Magnificent Obsession (1954)

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This is the type of film that when the inevitable happens and a character mentions the title phrase a swell of angels voices begin to murmur and in one sense Magnificent Obsession is a sentimental even spiritual endeavor wrapped up in a soapy melodramatic morality tale.

But the key is that if you know anything about Douglas Sirk, you easily get a sense that this is not the director getting on his soapbox unabashedly. He is using the very material he is given and finding some of the ironies within it.

The story unfurls rather like a modern age parable. There were two men. One man died — a good man — so that another might live and that other man is Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) a conceited, frivolous playboy only out for a good time.

The unseen, deceased Dr. Phillips left behind a recently wedded wife Helen (Jane Wyman) who was madly in love with him and a grown daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) who was equally delighted with her new mother.

All of that was torn away from them by the selfish jerk of a man who unwittingly left Dr. Phillips without a resuscitator because the foolhardy Merrick got in a boating accident.

The film begins the long winding road of a soap opera as Merrick begins to change. First, he wants to buy Mrs. Phillip’s sympathy which he will never acquire that way. But he feels like wherever he goes he is somehow haunted by the sacrificial love and anonymous charity which seemed to dictate Dr. Phillips life. He can’t seem to get away from it. It makes him feel awful.

Of all places, he gleans wisdom from one of Phillip’s closest friends a sagacious artist (Otto Kruger) who imparts him with knowledge on how to pursue a life of true purpose. He’s warned by Randolph in one moment, “This is dangerous stuff, one man who used it went to the cross, died at the age of 33” but Merrick begins to go through a radical transformation — to take on this so-called magnificent obsession. Hudson gets the situation which allows him to exhibit his changing attitudes toward his fellow human beings and ultimately his own change in heart.

Anyways the plot spins and jumps in the most inconceivable and unlikely ways that have no other purpose but to set up the dramatic moments that fail to take heed of how absurd everything seems. It’s laid on slightly thick even for me with a few eye-rolling moments no less. Absolute poppycock if I might be so bold.

Still, there’s no doubting the potential impact of this emotional manipulation. You might suspect a crescendo courtesy of the Little Tramp except in lieu of Chaplin we have Rock Hudson in his first leading role. There’s no comparison but he and Wyman do prove to be a compelling romantic team.

I had never quite thought of it like this but sometimes it’s truly a joy to watch some visionary directors work cinematic magic in spite of the material they’ve been given. Currently, if you make a movie it’s usually on your own volition. Either you wrote it or you signed on knowing full well what you are getting involved with (at least in most cases).

But in Classic Hollywood you have so many more examples of great or at least interesting directors saddled with mediocre material. But the truly great ones took that material and made something fascinating out of it whether it was through mise-en-scene, shot selection, or simple choice of tone.

After seeing the works of Douglas Sirk it’s easy to wager that he was such a filmmaker. Originally from Germany and only transplanted to Hollywood in the 1940s, very late compared to many of his contemporaries, he was a very intellectual man and it bleeds into how he approaches his films.

Sometimes to grasp what he is getting at is an exercise in near extrasensory perception. Because he works in irony but very often it gives the pretense of mere melodrama if taken at face value. And that’s what he did, taking that standard so-called women’s picture of the 1950s and giving it a further dimension that allows it depth even today.

So is Magnificent Obsession a masterpiece? Not necessarily. But should that even matter and what does that subjective label mean anyway? Might we just be happy that there are directors like Douglas Sirk who made enduringly riveting films that we can go back to again and again? The idyllic shots of Lake Tahoe would easily make nostalgic souls yearn for the images found in this film alone.

3.5/5 Stars

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

allthatheaven4When I first saw the work of Douglas Sirk, I was immediately struck by how well it seemed to personify 1950s Hollywood. All That Heaven Allows (1955) is little different in its opulence and superficial soap opera tonalities. Except for this one, at times, feels a little like it should be a part of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. Perhaps it glides a slightly more interesting line between high society country club members and quintessential middle America.

The two alternatives are contrasted in our screen couple played by Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.

Cary Scott (Wyman) is a well to do, middle-aged widow with two grown kids off at school. She is often lonely and always sensible when it comes to the life decisions she makes. After all, she doesn’t want the local gossip blabbing about her life to all their society friends.

That changes rather gradually thanks to her seasonal gardener and professional tree-trimmer Ron Kirby (Hudson). He is a different sort of spirit who seems to be content with nature and his place in it as nurturer. Their acquaintance begins over a harmless cup of coffee and turns into an excursion to his humble abode. Over time, Cary is introduced to Ron’s brands of friends who are all charming, down-to-earth folk who live life to the fullest without worrying about wealth or societal pressures. This is what she has been looking for and he is the man who she needs. So when Ron proposes marriage she readily accepts.

Now comes the task of putting it before the kids and then showing Ron to the local snarks. The socialites are no different with their sniggering and pointed remarks. There is no mercy for Cary and Ron. In fact, they are appalled by such a scandalous romance. The children who normally are rational and kind, do not mince words with their mother. Ned talks about the family honor, the legacy of their father, and their home. He cannot bear for his mother to supposedly throw all that away. Kay, on her part, is always getting caught up in psychoanalysis, but this time all rationale goes out the window after her boyfriend breaks up with her.  Under this built-in pressure, Cary reluctantly breaks off their marriage, mostly for the sake of the children.

allthatheaven2Except she is never quite the same and never feels like she did with Ron. Cary is resigned to staying in her lavish home, while reluctantly accepting the newest form of modern entertainment — a television. Christmas time is especially hard when she runs into Ron, but then the kids come home. That’s when she realizes her grave error and what comes next is exactly what you expect, with a few small diversions. Cary turns back to Ron, who has been in a funk of his own. Following an accident that was induced by Cary’s presence, Ron is bedridden and Cary rushes to his aid. This is the life she was meant for no matter what society says of her.

It’s pretty mushy, weepy stuff in a sense. That’s the superficial level of second-rate romance and picture-perfect technicolor. In fact, All That Heaven Allows is visually beautiful in a sickening sort of way. The town is too pristine, the seasons too perfect, the snow too puffy. And yet it all seems to be an impeccable supplement to Sirk’s moral drama. Ironically, this is not a moral tale about unbridled love between a woman and her younger lover. That would make complete sense. Instead, Sirk subverts that wonderfully, by suggesting the weight of the blame is on society and the peer pressure that permeates the upper crust.

Even if this film is a little too syrupy in its sweetness, I can manage a spoonful or two because there is a greater meaning to this frivolity. All That Heaven Allows is certainly an acquired taste, but it’s worth taking a chance on.

4/5 Stars

The Lost Weekend (1945)

c5841-the_lost_weekend_posterStarring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, the film follows a former alcoholic writer as he goes on a binge, sinking into the depths of despair. With his brother gone and his girlfriend tied up with work, he finds himself frequenting bars across town and then wandering home to sleep it off. Amid the flashbacks of his past, nightmares, and a stay at the hospital, he finds his state becoming increasingly worse. His brother has given up on him and his often faithful girlfriend is on the verge. Finally, he decides to end it one way or another. Ultimately, with the support of his girlfriend he resolves to put “The Lost Weekend” down on paper so he can over come it. Director Billy Wilder does a wonderful job with this somber if not shocking story. Milland and Wyman both give very good performances which make this drama hit hard. The unearthly-sounding theremin is also very effective in the film’s soundtrack.

4.5/5 Stars