In the beginning was the Lloyd C. Douglas novel (1), published in the immediate wake of the 1929 stock market crash, when the author was 52. It was the then Protestant minister’s first foray into fiction (2). Then came the first film adaptation in 1935, directed by John M. Stahl and starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, which in turn begat Douglas Sirk’s 1954 remake with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman (3).
All tell more or less the same story (4). Resuscitated after a boat accident on a lake, self-centred playboy Bobby Merrick learns that the medical team which came to his aid had been unable to reach the widely-respected Dr Wayne Hudson, who’d died as a result after suffering a heart attack at around the same time on the other side of the lake. Merrick’s guilt at what occurred and his quest for redemption lead to both his assumption of the late doctor’s role in the community and his discovery of a formula for how to lead a constructive life. Along the way, he falls in love with the doctor’s widow, her initial resistance finally giving way as various obstacles are overcome and he proves his moral worth.
Yet while their plots can be summarised in this way, the novel and the two films aren’t really telling the same story. Adaptations from page to screen and from one screen version to another are never simple or straightforward processes: a story always reveals itself in the telling. And it’s their differences in detail, tone and dramatic emphasis that are the focal point here. The various intersections and divergences that occur between the three constitute an implicit dialogue, even a debate, between the novelist and the two filmmakers (and their other collaborators) about how best to tell a particular story (5). They also reveal the preoccupations and priorities of their authors in ways that are both compelling and fascinating.
Magnificent Obsession: The Novel
Most of those who make mention of Douglas’s novel nowadays do so only in the context of Sirk’s film (Stahl’s was largely forgotten until revived in Criterion’s DVD packaging of it with the Sirk in 2009). And the mention is usually dismissive.
While the book became a bestseller, leading to Douglas’s retirement from the ministry to concentrate full-time on his writing, the initial critical response to the novel was generally unfavourable. The author appears to have taken this in stride, later responding that “if my novels are entertaining I am glad, but they were not written so much for the purpose of entertainment as of inspiration”, and drawing attention to “the importance of the school of fiction that is more concerned with healing bruised spirits than winning the applause of critics” (6).
The intervening years have done nothing to assist the novel’s reputation. In Jon Halliday’s indispensable Sirk on Sirk, his book-length interview with the director, Sirk reveals that he actually never managed to complete Douglas’s novel. “[Producer] Ross Hunter gave me the book and I tried to read it, but I just couldn’t,” he says. “It is the most confused book you can imagine. . . so abstract in many respects that I didn’t see a picture in it.” Halliday sees no reason to disagree: “It is a terrible book” (7). More recently, film critic Dave Kehr, in a review of the DVD release of the two Magnificent Obsession films, pulls no punches with his throwaway dismissal: “The Douglas book turns out to be an all-but-unreadable, proto-New Age hodgepodge of mystical self-help advice . . . smothered in some of the most turgid prose imaginable (8).
That said, it’s difficult to find any substantial consideration of the novel anywhere. It’s as if critics have been scrutinising it through a telescope rather than a microscope, a not especially helpful approach if one is trying to examine the processes being followed in adapting it from the page to the screen. And, while Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession is indeed a bit of a mess, it’s also reasonably engaging pulp storytelling, fuelled by its author’s committed belief in the rewards on offer from a Higher Power and occasionally leavened by a dry humour.
A parable-like tale loaded with Biblical allusions, it’s shaped as both a love story and a mystery, with Merrick as the protagonist, Helen Hudson as his beloved and her late husband’s coded journal as a puzzle which, once solved, will provide the means to Merrick’s redemption. However, Merrick isn’t introduced until more than 20 pages in. The opening chapter instead takes us inside Dr Hudson’s life before the accident that ends it, establishing him as both a decent man and “the most important figure in the field of brain surgery on this continent” (9). And his legacy remains a driving force throughout the rest of the novel, Merrick’s eventual decoding of Hudson’s diary leading to his discovery of the keys to the kingdom (10).
According to veteran neurosurgeon Gary V. Vander Ark, it has long been understood that Douglas drew on a real-life model for his depiction of Dr Hudson. “[Between 1916 and 1921] Douglas was the minister at the Congregation Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is only a few blocks from the University Hospital,” writes Vander Ark. “And it has always been a poorly kept secret in Michigan that Edgar A. Kahn, MD, was the neurosurgical inspiration for Magnificent Obsession.”
“Dr Kahn was my hero,” he continues, “and it has always been my goal to emulate Dr Kahn in my practice of neurosurgery. He certainly passed on his magnificent obsession to all of his residents. We were (also) amazed at his ability to give of himself to his patients. Even when Dr Kahn reached retirement age, he lost none of his passion. He spent his entire career at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor and always worked for $1 per year” (11).
