Magnificent Obsession (1954)


*. It’s hard for me to talk about Douglas Sirk. He was very good at what he did, but what he did doesn’t interest me much.
*. Because it’s genre work? Melodrama? Soap opera? Women’s pictures? That probably has something to do with it. But I think more than that it’s because they’re such period pieces, and their vision of America in the 1950s seems so totally unreal today. It’s a Technicolor Neverland of endless bounty, artificiality, and style.
*. But was it Neverland? Women really did wear gloves. Some men wore ascots. Every room might have been filled with floral arrangements. Four million dollars, the net worth of playboy Bobby Merrick, was a lot of money (today it wouldn’t be a down payment on that lovely lakeside property). You really could smoke in a hospital bed, at least if you had a private room. I’m not sure about the saloon doors on the hospital rooms, but they’re in the 1935 version as well so maybe they were a thing.
*. I would still call it a dream reality though, and one that probably has some influence on the mythologizing of that time and place in American consciousness. This was the golden age that (some) Americans always want to go back to. Strong families. A strong economy. Everybody rich, and white.
*. What special quality defines this vision of America? It’s clean. The cars shine as brightly as the men’s Brylcreemed hair. The men’s cheeks are also shaved clean as babies, without a hint of shadow even after a long night of drinking. If a drop of blood were seen at the Brightwood Hospital I think the doctors and nurses would faint on the spot. Not that they could have shown blood anyway (censorship issues), but still it would have upset the hygienic order of the place.


*. Douglas Sirk’s reputation continues to rise. I’m still unsure. His melodramas are both professional and personally distinguished. He was obviously an intelligent, cultured man and very critic-friendly, which helps. But the question continues to nag: was he only slumming it with these sorts of movies, or were they his love letters to America? Did he think they were a joke? Was he really subverting the genre of melodrama, or was the genre itself subversive?
*. Sirk apparently never even read all of Lloyd C. Douglas’s book and seems to have thought it was trash, a “stupid story.” But then he thought trash books made good film projects because you couldn’t mess them up. He also said that 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.”
*. It’s easier to see this connection with craziness in the case of a movie like Written on the Wind. There the element of subversion is more obvious: the split between what Kathryn Bigelow in her video tribute describes as a nihilistic, psychological interior (sickness, madness) and a lush and exotic exterior. The one reality literally subverts the other.
*. In this film, however, it’s not so clear. We miss the craziness of Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, who were the only couple worth watching in Written on the Wind. Here we’re left with the squares.
*. Especially boring squares at that. Thomas Doherty’s DVD commentary notes on a couple of occasions the “distinct lack of romantic sparks between” Wyman and Hudson. Hudson simply worships her while she learns to tolerate his adoration. There is no hint of physical consummation (that would be dirty), and Doherty correctly sees only “affection without passion.” This isn’t just a matter of a strict production code. It’s a total lack of chemistry.


*. Wyman was nine years older than Hudson, which is interesting. Also interesting is that this is less than the age gap between Irene Dunn and Robert Taylor.
*. Some things have changed in twenty years. There’s a soaring chorus of back-up vocals. Helen Philips is a stronger character. Robert Merrick doesn’t win a Nobel Prize (yet). The first object of Merrick’s charity isn’t some panhandler but a guy with a dead baby and a wife in the hospital. A more deserving case.
*. The religious angle is toned down. Randolph doesn’t have a Bible to hand Merrick. Indeed there is only one brief mention of Christ, and not by name but only as an upright guy who paid the ultimate price for his exercise of Personal Power.
*. That Personal Power angle is the most bizarre thing in the film. I’m using ironic capitals to suggest the Tony Robbins connection. It doesn’t seem at all Christian to me but rather a kind of New Age engineering: establishment of contact with the source of infinite power allows one to fulfill one’s destiny, but you have to keep it secret in order to insulate yourself. I don’t think this qualifies as a mechanical interpretation of the Gospel.


*. No, this film isn’t a personal favourite. It looks pretty in a fake way. The story is rubbish. I didn’t find anything moving about it at all, which seems to me the most important test. Today I think it’s mainly appreciated by cineastes and fans of camp. As for Sirk, one respects him but still.
*. Perhaps I’ll end with this. David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, rates Sirk (and melodrama) quite highly. Now here he is on horror director Wes Craven: “over the years maybe the most odious thing about him is the postmodern self-reflection of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the Scream pictures, which amounts to a frenzied, disdainful redoubling of nastiness because no one really believes in it. That is a dreadful manipulation of his own audience, with a view to excusing him and letting him feel superior.” An educated, intelligent man (at least “intelligent enough to know how surely the darts of horror do penetrate the vulnerable mind” and become very rich), Craven created efficient if lowbrow genre trash that was later adopted by academe and “people who write learned treatises on the imagery . . . who have learned to gaze through the revolting fury of his films and see tenure beckoning.”
*. Is this just a difference in taste? Thomson is no great fan of horror films and thinks melodrama underappreciated. But how different are Sirk and Craven? Couldn’t you just switch their names and change “horror” with “melodrama” in what Thomson says? I don’t know if there’s any way to reconcile the two assessments except to say that there was much to admire and appreciate in the work of both men. And something to despise.


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