Retro Review: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

***Plot spoilers are numerous***

Before glossy soap operas began to be so popular on television, we had the Hollywood films of Douglas Sirk. Few directors used such lavish colour in every production, lending a dream-like air of perfection to something as simple as purple curtains, or a lush grassy lawn. Paired with lavishly painted backdrops, these films were an escape from the dull streets of our towns and cities, and portrayed an ideal of wealthy living, where housekeepers made the dinner, as the gardener trimmed the perfect hedges. More like the life we would love to have had, than the one we lived in.

This romantic drama throws it all at the viewer. A rich feckless playboy, spending his time driving cars and boats too fast, hanging out in country clubs, attended by money-grabbing girls. A respectable widow, doing good work at the local hospital, and an accident that robs her of her sight. A wise family friend, artistic, dependable, and there to guide all the main characters. And the loyal nurse and friend, who can always be counted on. Luxurious houses by the beach, executive cars, and a friendly populace subservient to their needs, always respectful and grateful.

It is all nonsense of course, but simply glorious nonsense.

When playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) crashes his motor boat, he is close to death, and the only portable resuscitator in the town is collected from Doctor Phillips’ house, to save his life. Meanwhile, the doctor’s new wife, Helen, (Jane Wyman) arrives home from a shopping trip to hear the terrible news that her husband has died of a heart attack. The portable resuscitator would have saved his life, but had been taken to use on the spoiled Bob Merrick. The bereaved Helen takes over the running of the small hospital, ably assisted by her step-daughter, and that loyal nurse, Nancy. (A reliable Agnes Moorehead performance)
When Merrick realises that Doctor Phillips died so he could live, he tries to donate thousands of dollars, to assuage his conscience. Helen refuses his money, and he begins to pursue her, trying to make up for his past bad deeds. On one occasion when she is trying to escape his attentions, she is hit by a car, and loses her sight.

Cue tragedy all round. Nancy helps of course, as does the step-daughter. Helen does her best to cope with the blindness, and has to face the knowledge that it is incurable. Consumed with guilt, Bob Merrick takes to watching Helen, as she sits on the beach. Eventually, he befriends her, using a false name. (No idea why she didn’t recognise his voice) Naturally, the blind woman falls madly in love with the ‘stranger’, and he returns her affection. He decides to use some of his considerable fortune to send her to Switzerland, where he is sure the best surgeons can restore her sight. After lots of tests, they say they can do nothing, so Merrick flies over to be with her. This gives us the chance to see a Hollywood recreation of Switzerland, with locals in traditional dress, and friendly villagers. You have to try not to laugh during that segment.

Finally realising the ‘stranger’ is Merrick, Helen forgives him, and he asks her to marry him. But she will not saddle her new love with a blind wife, and leaves with Nancy, destination unknown. Whilst trying to find her, Bob decides to go back to medical school, and train as a neuro-surgeon. The passing of time is shown in typical Sirk fashion, with the views from a window changing from summer blooms, to deep snow, and Rock Hudson’s hair greying at the temples. After an unspecified time, Bob is now a skilled surgeon, and has all but given up on ever finding Helen. He gives away most of his money, and dedicates his life to his medical work. Out of the blue, he is contacted by Nurse Nancy. Helen is desperately ill, and has been admitted to a small clinic in Arizona.

Bob drops everything (including his waiting surgical cases, presumably) and flies out to see her. When he hears that the local doctors cannot perform the brain operation necessary to save her life, he reluctantly goes ahead and operates on her himself. Of course, it is successful, not only saving her life, but restoring her sight. This is a Sirk film after all, and it was made in 1954. No sad endings allowed.

Imagine having a sickly-sweet cake. You know you shouldn’t eat it, but the pleasure is too much to resist. You wolf it down in one sitting; overdosing on sugar, and feeling more than a little guilty. But you enjoyed it, nonetheless. That’s what this film is like. And I enjoyed that cake.

60 thoughts on “Retro Review: Magnificent Obsession (1954)

  1. I love Douglas Sirk’s movies. I remember introducing one of my friends to him. She’d never watch any of his movies and I took a boxset to her and we ended up watching several in a row. Such beautiful movies and quite subtle too (the moment when her children give her a TV set is heartbreaking…)

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          1. 🙂Over 15 years our officials at Berlin slept like babies. Now they hurry up and want to bring the citizens to an higher level for economic prosperity. LoL As we say in Germany: This train has passed.

            Liked by 1 person

        1. When I was in Berlin Hauptbanhof during the time of the DDR, the train to Dresden left at precisely the time, to the second. And they even had first and second class tickets, which surprised me a great deal. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I think we all needed this kind of predictable movie in the early 1950’s. The kids’ programs were similarly filled with happy endings. Probably a result of total war fatigue and a desire for better times.

    Liked by 1 person

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