In Douglas’s novel, the epiphany that enables Merrick’s road-to-Damascus moment is his realisation that Hudson’s commitment to “a higher altruism” (12), his magnificent obsession, had been the secret source of his power. In his diary, Hudson cites his inspiration as a sculptor named Randolph, now dead, describing him not only as “a consummate artist” but also “a miracle-man” (13). From him, the doctor has learned about the rewards of performing good deeds and revealing them to no-one except the recipient.
Douglas draws a clear parallel between Hudson and Merrick’s lives both in the way they discover these rewards and in what they do as a result. Merrick becomes Hudson’s spiritual heir, assuming responsibility for others and leading them to follow his example. Those he helps, even Helen’s cousin, who exploits his position as a broker to steal from her, find a new purpose by doing as he does. And, as she rebuffs Merrick’s romantic advances, Helen too comes to understand through him that a key obligation to her late husband is to care for the welfare of Joyce, his adult daughter from a previous marriage. “Young Merrick was trying to discharge his! How about hers?” she wonders (14). If Merrick is a Christ figure, then she and everyone else who falls under his spell become surrogate disciples.
Merrick says that the transactions that take place as a result of their shared magnificent obsession can be objectively measured. “This thing I’ve been talking about is not in the field of ethics,” he declares to one of these disciples, a friend in the ministry. “It belongs rather to science. We have been at great pains to construct devices and machinery to be energized by steam and electricity and sunshine; but haven’t realized how human personality can be made just as receptive to the power of our Major Personality” (15). The assertions might be Merrick’s, but, placed near the end of the novel and presented as a sign of his now-transcendent wisdom, they’re clearly being cast as the truth towards which he has been moving.
Curiously, at the same time as this cock-eyed notion is delivered straight-faced, Douglas’s explanation of how the process works is repeatedly grounded in the language of American capitalism. Rather than being measured as a sign of moral health, the doing of good deeds is compared to a financial transaction. Merrick’s wealth (like Hudson’s before him) not only allows donations to the cause of those in need but also provides him with the requisite funds to play the spiritual investment game. “In the process of expanding yourself, you are almost sure to help someone else make himself bigger,” Merrick explains to Helen’s duplicitous cousin. “Personality projection is like any other investment. The thing goes on! It earns compound interest” (16).
Asked if there’s still reward to be had for the benefactor if the beneficiary fails to make good on the investment, Merrick doesn’t seem to think so. “Oh, it’s good practice, I suppose,” he replies, “But if you had spent twenty thousand dollars and six months’ time sinking an oil-shaft, and got nothing but a dry hole, would you have much satisfaction in reflecting that – at all events – you’d tried?” (17)
Douglas establishes early on that the lesson that Merrick has to learn during the course of the book is that money can’t always make a problem go away. In the aftermath of the accident that leads to Hudson’s death, he makes Merrick’s irresponsible mind-set explicit. “There would always be some way to settle it. There always had been. Was he not accustomed to paying for smashed fenders, broken china, splintered furniture, outraged feelings, and interrupted business? If anybody had a grievance, let him make a bill of it, and he would draw a cheque” (18).
Yet his conversion is achieved by effectively buying his way into a new deal, his wealth now being used to grease God’s palm rather than given away without any thought of reward. He might use his fortune for good causes – including paying for his own medical studies – but Douglas ensures that he’s always rewarded with the proper pay-off. At the end of the book, he uses his skills as a surgeon, as well as a revolutionary scalpel he’s invented along the way, to save Helen’s life and sight after she’s injured overseas in an accident.
Douglas’s story might have been designed as a modern parable – in line with his view of his writing more as an extension of his work in the pulpit than as an art – but it appears to have little in common with an earlier one about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Merrick might be anonymously giving his money away to those in need, but his motives for doing so are hardly altruistic.
Magnificent Obsession: The 1935 Adaptation
According to sources cited by TCM (19), Universal originally offered the adaptation of Douglas’s best-seller to Frank Borzage but he was forced to turn down the project when Warner Bros. refused to release him. It’s fascinating to reflect on what Borzage, who had two Best Director Oscars to his credit at the time – for the sublime 7th Heaven (1929) and Bad Girl (1931) – and a potent reputation might have done with the material. Given the transcendent romanticism that drives his work, it’s much more likely that he would have played it straight rather than reshaping it in the way that Stahl does.
