Magnificent Obsession (1954): Douglas Sirk’s Stirring Melodrama, Starring Jane Wyman and Launching Rock Hudson as Major Star

Lavishly helmed by Douglas Sirk, Magnificent Obsession, the 1954 melodrama starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, established Sirk’s reputation as an elegant stylist.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Magnificent Obsession

The screenplay, co-penned by Robert Blees and Wells Root, is based on the 1929 book Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas.

Produced by Ross Hunter, it was the second version of the story, which Universal made in 1935 into a popular melodrama starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor.  The 1935 picture made Taylor a bona fide star and the 1954 performed the same function for the then struggling actor Hudson.

Hudson plays spoiled playboy Bob Merrick, whose reckless behavior causes him to lose control of his speed boat. Rescuers send for the nearest resuscitator, located in Dr. Phillips’s house across the lake. While the resuscitator is being used to save Merrick, Dr. Phillips suffers a heart attack and dies.  Merrick becomes a patient at Dr. Phillips’s clinic, where most of the doctors and nurses resent the fact that Merrick inadvertently caused Dr. Phillips’s death.

Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman), Dr. Phillips’s young widow, receives calls, letters and visitors, offering to pay back loans that Dr. Phillips refused to accept repayment of during his time.  Many claimed he refused by saying “it was already used up.”  Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), a famous artist and Dr. Phillips’s friend, explains to Helen what that phrase means, which helps her understand why her husband left little money, even though he had a successful practice.

When Merrick discovers why he is disliked, he flees the clinic but collapses in front of Helen’s car and ends up back at the hospital, where she learns of his true identity. After his discharge, Merrick leaves a party drunk, and running off the road, he ends up at the home of Edward Randolph, who recognizes him. Randolph explains the secret belief that powered his own art and Dr. Phillips’s success. Merrick decides to try out this new philosophy. His first attempt causes Helen to step into the path of a car while trying to run away from his advances. She is blinded by this accident.

Merrick decides to becoming a doctor, trying to fulfill Dr. Phillips’s legacy. He also has fallen in love with Helen and secretly helps her adjust to her blindness under the guise of being simply a poor medical student, Robby.  Merrick secretly arranges for Helen to travel to Europe and consult the best eye surgeons in the world. After extensive tests, these surgeons tell Helen there is no hope for recovery. Right after this, Robby shows up at her hotel to provide emotional support, but eventually discovers that Helen has already guessed his real identity. Merrick asks Helen to marry him. Later that night, Helen realizes she will be a burden to him, and so runs away and disappears.

Years later, Merrick, now a dedicated and successful brain surgeon who secretly continues his philanthropic acts, searches for Helen. One evening, Randolph arrives with news that Helen is very sick in a Southwest hospital. Merrick arrives to find that Helen needs complex brain surgery to save her life. As the only capable surgeon at the clinic, Merrick performs this operation. After a long night waiting for the results, Helen awakens and discovers she can now see.

A note about the famous music: Frank Skinner composed the melodic score, which inspired a song of the same title with lyrics by Frederick Herbert. The Four Lads recorded the song with the Percy Faith orchestra. Victor Young also recorded an instrumental version of the song which featured a viola solo by Anatole Kaminsky. However, much of the score is Skinner’s arrangements of Chopin (Nocturne No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1 and Étude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3 “Tristesse”), Beethoven (“Ode to Joy” theme from Ninth Symphony), and Johann Strauss II (Wiener Blut).

The movie was a huge commercial hit, earning $5.2 million in box-office rentals.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Actress: Jane Wyman

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.

Cast

Jane Wyman as Helen Phillips.

Rock Hudson as Bob Merrick

Barbara Rush as Joyce Phillips

Agnes Moorehead as Nancy Ashford

Otto Kruger as Randolf

Gregg Palmer as Tom Masterson

Sara Shane as Valerie

Paul Cavanagh as Dr. Giraud

Richard H. Cutting as Dr. Derwin Dodge

Judy Nugent as Judy

Helen Kleeb as Mrs. Eden

Rudolph Anders as Dr. Albert Fuss

Fred Nurney as Dr. Laradetti

John Mylong as Dr. Emil Hofer

Alexander Campbell as Dr. Allan

 

Credits:

Directed by Douglas Sirk
Produced by Ross Hunter
Screenplay by Wells Root, Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, Finley Peter Dunne, based on Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas
Music by Frank Skinner
Cinematography Russell Metty
Edited by Milton Carruth

Production and distribution company: Universal Pictures

Release date : August 4, 1954

Running time: 108 minutes