Coming To America: Douglas Sirk’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

Douglas Sirk's breakout American melodrama remains as wryly hilarious as it is genuinely moving.

On paper, the plot to Douglas Sirk’s 1954 remake of John Stahl’s 1935 Christian screwball parable, Magnificent Obsession, is utterly ludicrous. Originally a novel by Congregationalist pastor Lloyd Douglas, Obsession is a bizarre spin on the soul saving concept of charitable devotion, as millionaire playboy Bobby Merrick (Rock Hudson) survives a boating accident thanks to a generous brain surgeon’s inhalator. Unfortunately, that very same doctor dies across the lake due to his expensive piece of equipment’s absence. The good physician’s widow, Helen (Jane Wyman), cannot forgive the frivolous adventurer’s selfish act, and in his attempts to earn her mercy, he ends up accidentally blinding her. Wrought with guilt, Merrick studies to become a surgeon, vowing to operate and restore the now suicidal woman’s sight as well as win her heart. It’s a preposterous proposition that unfolds with straight faced aplomb, as Sirk transforms Stahl’s previous interpretation into a gaudy Technicolor melodrama that was old fashioned even by '50s standards of pop entertainment.

Nevertheless, the sheer pomposity driving this stained-glass mosaic of Brechtian cinema reveals a clarity in Sirk’s outsider vision. A German immigrant (born Hans Detlef Sierck) and husband to a Jewish wife (Hilde Jary), Sirk fled Germany just as the Nazis were rising to power, noting the anti-Semitic writing on the wall, and knowing full well it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. An established auteur in his homeland, Sirk sought to apply his penchant for theatrics to Rockwellian values that seemed foolish when compared to the genocide ramping up overseas*. Where the original novel was a condemnation of Jazz age superficiality, updating the gospels just in time for the Great Depression, Sirk’s interpretation is a tongue-in-cheek lashing of perverted US Christianity, and the “pay it forward” mindset some thought could salvage tarnished spirits (all while McCarthyism sought to oppress those who spread ideas that clashed with established political doctrine). These magnificent obsessions of so many Americans were downright silly when juxtaposed against the rampant, government sanctioned hatred newspapers bull-horned from the front page every day, and Sirk sought to provide escape from the bleak headlines while simultaneously commenting on this foreign land via an antiquated filmic mode.

The first in a series of melodramas Sirk made under contract at Universal-International (following a string of anti-Nazi works at Columbia), Magnificent Obsession also marked the movie star breakout of Rock Hudson, following bit parts in pictures like 1948’s Fighter Squadron (where it took thirty-eight takes for Hudson to deliver his only line) and a famous Camel ad shot on the set of Seminole (1953). With Hudson, Sirk found the perfect vessel, with whom he could both reach a target audience (women) and transmit his outsider commentary on the frivolous American male. Sirk molded Hudson – who he’d already worked with twice before at Universal on Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952) and Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) – like a lump of gorgeous clay, so the stunner could fit into his rather rigidly constructed exercises. Where Hudson once commented that Sirk was like a creative “father” to him, the director noted in a 1967 Cahiers du Cinema interview: “at Universal, he was considered a very bad actor. However, he was very eager to learn. His dream was to become a good actor, and I can say, not without pride, that I helped him become one.”

In Magnificent Obsession, Hudson becomes an avatar for the epoch’s straight male American Dream – a dashing, square-chinned sportsman heir whom all women desire and his peers envy. Bobby Merrick’s essentially the Don Draper prototype (and Matthew Weiner no doubt borrowed Sirk’s relentless sense of chic irony for Mad Men); recklessly indulging without a second thought for other humans’ interests while swathed in fashionable suits. Meanwhile, Helen discovers that her husband’s passing has put both her family and the hospital he ran in financial jeopardy, thanks to big-hearted humanitarian deeds performed in secret. It’s a literal crash course between two lives that were seemingly idyllic on the surface, but rotting away thanks to either a lack or overdose of Christian deeds. Once Hudson smashes up his car and is bestowed Helen’s deceased husband’s philanthropic philosophy by an almost angelic artist (Otto Kruger), he becomes a bumbling ne’er do well, not so covertly slipping money into the pocket of a struggling valet before chasing Helen into the parking lot of a trendy restaurant and causing another automobile mishap. You can practically hear Sirk snickering behind the camera as we watch this clumsy dilettante experience a near cultish indoctrination into the works of Jesus Christ, and then render the very object of his savior fetish helplessly sightless. It’d be downright cruel if his lens didn’t love these characters as thoroughly as it does.