Certainly that was how he went about adapting Douglas’s 1935 novel, Green Light, to the screen the following year. And the similarities between it and Magnificent Obsession are irresistible. Set in England and starring Errol Flynn as a doctor “without too many scruples and not very much courage” (his own words), it traces the course of his redemption under the spiritual guidance of a patient (Spring Byington) and her Boethius-inspired, Randolph-like minister (Cedric Hardwicke). (20) Also in the mix is a budding romance between the doctor and the patient’s daughter (Anita Louise), although, since she holds him responsible (wrongly) for the botched operation in which her mother dies, he keeps his identity secret from her for a time. And, finally, the doctor’s reparation for his character failings is achieved by a sacrifice he makes in the interests of medical practice.
Borzage doesn’t take a backward step from his material, unambiguously celebrating the capacity for individuals to rise above their limitations and to reach out for something beyond themselves. When Flynn’s doctor puts his life on the line in the film’s final passages, it’s for a higher purpose and Borzage lends his sacrificial endeavours a moving, Christ-like force.
By contrast, Stahl’s adaptation of Magnificent Obsession is much more measured. It’s as if he has set out to drain the material of as much of its melodramatic trajectory as possible. Comic bits of business are frequently deployed to provide a counterpoint to the emotional intensity of unfolding events; composer Franz Waxman supervises a soundtrack that is largely devoid of the mood music that was de rigueur for dramas of the 1930s; and Stahl’s visual style rigorously eschews the big, glowing close-ups that are characteristic of the melodramas of the time.
Instead, working with cinematographer John J. Mescall (who collaborated with him again on When Tomorrow Comes), Stahl relies heavily on master shots, with exchanges between the characters repeatedly filmed as unbroken two- and three-shot exchanges. The effect is to draw our attention to the flow of an interaction rather than to the individuals’ particular contributions to it – to make it not about one or another, but both or all – a visual approach which is subtly distancing and, arguably, at odds with any melodramatic impulse. And which is also at odds with Andrew Sarris’s notion that a defining feature of Stahl’s work was his “naïve sincerity” (21).
The screenplay was officially written by the husband-and-wife team of Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (who also collaborated on the 1930s versions of Stella Dallas and Little Women) and George O’Neil (who also worked with Stahl in 1933 on Only Yesterday, the first screen adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella, Letter from an Unknown Woman), as well as an uncredited committee of 10 others, including Philip Dunne (22). And, while the almost vignette-styled plot – made up of relatively brief “chapters” separated by fades to black – is readily recognisable as an adaptation of the one in Douglas’s novel (the Sirk film also deploys the same strategy), numerous details have been changed that also make it a very different kind of story.
Gone are numerous establishing elements and secondary characters as the filmmakers trim back the plot detail and establish a different tone for the telling of the tale. Whereas the novel opens with 20 pages of back-story for Dr Hudson, Stahl’s film begins as his wife, Helen (Irene Dunne), picks up his daughter, Joyce (Betty Furness), from the New York pier at around the time of his offscreen death. Only on their return to Westchester and the Brightwood Hospital run by Hudson do they (and we) hear about the accident. And all that we come to know of the doctor emerges through what the other characters in the film have to say about him.
Randolph, the famous sculptor who was Hudson’s spiritual mentor in the novel, is dead before the novel’s story begins. Here, however, played by Ralph Morgan, he’s alive and well and, in fact, indebted to Hudson for the access he’s gained to the secret power, rather than the other way around. As a result, there’s no need for any diary to be decoded in order for Merrick to discover how “to make contact with a source of infinite power”. It’s a simple solution to the filmmakers’ problem of having to find something visually interesting in a man poring over a book for lengthy stretches of time or launching into extended philosophical dissertations about its contents.
Randolph’s explanation to Merrick of what Hudson taught him introduces Christ as the first person to make use of that power, but carefully avoids any suggestion of an analogy between its acquisition and the workings of capitalism. In fact, when Merrick wonders if he could use his money to help those in need, Randolph replies, “Since you happen to have so much of it, money’s alright. But there are other kinds of help as well.” And, although Merrick believes he has been rewarded for his good deeds when he gives money to a man down on his luck and his life immediately seems to take a turn for the better – Helen turns up – the sequence of events is presented as coincidental rather than an endorsement of his calculated generosity.
The film not only dispenses entirely with the novel’s back story relating to source of the Merrick family’s wealth but also changes it from an automobile empire to an electrical power company. The grandfather who founded it is only referred to in a throwaway line: near the end of Merrick’s first visit to Randolph’s studio, he says that his grandfather owns stock in a nearby powerhouse. His aside comes as Randolph compares how Hudson taught him “to make contact with a source of infinite power” with the turning on of a switch to make a stove work, a much more concise analogy than the one Douglas had come up with in the novel (23).
