DVD CLUB: JANUARY 2009
Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession is sheer, bold ridiculousness in eye-popping Technicolor; never once pausing to apologize for its garish melodramatic turns that leave mere imitators begging for air, nor allowing us a simple retreat into the raw hysterics inherent in such a work. It’s the kind of film that features accidental blindness, grieving widows, assumed identities, risky medical procedures, and self-hating life changes, yet still feels compelled to add a shirtless Rock Hudson to keep things honest. It should surprise no one that the barrel-chested icon is about to perform an impossibly complex brain surgery at the time, despite having secured his medical degree through what appears to be the world’s most densely packed correspondence course. It’s about saints and sinners, noble doctors and reckless playboys, and in case you were keeping score, an ambiguously gay painter on whose wisdom the whole damn thing turns. If it were helmed by anyone other than Sirk, it might collapse under the weight of its own outrageous ambition. Instead, it’s a supreme entertainment; not quite the masterpiece of Written on the Wind, but delightfully absurd in its own unique fashion.
Rock Hudson is Bob Merrick, an obscenely self-involved millionaire who thinks so little of others that he crashes his speedboat while clocking over 180 mph (an accident that leaves him even more handsome), depriving the lakeside community of its only resuscitator, the very one needed by the Christ-like Dr. Phillips (husband of Helen, played with martyr-like efficiency by Jane Wyman) to survive an inconvenient heart attack. Because the life-saving device is being used by Merrick, the good doctor dies, depriving the world of the most generous man ever witnessed. Though we never see Dr. Phillips, he is spoken of in hushed, reverent tones (along with a chorus of angels on the soundtrack), revealing his generosity, selflessness, and single-minded devotion to decency and goodness. He’s so wonderful, in fact, that he gave away every penny he ever made, leaving poor Helen broke come inheritance time. Sure, she got the house, but how will she live? And must she be reminded of her late husband’s perfection whenever that vile Bob pays a visit? Despite a lust for the finer things, Bob is tormented by self-doubt, gets drunk, staggers roadside, flirts shamlessly with an appalled Wyman, and only then begins to start examining his shallow, empty life. But not before smoking like a chimney while in his hospital bed.
After speaking with the foppish painter, Bob is determined to repay Helen for the damage done, though she’s above accepting checks from gentlemen who pretty much killed her husband. $25,000 would help a great deal, but it would also amount to blood money; an offer for which she is too proud to take. Bob then proceeds to pay it forward, though with Sirk-like style, helping a poor sap who needs a mere $300 to pay off his entire hospital debt. The moment he hands the man the cash, he sees Helen, thereby convincing him that good deeds lead to further worthy endeavors. Helen continues to resist, rightfully hating the man whose life represents the end of her own happiness. They tussle in the cab, Helen tries to escape, and is hit by a car for her trouble. The accident blinds her, further implicating Bob in her misery. Fortunately, he’s loaded, so he uses his fortune to bring together the world’s best doctors for a consultation and, hopefully, corrective surgery. Despite flying her to Switzerland, there is nothing they can do. Blind, she’ll remain. For now.
Whatever you’re thinking, it’s exactly right. Few plots are as preposterous, yet we’re there every step of the way. And damn it all, shouldn’t we have known that Bob would run into a blind Helen on the beach, disguise his voice, seduce her, and hopelessly fall in love? Only she’ll know it’s him from the outset, and still love the poor slob anyway? And yes, he’ll also finish the medical training he abandoned years before so that he, not the world’s best physicians, will scrub up in a remote New Mexico hospital, just as Helen is dying of pneumonia, and crack open her skull, thereby restoring her sight. And what of the shirtlessness? He eventually slaps one on, but only at the last possible minute, making us wonder what medical board would ever allow a masked man to hover over a dying woman while half naked. Perhaps exposing the glorious chest was part of Rock’s contract, as was his insistence that every fellow actor be at least six inches shorter, enhancing the man’s dreamy stature. Sure, we know now that Hudson preferred the male persuasion, but here, as in other classics of the era, he’s almost impossibly heterosexual; a slab of beef to put Brando himself in his place. It’s telling that guilt alone is why he dashes after the homely Wyman, when we all know he could have had Monty Clift inside of a minute.
Whatever its failings (and it has many that can, and should, be overlooked), Magnificent Obsession is true to its own desires and ambitions. It is high-minded soap opera, only without the self-importance to be anything else. It relies on coincidence, contrivance, and clockwork reversals, but secretly, beneath the veil, Sirk understands our lust for exactly that. It’s not satire, per se, so much as a tipping of the cap. Life cannot possibly work this way, but viewers require it, a fact proven again and again by the box office receipts. It’s an understanding that while the good suffer, such pain is tempered by the bad’s adoption of decency, no matter how last-minute. And, as usual, Sirk elevates womanhood into the stratosphere of cross-bearing heroism. In this way, he’s feeding our desire to see women suffer, though only to find redemption, love, and fulfillment on the other side. And by putting his women through the gauntlet – my god, the loss of a spouse and blindness? – he’s craftily exposing our willingness to watch women humiliated and damn near destroyed, as if carrying the burden for us all. And of course, a vile man must become whole again, bringing that overdue joy to the afflicted female, as well as himself. Of course, it helps if he’s handsome. And Rock Hudson.
But then, it hits us: Bob came back from the dead, only to heal the blind. And those angels…were they really for the deceased doctor? Days of doubt, a walk through the desert of despair, and then, emerging whole and redeemed? A purpose found at long last? And an oiled chest to boot? As a religious parable, it’s a bit glossy and confounding, but there’s no escaping it. Only Sirk could start with a speedboat accident and end up with Jesus.