Retro Review: ‘Magnificent Obsession’


How should one react in the occasion their life is saved but it comes at the cost of another life? In fact, many would say the life of a person who was more worthwhile than you. How would you react? This was the issue Rock Hudson dealt with in 1954, in what would be his breakout role Magnificent Obsession a remake of a 1935 film of the same name. His response is to find some way to continue a legacy in the hopes of balancing a larger karma scale for good.

An accident leaves self-absorbed playboy Bob Merrick in need of a resuscitator to survive. This means when the beloved local doctor suddenly dies he does not have access to the only resuscitator in town. As Merrick recovers thanks to this man’s sacrifice, the doctor’s widow Helen Phillips learns that her husband has been living by a unique code of honor where he has secretly refused payment from the countless people he has helped over the years. After gaining a full understanding of the person he has deprived the world of, Bob tries to make amends to Helen to no avail. After he unintentionally causes an accident which leaves her blind, his attempts at redemption leads to him falling for her. In the hopes of continuing the life work of Helen’s husband, Bob sets out on a path to become a renowned brain surgeon. His skills are ultimately put to the test when it is none other than the woman he has fallen in love with ends up on his operating table.

If the summary above did not clue you in, this is a very sappy movie with some over-the-top plot elements. When Magnificent Obsession was originally released this was how many people saw the film. Director Douglas Sirk even turned down the film when it was initially offered to him for that very reason. He eventually relented when Jane Wyman was cast in the lead as Helen, realizing that she was a talented enough actress to make it work. Make it work she did, as Wyman took this emotionally complex role of a woman who over the course of the film loses everything but remains strong, and completely owns it. On set, her steady hand and patience proved immensely helpful to a still young and raw Rock Hudson who was eternally grateful for the patience and kindness she showed him while making the movie. In the end, Jane Wyman even received an Academy Award nomination for her fantastic performance.

The heavy melodramatic aspects of Magnificent Obsession proved to be a perfect fit for Sirk’s style as a director. His use of rich technicolor and skill at directing strong female leads meshed perfectly with the demands of this film. Realizing that this was a picture which could oh-so easily descend into camp due to it’s emotionally driven nature, he cleverly kept things restrained in order to prevent it from crossing that line.

Over the years opinions of Magnificent Obsession have drastically improved as new generations looked at it under a different light. It is cited as proof that a heavily emotional melodrama can work so long as those behind it are good. Needless to say, Douglas Sirk, Jane Wyman, and Rock Hudson were better than good in their execution. Without them this movie would easily have been a silly soap opera-esque affair. Instead it is now regarded as a classic romantic film.