The adaptation also cuts any reference to there being an earlier romantic attachment between Merrick and Helen’s stepdaughter, Joyce, the filmmakers clearly regarding it as an unnecessary complication. Similarly, it removes any reference to the unconsummated yearnings hospital superintendent Nancy Ashford (Sara Haden) had for Hudson in the novel.
It’s also changed the character of Tommy, Joyce’s boyfriend. In the novel, he’s an old friend of Merrick’s with a drinking problem that threatens his relationship with Joyce and needs help to get his act together. Cue another Merrick intervention. In the film, however, played by Charles Butterworth, he’s simply depicted as her good-humoured lap-dog, nicknamed “Poopsy” and tagging along behind her in the opening sequence like a transplant from a screwball comedy. He appears primarily in the interests of light relief, only perfunctorily crosses paths briefly with Merrick and doesn’t have a drinking problem. Along the same lines, the film’s Merrick is given a comic manservant, Horace (Arthur Treacher, in a role that could have equally been played by Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn).
As in the novel, Helen’s financial affairs and those of the hospital are in a mess as a result of her late husband’s deployment of its funds for his charitable acts, and Merrick again works secretly to set them in order. But there’s no duplicitous broker cousin around here to take advantage of Helen’s financial gullibility.
There are further changes between novel and film in their depictions of Helen and what happens to her, some of them minor, some crucial. Most significantly, the accident that blinds her and puts her life at risk occurs late in the book (only 16 pages before it ends), but takes place before the half-way mark of the film (49 minutes in; the total running time is 112 minutes). Presented as a direct result of her attempt to escape Merrick’s advances, it makes it seem as if there’s nothing he can do right as far as the Hudson family is concerned.
At the same time, however, it has far-reaching effects on the telling of the rest of the story. One is that, supported by some citing of Hamlet that isn’t in the book, the Oedipal implications of Merrick’s mission and his pursuit of Helen come more clearly into focus. Put simply, the reshaping of the plot leads to them spending more time together, her adjusting to her blindness, him assuming a new identity as he ingratiates his way into her trust. And what happens between them is no longer thrust into the background by his extended musings about Hudson’s diary or by his discussions about religion late in the book with a minister friend on whom he’s operated (and who doesn’t figure in the film).
The casting of Dunne, who was 35 at the time while Taylor was 24, and the actress’s performance lends her character an assurance that Helen seems to lack in the novel. There her vulnerability is underlined by how long it takes for her to realize the identity of the man she’s falling for (page 132, about half-way into the book), whereas he becomes aware of who she is almost immediately after fate has drawn them together for the first time by having her car break down on a country road (page 64).
In the film, both discover who the other is immediately after that meeting (about 10 minutes in), when they’re introduced in the hospital. Their scenes together, both before and after this, create the strong impression that she’s the one in control. Her manner is very much that of a mother dealing with a precocious child (24). This, combined with how the late Hudson functions plot-wise as a father figure for Merrick, even though the two never meet, makes an Oedipal reading virtually irresistible.
In both novel and film, Helen travels to Europe, but for very different reasons. In the book, it’s strongly suggested that her trip is a flight from her feelings for Merrick. Rather than dealing head-on with them and her problems at home, including Joyce’s unhappiness, she chooses to try to escape them. Further disillusionment sets in when she realises that Merrick is manipulating her life from afar – with the best of intentions, of course – helped by a friend whose husband he’s assisted with his medical studies back home (neither the woman nor her husband appear in the film). It’s only the news of her accident that brings Helen and the now famous Dr. Merrick together again, with him performing the operation that saves her sight and her life.
In the film, however, her trip to Europe occurs after her accident when, unbeknownst to her, Merrick arranges for a consultation with the world’s leading eye specialists in Paris. Beforehand, bizarrely unrecognised and despite Joyce’s disapproval, he’d inveigled his way into her company and given her hope when there appeared to be none.
However, when the specialists tell her that nothing can be done, the film’s tone darkens considerably. Facing the rest of her life without her sight – “Joyce, you don’t know how lonely it is in the dark,” she tells her travelling companion (who doesn’t accompany her in the book) – she contemplates leaping from her apartment window in Paris to her death. Only Merrick’s unexpected arrival from America prevents her from doing so, although she mistakes his subsequent proposal to her for pity and disappears from the city.
The film’s rearrangement of the narrative not only pushes the relationship between Merrick and Helen more fully into the foreground, but it also grounds his efforts to step into Hudson’s shoes in his feelings for her and his wish to do something to help her condition rather than in his belief in some higher power.
