Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Movie Review: Magnificent Obsession, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, directed by Douglas Sirk (1954)

Original poster for Magnificent Obsession, 1954. It's interesting that the ad mentions author Lloyd C. Douglas so prominently, but he was the author of The Robe, which was the highest grossing movie of 1953.

"You have a very strong chin, have you thought about going into movies?" Jane Wyman, whose character has just gone blind, and Rock Hudson in Magnificent Obsession.

A very dramatic still of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman from Magnificent Obsession. They've aged Rock's character by giving him a streak of grey in his hair.

Handsome leading man Rock Hudson, circa 1960.
Magnificent Obsession was the movie that established Rock Hudson as a major box office draw in 1954. Hudson’s first film role was in the 1948 movie Fighter Squadron, and although he only had one line, it took him 38 takes to deliver it perfectly. Hudson had slowly worked his way up into starring in B pictures at Universal, and Magnificent Obsession was a chance for Hudson to break through as a leading man. Hudson was the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome. At 6’5” he towered over his co-stars, and he looked like the perfect heroic leading man.

Magnificent Obsession was based on Lloyd C. Douglas’s 1929 novel of the same name, and it had first been filmed in 1935, starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. The film had helped boost Taylor to stardom in the same way that it helped Hudson’s career two decades later. For the remake, Jane Wyman was picked to play the female lead. Wyman was a well-established star who had won on Oscar for Best Actress for her role in 1948’s Johnny Belinda. Wyman was divorced from her second husband, actor Ronald Reagan, whose movie career was in decline by 1954, so that year he made the move to television and began hosting the long-running TV series General Electric Theater

Douglas Sirk directed Magnificent Obsession, and it was his third film with Hudson. Sirk would go on to direct Hudson in four more movies before retiring in 1959. Sirk’s use of a bright and bold color palette is one of his trademarks as a director, and the colors in Magnificent Obsession pop off the screen. 

The plot of Magnificent Obsession centers on spoiled rich playboy Bob Merrick (Hudson) whose only concern in life is setting new records in his speedboat. When he crashes it, the paramedics need to use a resuscitator on him. But while Merrick is being resuscitated, Dr. Phillips, a well-respected doctor in the area, has a heart attack, and dies because the only resuscitator in the area was being used on Merrick. Merrick recovers at the clinic that Dr. Phillips ran, and resentment runs high towards Merrick. Dr. Phillips’ widow Helen (Jane Wyman) discovers that the clinic is in debt, due in part to the generous philanthropy of Dr. Phillips towards his patients. After Merrick has recovered from his crash he resumes his dissipated lifestyle, and drunkenly runs his convertible off the road one evening. Fortunately, he runs his car off the road near the house of artist Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) who was a close friend of Dr. Phillips. Randolph describes a new philosophy of living to Merrick, one based on kindness towards others, and doing good works for people without taking credit for them. Merrick is eager to try out this new philosophy and when he runs into Helen Phillips the next day, he tries to explain it to her. Helen does not like the smarmy Merrick, and as she tries to get away from him she gets hit by a car and is blinded. Ravaged by guilt, Merrick resumes the medial studies he had abandoned years before and starts going to the shore of the Phillips’ lake home, where he befriends Helen using an alias. (She doesn’t seem to recognize his voice.) He reads to her and keeps her company, and gradually he finds himself falling in love with her. Will the reformed Merrick be able to atone for the way he’s wrecked Helen’s life? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

Sure, Magnificent Obsession is pretty cheesy, but it’s an excellent slice of cheese, with superb performances all around. Jane Wyman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, losing out to Grace Kelly for her role in The Country Girl. Wyman is excellent as she portrays a woman suffering from the loss of her husband, and slowly awakening to a new love. The supporting cast of Otto Kruger, Barbara Rush as Helen’s step-daughter, and Agnes Moorehead as Helen’s nurse Nancy are all very good. Rock Hudson is perfect as Bob Merrick, and it’s easy to see why the part made him a star. Hudson already had the looks, and now he had the role to become a heartthrob. Magnificent Obsession really gives Hudson the best of both worlds, as in the beginning he gets to play the dissolute bad boy, and after Merrick reforms his ways, he gets to play the attentive and noble ideal man, thus he gets to appeal to all types of female viewers. 

In Magnificent Obsession Hudson began to find his screen type, which would be the nice, strong, heroic guy. Rock Hudson just seemed like a really nice guy, so often in his movies it doesn’t even seem like he’s acting. The scene where Merrick runs his car off the road and has a drunken conversation with the artist Randolph is actually quite funny, and it shows that Hudson’s gift for comedy was well developed long before Pillow Talk. There’s also another inadvertent nod to Pillow Talk in the scenes where Merrick is pretending to be someone else so Helen won’t know his true identity, just as in Pillow Talk, Hudson’s character pretends to be someone else and tricks Doris Day into falling in love with him. Of course, there might have been a reason that Hudson was so good at roles where he was pretending to be someone he wasn’t, as he hid his homosexuality from the public. 

Magnificent Obsession is an excellent movie if you’re in the mood for a good cheesy 1950’s drama, and it’s a key movie in the career of Rock Hudson, one of the great leading men of the era.

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