M. Stahl and Douglas Sirk, one of the finest exhibit pieces is an early scene in Magnificent Obsession.

The beloved Dr. Hudson has died because the life-saving pulmotor he needed was being used on someone else. An irresponsible playboy, named Bob Merrick, is saved in his place, having capsized his boat during one of his typically drunken evenings. It just doesn’t seem fair. One man so good is lost and the man who probably doesn’t deserve to live regains his life. It’s a rather blatant allegory of Christian grace and it makes sense, after all, Magnificent Obssession was supposedly penned by a minister: Lloyd C. Douglas.

Here is my long-winded point. This plays as a critical scene in Sirk’s picture. We see Merrick on the water and we see it happen right in front of us. However, in Stahl’s rendition, it’s all over and done with after a few throway lines of expositional dialogue between doctors. It’s as if he’s purposefully shying away from the drama. It’s this quality that might save Magnificent Obsession from being a total bore.

I never gave much thought to it before, but Robert Taylor makes a modest approximation of Rock Hudson a few decades earlier. One could say Rock’s career was far more successful and well-remembered, but they both manage the smart-aleck ne’er do well quite easily. In both cases, this was one of the early movies helping to put them in the public eye as legitimate star power.

Regardless, a curious dichotomy is purposefully set up by the movie, with one man unseen a beloved martyr, and another one alive, the incorrigible playboy. Dr. Hudson’s goodness hangs over Merrick’s life — haunting him in a sense — making him feel even worse about who he is as a person.

Soon he’s struggling with self-loathing. Although it feels more complicated than that because he’s still overtly narcissistic; deep down he knows everyone dislikes him vehemently.

It becomes a movie of who Merrick falls into company with after sneaking out of the hospital against protocol. First, it’s Masterson (Charles Butterworth) who might as well be his comic sidekick unwittingly carried away by all his mischief.

Next, it’s Mrs. Hudson (Irene Dunne) the beautiful young wife of the man he indirectly killed. When he actually finds out who she is he feels even more ashamed to show his face in front of her. He just wants to get drunk and try to forget.

Then, by some curious bit of Providence, he winds up at the home of a stonecutter. The man happened to be a close friend of Dr. Hudson. Similar to Sirk’s rendition, he imparts the wisdom the good doctor provided him. He was taught how to make contact with a source of infinite power. If you think this sounds like a seance and pseudo-science, you’re not alone. It feels like the strangest introduction of religion into the storyline imaginable with electrical energy acting as some mystical metaphor for God.

This layman makes another fascinating statement that might not sound all that foreign to us today. He’s not interested in religion but interested in Jesus — the God-man — who was so successful in the science of generating human power. It’s as if he was a mere humanitarian or an entrepreneur in human capital.

I always have trouble dealing with these kinds of expressions in relation to the Christian doctrinal claims. It’s not that it’s simplistic; rather it seems to totally disregard some of the things this God-man purportedly said. They feel radical, unsettling, incisive at times — surely not warm and fuzzy enough for a movie like this.

Still, this pseudo-Gospel becomes a journey to find people who need help and then giving it to them. But, of course, there’s a catch. You must give to others in absolute secrecy — it’s a scrooge-like endeavor and there’s some truth in this kind of altruism, still, it feels laughable even folly to call it a theory to be followed.

It’s a kind of pay-your-way to the good person’s club, whether you believe in the afterlife or just in being a good person in a legalistic sense. Either way, surely we can agree these strict parameters seem suspect.

Regardless, Merrick somehow gets swept up by them as he vows to put this “theory” into practice. He’s done so much to injure and totally destroy Helen Hudson’s life through his own selfish negligence.

However, in a strange way, it’s as if he’s in pursuit of his dead rival’s wife. Although it might be totally out of the goodness of a changed heart, he looks to reconnect with her, and give her life new joy. It all feels rather twee in comparison to Sirk’s update, which at least swells with the kind of grandiloquence which seems, at the very least, self-aware.

As much as I admire Irene Dunne as an unsung and ever adaptable talent and my mild affinity for Robert Taylor has gotten a boost in recent days, Magnificent Obsession is rather hard to take. It’s an outlandish drama full to the brim with preposterousness that doesn’t even attempt to court any semblance of reality. Similarly, its religiosity, romance, and just about everything else feels sugar-coated and simplified. Somehow it hasn’t maintained its flavor as well as some of Stahl’s earlier efforts.

3/5 Stars

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