After Helen vanishes, six years pass before he receives news of her (it’s only a few minutes of screen time). In the interim, he’s become a brilliant surgeon, funded clinics, donated to medical research and been rewarded for his efforts with a Nobel Prize. He’s now a fully-fledged and officially-accredited hero. Furthermore, as he explains to Randolph, his good deeds haven’t been “to better myself in any way” but to assist Helen, “hoping she might be one of those helped without my knowledge”.
The film thus replaces the novel’s insistence on the benefits available for benefactors with an emphasis on Merrick’s selflessness. And it knowingly reflects on the happy ending which it confers on the lovers with its reference to the Sleeping Beauty fairytale in its closing sequence, Merrick’s operation on Helen serving as the equivalent of a waking kiss. Reflects on, but doesn’t undermine.
The Stahl film’s reshaping of the material has resulted in the telling of a very different kind of story from the one told in the novel. The results are sometimes to the film’s detriment: the screwball elements, for example, at times seem awkward, as if out of touch with the serious events unfolding around them. But the general rearrangement of Douglas’s plot, the distinctively different viewpoint the film brings to its characters and their motives, and the marked shift in tone make it clear that what is implicit in Stahl and his collaborators’ work is as much a debate with its source as it is a story in its own right.
Magnificent Obsession – The 1954 Adaptation
If Stahl set out to drain much of the melodrama out of Douglas’s source novel, Sirk’s goal appears to have been to put it all back in, and then some. Much of the commentary on his version over the years has correctly drawn attention to its use of the stock features of melodrama: the exaggerated use of coincidences in the plotting, the broadly-drawn characters, the full-on score, and so on. Sirk drew extensively on these elements throughout his career, but it’s probably accurate to say that, of all the films he made, Magnificent Obsession is where he takes them over the top.
Perhaps as a result of this, as Jean-Loup Bourget points out in his fine commentary, “even some of Sirk’s devotees have trouble in accepting (it)” (25). The melodramatic excess might also explain why Victoria L. Evans, in her refreshingly original reading, introduces it as “this infamous film” (26). And why, in Sirk on Sirk, Halliday begins the discussion about it by confessing his discomfort with it: “I’m rather perplexed how you came to make something like this,” he says, describing the film as “an out-and-out melodrama, to put it mildly” (27) and “an appalling weepie” (28). Even Sirk himself describes the material he’s dealing with as “a combination of kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness” (29).
The project was initially brought to his attention by producer Ross Hunter (30) as a production Jane Wyman wanted to work on. With her career in the ascendancy after she won an Oscar for Johnny Belinda (1948) and nominations for The Yearling (1946) and The Blue Veil (1952), the actress had achieved a considerable degree of credibility for her wounded-women roles.
Just as Sirk said he tried in vain to read Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel, he also claimed never to have seen Stahl’s adaptation. “I didn’t know it even existed,” he tells Halliday. “I think that what happened was that Ross Hunter had a treatment made of the Stahl script. . . I took it home and read it. I thought, my god, and then I showed it to Mrs. Sirk and she read it and said, ‘Detlef, if you make this you’re dead – and so am I’” (31).
With these comments Sirk would appear to be disassociating his version of Magnificent Obsession from both the novel and the Stahl adaptation, the implicit suggestion being that his film owes little to them. But this is clearly not the case, even if, finally, its indebtedness is far outweighed by the fresh insights it’s able to bring to its sources. For, at the same time as Sirk’s film is very different in tone, various aspects of its predecessors’ character profiling, dialogue and narrative shape has found its way into them. Some of the similarities stem from the original novel, others from the changes Stahl’s film makes to its plot details or, perhaps, from the treatment Hunter passed on to Sirk (32).
Adapted by Wells Root, with a screenplay by Robert Blees, who also co-wrote Sirk’s All I Desire (1953), and an uncredited Finley Peter Dunne (who also worked without acknowledgement on the original Magnificent Obsession), Sirk’s remake more or less traces the same story arc as Stahl’s. Wyman replaces Irene Dunne (and also receives top billing), Rock Hudson replaces Robert Taylor, and the late Dr Wayne Hudson becomes the late Dr Wayne Phillips, apparently to avoid any confusion between the character and the film’s male lead (although it remains difficult to work out who exactly might have been confused by this). As in the 1935 version, he remains an offscreen character even though he again still exerts a significant influence over the unfolding events. His intermediary, as in Stahl’s film, is Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), a painter this time rather than a sculptor.
