Magnificent Obsession wasn’t German expatriate Douglas Sirk’s first film made in Hollywood, his first collaboration with frothy producer Ross Hunter, or his first dabbling in the genre of melodrama. It isn’t even, by Sirk enthusiasts’ measure, his first masterpiece. But in retrospect it was the decisive turning point for his late career boom, in which he crafted deliriously purplish, deeply jaded women’s weepies that only later became revered for both celebrating and critiquing the excesses of red-blooded, middle-American ‘50s entertainment.
And it’s no softball first pitch: Fate, irony, faith, altruism, martinis, speedboats, instantaneous blindness, exotic European clinics, secular Christianity, charitable sexuality, and modernist interior design are all ladled onto moralist/novelist Lloyd C. Douglas’s rickety narrative frame without so much as the whisper of a suspicion that the whole enterprise ought to collapse even without the added weight of Sirk’s soon-to-be trademark Brechtian skepticism. In short, Magnificent Obsession is perhaps the first Sirk film to call to mind Stuart Klawans’s memorable description of “film follies” (in the essential book of the same name): “These are movies for people who want to die from too much cinema.”
Of course, Sirk’s ‘50s melodramas are far too rigorous and tightly wound to ever merit comparison to the delightful fiscal irresponsibility of Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, and David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, even if occasionally his subject matter approached emotional recklessness of a comparable magnitude. Sirk’s specialty during this rarified period was chronicling with a merciless analytical bent (good humor? Bad faith?) the mechanics of American soapers. It’s become a cliché to celebrate Sirk now for his cold, ruthless take on social mores, and to overcompensate for deconstructing not only those behavioral habits but also how pop culture reflects and feeds them.
What people don’t quite give him credit for nowadays in their rush to justify his intellectual credentials is the fact that if he didn’t necessarily believe in the cheesecake he served up, he gave off a damned good impression—one that makes all the difference in the world and why Sirk’s movies endure as almost any one of his more celebrated contemporaries falls continually in and out of fashion. The proof is in Magnificent Obsession‘s goopy pudding. Unlike All That Heaven Allows (with that shot of Jane Wyman trapped inside a TV set that all but writes the dissertation for you), Written on the Wind (the ultimate example of Sirk’s sympathy for the devils and contempt for virtue), and Imitation of Life (a movie that for 50 years now has mopped the floor with any other attempt to tackle America’s never-to-be-resolved race crisis), Magnificent Obsession is really and truly utter trash. And it’s unapologetically entertaining.
It opens with a breathless orgasm of proofs to Murphy’s Law: Rock Hudson’s callous playboy gets into a 180mph boating accident basically because he can afford it, is saved by a special medical device invented by a doctor on the other side of the lake, a doctor who happens to have a heart attack at the very moment his device is saving Hudson’s life, after which Hudson spends a long and frosty recuperation at the hospital run by…guess who? It ends with a medical miracle that sees Hudson himself attempting a lifesaving operation on that doctor’s widow (Wyman), but not before achieving a mystical spiritual rebirth and, just for the ladies, scrubbing down in the longest shirtless surgical prep scene in cinematic history. Somewhere in between those two story points, Hudson indirectly causes Wyman to go blind, discovers something like a god in the form of a cryptically gay-ish artiste, entertains Wyman with the help of an adolescent live-action Peppermint Patty, and goes a little gray at the temples. Wyman, meanwhile, cries.
Sirk takes this plot (which was already committed to film in workmanlike fashion by John M. Stahl during the 1930s) and accentuates all the aspects that shouldn’t work: incidental coincidences, irrational decisions, sermons of nebulous denomination. His commitment to the ridiculous is what finesses that trademark Sirkian irony, but it’s not a safe, intelligent irony. One can’t watch Magnificent Obsession today in the same way one would All That Heaven Allows, focusing on Sirk’s ahead-of-his-time attack on small-town mentality. Magnificent Obsession is a much more mysterious beast, one that doesn’t work without a belief in Sirk’s form. In that sense, it’s the ultimate litmus test. If you pass, you might also come to realize that Hudson’s decision to overthrow rationality because the cherub choir swells to a crescendo is the movie’s best self-fulfilling metaphor.