Magnificent Obsession (1935)

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*. It was a nice gesture of Criterion to include this title as a bonus feature with their release of the 1954 Douglas Sirk remake. Nice because without this treatment I think it was ready to be consigned to film oblivion. Who would even bother hunting it down today? Why?
*. Something feels icky from the start. Helen and Nancy are mother-daughter but are conscious of the absurdity of this as they appear to be the same age. This May-December feeling is later returned to when Nancy announces her engagement to Tommy, who looks quite a bit older (the actor playing Tommy was in fact twenty years older than Betty Furness.)
*. But then we have “Bobby” Merrick falling for Helen Hudson, with Robert Taylor being thirteen years younger than Irene Dunne. There’s your age equity paying back.
*. The genre is a hybrid particular to the time. Basically it’s a pulp romance (the handsome, rich playboy even becomes a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon!), crossbred with the sort of homiletic morality that was Lloyd C. Douglas’s stock-in-trade. Douglas was a Lutheran minister who didn’t write his first novel (this one) until the age of 50. He would go on to pen Biblical blockbusters like The Robe and The Big Fisherman.
*. I suspect it’s the religious message, with Bobby being reborn as Dr. Robert after an intervention by the devout sculptor, that dates the film the most. Heaven knows we still love a good love story, but I doubt the preaching appeals very much to a mass audience.
*. I don’t think it’s much worth watching today. The car accident looks pretty darn sharp for 1935 (better even than it does in the remake, twenty years later), but that’s the only thing that stood out. The plot is so clichéd and contrived it’s funny. Dunne and Taylor walk through their parts with the kind of formality that was the custom of the time, at least in a vehicle like this.
*. Pauline Kael: “This first version of the inspirational Lloyd C. Douglas novel . . . should certainly have been the last, but the woebegone trickeries of the material made the movie a four-handkerchief hit, and damned if Ross Hunter didn’t produce another version in 1954 (with Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson), and the slop made money all over again.”

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