There are numerous other minor changes, although their accumulation lends them significance. The film opens with Bob Merrick hurtling dangerously across a lake in his speedboat, an accident waiting to happen, rather than with Helen picking up Joyce and Tommy at the pier in New York. Sirk’s film introduces the two women in the following sequence as they’re driving home after a Manhattan shopping excursion (with Barbara Rush as Joyce), just before they arrive to hear about Dr Phillips’ death. Soon afterwards, as the boorish Merrick, wearing stylish silk pyjamas, complains about the service in the hospital where he’s recuperating after the accident, superintendent Nancy Ashford (Agnes Moorehead) makes mention in passing of the source of his wealth: “the Merrick Motor Company”, as in the novel (Sirk might not have read Douglas’s novel, but clearly someone contributing to the screenplay had).
Instead of Merrick coming across Helen and her broken-down car on a country road, Sirk’s film brings them together as she’s driving home from the hospital and as he’s fleeing an enforced post-accident convalescence but only too willing to pause to make a pass at an attractive woman. As in the novel, he realizes who she is during their conversation; as in Stahl’s film, she doesn’t discover who he is until his return to the hospital.
The Oedipal thrust evident in the Stahl film is again noteworthy here, as Michael Stern points out in his book on Sirk (33). It’s made even clearer by having the action start with Merrick’s bravado and Dr Phillips’ death as an inadvertent consequence of it.
Chronologically the age difference between the two leads – Wyman was 36 at the time of filming, Hudson 28 – might have been marginally less than the 11 years separating Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. But the younger-man-older woman dynamic that was made explicit in Sirk’s recasting of Wyman and Hudson for All That Heaven Allows (1955) is already in evidence here. Wyman, who earned another Oscar nomination for the film and who gives a performance that is both dignified and heartbreaking, always looked older than her years and seemed well-equipped to deal with whatever crises befell her characters (34).
In one of the many coincidences propelling the Stahl film as well as the Sirk, Merrick ends up at Randolph’s studio-home after he and Tommy have been out on the town, with a sozzled Tommy behind the wheel of the car as they pull up at a Road Closed sign. In Sirk’s film, screwball Tommy is transformed into the much more upright Tom (Gregg Palmer), lawyer to the Phillips family as well as Joyce’s fiancé, while a drunk Merrick is alone and driving when his sports car crashes into a Danger sign only a short stagger from Randolph’s front door. Merrick’s recklessness and irresponsibilityis the point here, as it had been on the lake, and as it is in a subsequent sequence when his arrival at an outdoor restaurant is marked by squealing tyres.
This is linked to his insecurities about his place in the world, which Sirk establishes visually by having him constantly trying to force his way into spaces occupied by others, as if afraid of being left out of the life going on inside them. He’s forever knocking on people’s doors, demanding to be let in, or barging into the frame insisting that people pay attention to him. Seen in this context, his decision to make reparation for the wrongs he believes he’s done to Helen and to be the best doctor he can are as much a consequence of his insecurities, his need to find acceptance, as they are a way of providing for those in need.
During Merrick’s initial exchange with Randolph, the artist-come-guardian-angel explains how Phillips, his best friend, had shown him “how to make contact with an infinite source of power”, using a lamp (rather than the stove of the earlier version) to illustrate the point. In the Stahl film, Randolph makes the point and it’s not referred to again; in the Sirk, it resonates visually throughout the rest of the film, the subsequent switching on of lamps and other lighting devices and the opening of blinds a way of bringing light into a prevailing darkness. A simple detail in the 1935 film is transformed into a key motif in the 1954 one.
In most of Sirk’s work, the décor defines the characters’ world. His use of domestic interiors often suggests a self-imposed prison limiting the options available to their inhabitants (as in There’s Always Tomorrow). Here, however, the characters seem to be struggling with forces they can no more see than we can: the forces of fate and happenstance that lie beyond human awareness or understanding. Beautifully shot and lit in a mostly non-naturalistic style by regular Sirk collaborator Russell Metty (35), Magnificent Obsession creates a world in which the characters seem forever threatened by an encroaching darkness, constantly being trapped in pools of shadow.
The impression is further highlighted by the recurring visual contrast between the shadow-dominated interiors and the bright exteriors visible through windows and with the vibrant colours of objects frequently prominent in the frame (most often flowers). In such a context, the switching on of a lamp, or even the mere presence of one in a shot, serves as an ongoing reminder of the characters’ attempts to cast some light on their surroundings, metaphorically as well as literally. It’s not just Helen who finds herself groping around in the dark.
As in Stahl’s version, it is because of an insensitive Merrick’s attempts to win over the still-grieving widow that she is blinded in a car accident. This happens at roughly the same point in Sirk’s telling of the story (40 minutes in; the film runs for 108). And, again as in the Stahl, during her recovery, he inveigles his way into her company by hiding his identity from her. Here, though, Merrick secretly pays for her to travel to Switzerland, rather than Paris, to consult the eye specialists.
