Thursday, February 05, 2009

Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession" (1954) is a welcome DVD


I do remember the posters for “Magnificent Obsession” when I was 11, and I vaguely remember the talk about melodrama involving a blind woman played by Jane Wyman, but I don’t think I saw it. For years, surprisingly, there was no DVD of one of Douglas Sirk’s most famous films, until the Criterion Collection recently released a DVD of the “Universal International” romance. Right off the bat, the aspect ratio (an usual 2.0:1) is creating comment, as there is some dispute as to how the film was usually shown. The 2:1 ratio was associated with SuperScope in the 1950s, shortly after 20th Century Fox introduced CinemaScope with its spectacle of Lloyd C. Douglas’s “The Robe”.

“Magnificent Obsession” is also based on a Lloyd C. Douglas novel (from 1929), and, however the details of the plot get changed, it gets into the moral territory that we tend to associate with evangelical Christianity (or at least of the Rick Warren kind). There’s another Douglas film, “The Big Fisherman”, about the Apostle Peter, from Disney (1959), and it still does not have a DVD; hopefully it is on the way.

Most of us know that “rugged” Rock Hudson acts the rich playboy Bob Merrick who builds up the bad karma. But there really is some genuine moral ambiguity about just how much responsibility he has for Helen Phillips (Wyman) and her losses. True, he’s reckless with his speedboat, but is it his fault that the rescue squad has only one resuscitator (this is 1954; I don’t know if they had the defibrillator yet), or that Mr. Phillips had the lifestyle risks that brought about coronary thrombosis and sudden death (maybe he couldn’t have been revived; Tim Russert could not be revived with 2008 technology).

Then, later, it’s true he has an argument with Mrs. Phillips, who considers him churlish and selfish, but it’s a reckless driver who hits her as she tries to leave the car during the argument, causing her head injury and blindness.

But Merrick, in fact, has already tried to change, having met a male friend Christian, who talks about the idea that good deeds need to remain secret and not draw attention, to keep them insulated, like electric wire. (That’s a clever metaphor.) After the second accident, he is desperate to learn what it is to be a good person. So he talks the dean of a medical school to let him in, and you can guess the logical ending. He is pursuing his private "magnificent obsession".

In fact, while she is still blind, he moves in on her (pretending to be someone else), and a couple of the scenes seem a little tasteless today, more or less in soap opera fashion (even “Days”).

The medical scenes, especially the operating room, show surprising intimacy, in the scrub room; Rock is shirtless, and they really have to scrub. Medicine, especially surgery, is more intimate (and more like the military) than people realize. And medicine looks more advanced than I thought it could be in the early 1950s.

Of course, some of us remember the public awakening that followed Rock Hudson’s disclosure that he had AIDS, leading to his death in October 1985.

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