Their bad news once more leads her to despair. “It’s funny but the night-time is the worst time,” she tells Joyce, “It does get darker, you know. And I know that, when I wake up in the morning, there won’t be any dawn.” As if to push away Helen’s suffering, Joyce turns on the lamps in their apartment. But they make no difference and soon afterwards Helen is contemplating suicide.
This time, though, she’s already made the decision not to jump to her death by the time Merrick rings the doorbell to the apartment they’ve rented. Reaching out blindly on the balcony, she knocks a pot plant over the edge, its crash to the ground calling a halt to her movement towards the edge.
As in Stahl’s version, Merrick then takes Helen out for the evening. But instead of a romantic evening in a glittering Paris, cast in the mould of an Ernst Lubitsch set, Sirk has the lovers driving through the Swiss countryside (back-projected) to a small village where a festival is in progress and they dance the night away together. Their dialogue as they drive underlines the fairytale aspects of their escapade. “There’s a moon, as there should be,” Merrick tells her, describing what she can’t see. “And, just ahead, the lights of a little old town.” “Just as there should be,” she finishes for him. They’re both knowingly engaging in the fantasy, itself serving as a light in their darkness (36).
As Bourget points out (37), the sequence is filled with echoes of Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948): their drive through the back-projected countryside recalls the sequence in which Stefan (Louis Jordan) and Lisa (Joan Fontaine) visit a scenic railway at a Vienna park, their romantic exchange set against a background defined by its artifice; and their dancing past midnight, oblivious to the restaurant staff’s wish to head home, refers one to a similar scene in Ophuls’ film.
To Merrick’s proposal that, from tomorrow, they’ll never be apart, Helen wistfully sighs, “Tomorrow,” as if wishing away the knowledge that she’s already planning to disappear from his life so as not to burden him with her disability. Their exchange here is echoed by the last scene of the film, after Merrick has operated on her and successfully restored her sight. Sirk is both giving us the fairytale ending and reminding us that we shouldn’t be deceived by it. “Starting tomorrow, we’ll never be apart,” he tells her. As the music soars, ostensibly signalling a happy ending, she sighs again, “Tomorrow. . . tomorrow. . . ah, tomorrow.”
In casting a shadow of ambiguity over the “magnificent obsession” that guides the film’s characters towards hope and, in Merrick’s case, redemption, Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession moves us far from the mission-accomplished, rewards-received, life-goes-on resolution to Douglas’s novel and from the more nuanced happy ending to Stahl’s film, with its strategic summoning of a fairy-tale reference. And although reference is made to the noble man who “went to the cross at the age of 33”, the religious underpinnings to Douglas’s novel and, to a lesser extent, Stahl’s adaptation of it are all but done away with here.
A central aesthetic underpinning Sirk’s work is that the stories he has to tell are always (and knowingly) complicated by the ways he tells them. In particular, they emerge through the dichotomy he’s able to create between their visual design and their characters’ understandings of their circumstances. His Magnificent Obsession perfectly illustrates this. While its surfaces might suggest “a ferociously straight face” (38), they also point to other ways of understanding the drama unspooling before our eyes. And they achieve a moving balance between an empathy for the plight of the characters – Hudson’s powerful contribution as Merrick is often undervalued, as is Wyman’s performance – and the ironic distance which allows us to see them all in a different light.
1. Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession, first published by Willett, Clark & Colby, USA, in 1929. Page references in endnotes below correspond to the 1952 UK Pan paperback edition.
2. A further six of Douglas’s stories found their way on to the big-screen, three directed by Frank Borzage – Green Light (1936), Disputed Passage (1939) and The Big Fisherman (1959) – as well as White Banners (1938), The Robe (1953) and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), in which writer Philip Dunne and director Delmer Daves extend the adventures of the former slave played by Victor Mature. Dr Hudson’s Secret Journal, published in 1937 and a prequel to Magnificent Obsession, spawned both an hour-long dramatisation in The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse on American television in 1951 and a TV series in 1955.
3.The two versions of Magnificent Obsession are available together in a DVD package released by Criterion.
4. Some sources suggest John Woo’s The Killer (1989) is a further remake of Magnificent Obsession. However, while it does share some elements in common – a hitman inadvertently blinds a young singer and sets out to make amends for his mistake – it hardly constitutes a remake. Kenneth Hall’s John Woo: The Films, second edition, McFarland, USA, 1999, p. 84, reports Woo’s claim that he had not seen either film version when he made The Killer.
5. I discussed the same kind of exchange in slightly different terms in “The Adaptation and the Remake: From John M. Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes to Douglas Sirk’s Interlude” in Senses of Cinema, Issue 70 (March 2014)
7. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk (new and revised edition), Faber and Faber, 1997, p. 106
8. Dave Kehr, “Magnificent Obsessions”, The New York Times, January 19, 2009
9. Douglas, op. cit., p. 8
10. In providing a kind of magic wand for Merrick to use in the world, the lesson provided by Hudson’s diary serves as an approximate dramatic equivalent to the discovery of the green light in Douglas’s Green Light (1935) and to the power attached to Christ’s robe in The Robe (1942).
11.Dr. Gary V. Vander Ark, American Association of Neurological Surgeons Media Bulletin, Vol. 10, Issue 4 <http://www.aans.org/Media/Article.aspx?ArticleId=10020>
12. Douglas, op. cit., p. 125
13. ibid, p. 96
14. ibid, p. 80
15. ibid, pp. 227 – 8
16. ibid, p. 171
17. ibid, p. 172
18. ibid, p. 26
19. TCM Movie Database, <http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/82394/Magnificent-Obsession/articles.html> The website also notes that, before up-and-coming new star Robert Taylor was borrowed from MGM for his first big leading role, unsuccessful overtures had been made to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to play Bobby Merrick.Coincidentally, Taylor’s first feature role was as a supporting player in Too Late for Love, aka There’s Always Tomorrow (1934), based on an unpublished novel by Ursula Parrott, directed by Edward Sloman, and remade by Douglas Sirk in 1956.
20. Cited by the minister, Boethius was a 6th-Century philosopher whose work was based on a belief in the existence of “a higher power” to which everything else is secondary.
21. Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema”, Film Culture, Spring 1963 [cited in Stephen Handzo, “Intimations of Lifelessness: Sirk’s Ironic Tearjerker”, Bright Lights, No. 6, Winter 1977 – 78, p. 20]
22. TCM Movie Database, op. cit.
23. Douglas, op. cit., p. 112: “What did Volta’s battery or Faraday’s dynamo amount to, practically, until Du Fay discovered an insulation that would protect the current from being dissipated through contacts with other things than the object to be energized?”
24. This could at least partially be a consequence of Taylor’s awkward playing during the first half of the film. When he’s supposed to be young and irresponsible, he’s much less convincing (especially when simulating drunkenness) than when he ages (primarily via some greying around the temples) and discovers a new direction in life.
25. Jean-Loup Bourget, “God is Dead, or Through a Glass Darkly,” Bright Lights, No. 6, Winter 1977 – 78, p. 24
26. Victoria L. Evans, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art: Magnificent Obsession and the Language of Expressionist Painting”, CineACTION, Issue 91, 2013, pp. 34
27. Halliday, op. cit., p. 105
28. ibid, p. 202
29. ibid, p. 110
30. Hunter had produced three films for Sirk in the previous year – Take Me to Town, All I Desire and Taza, Son of Cochise – and went on to produce six more after Magnificent Obsession. When he visited Melbourne during the 1970s on a promotional tour for Charles Jarrott’s musical version of Lost Horizon, he described Sirk as “an angel to work with” and “a man of great taste”.
31. Halliday, op. cit., p. 106
32. It was the practice of studios to routinely pass on treatments of earlier box-office successes to producers in the hope of generating interest in remakes. It’s also worth noting, again, that, structurally at least, Magnificent Obsession has much in common with Battle Hymn, which was shot three years later. Both deal with an accident and its consequences, the course of the attempt made by Colonel Dean Hess (Hudson again) to redeem himself in Battle Hymn matching the one followed by Bob Merrick here: from overwhelming guilt through involvement in a course of action designed to make reparation for his mistake. Pervading this is a strategic uncertainty attached to the characters’ motives, the films casting a shadow of ambiguity over the “magnificent obsessions” that guide them both towards redemption.
33. Michael Stern, Douglas Sirk, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1979, pp. 105 – 106
34. In the voice-over commentary he recorded for the Criterion DVD release, Thomas Doherty refers to her as “matronly”.
35. “I would never have been able to make the films the way I wanted to if it hadn’t been for Metty,” Sirk told me during one of several interviews I had with him during the 1970s and early ’80s, referring to his good fortune at having been brought together with the cinematographer simply because they were both at Universal.
36. The scene is similar to the one where Tonio (Rosanno Brazzi) drives his Helen (June Allyson) to Salzburg in Interlude (a remake of Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes) two years later. “It’s just like a fairy-tale,” she says.
37. Bourget, op. cit., p. 24 – 25
38. Geoffrey O’Brien, “Magnificent Obsessions”, liner notes in Criterion’s DVD compilation release of the Stahl and Sirk versions of Magnificent Obsession.