Emphasizing the heightened pretense of Sirk’s caustic vision is the lavish nature in which every frame is decorated and arranged. The interiors are meticulously ornamented, with designer furniture that no doubt stinks of cigarette smoke. Outside, Sirk’s frame becomes almost impossibly wide, capturing the beach side visits Merrick enjoys with Helen after she loses her vision, quickly falling in love while they gaily read the funny pages with a local tomboy (Judy Nugent). This is Rich White America in the '50s, and Sirk ensures that we soak in every Life magazine moment, his characters maladroitly attempting to grasp the basic tenets of Christianity while he effortlessly marries them to material possessions. One of Magnificent Obsession’s more knowingly hilarious visual moments features Wyman, trying desperately to walk down to the lakeline on her own for the first time, all while donning pastel heels and a vibrant sundress, her oversized glasses the most fabulous eyewear a visually impaired person has ever been blessed with. While many audience members no doubt took Obsession as an escapist act of faith, the only real belief the movie holds firm is its love of upper class opulent anti-reality.

For all the critical lip service paid to this being the first iconic pairing of Sirk and Hudson, Magnificent Obsession is as much (if not more) Wyman’s movie. In fact, the idea to remake Stahl’s original take on the material came from the actress’ need to play the Helen role (the filmmaker “didn’t see a picture” in the novel upon his first readthrough). While Sirk and Hudson become kitsch operatives, Wyman instills Obsession with a disarmingly human center. Helen’s eventual journey to Alpine Europe (where Sirk recreates the aesthetic of an earlier post-German home) becomes a shadowy navigation through the darkest corners of this woman’s soul. Where the earlier American scenes are dominated by a sunny zippiness, the hotel Helen calls home in-between eye examinations is draped in shadow. The movie’s most emotionally rousing moment comes when Wyman takes us through the steps of Helen considering suicide after she’s told that her sight can never be restored by even the best doctors Europe has to offer. Alone and devastated, the actress moves her character through the room as Helen searches for an answer, coming dangerously close to the balcony’s edge before knocking a flower pot over and breaking down at the very notion of ending one’s own life. It’s an expressionistic bit of acting that’s utterly silent, as she marries Sirk’s infatuation with space and light with silent film performance.

Though the picture has been lauded (by this writer, and many, many others) as a pointed bit of societal criticism (punctuated with a wry sense of humor), Sirk still approaches every scene with lethal seriousness. Beginning with Magnificent Obession, his megadramas re-wire your brain so that you’re processing both genuineness and tastelessness simultaneously (the director himself once commented that he eventually came to admire the original text’s “trashiness”). That’s what renders this late career run so intensely enjoyable as pure fantasy. Sirk’s visually delivering the rewards of a country’s consumerist economy while respecting the earnestness of those who hold belief systems like Christianity dear. This amalgamation of pure entertainment and intellectualism would be lost on most of the age’s critics (who clobbered his movies as nothing more than middlebrow domestic operas), but endeared the auteur to cinephiles for generations to come. He was an outsider looking in on a nation whose concerns seemed inconsequential, but was marveling at its people’s reveries while laughing with them regarding their failings.

*Not to mention his own son, Klaus Detlef Sierck, had been a child actor in Nazi films, including works by Veit Harlan (Jew Süss). Klaus died at the age of eighteen, fighting with the German army on the Eastern Front in 1942.

Magnificent Obsession screened on glorious 35mm as part of the Drafthouse’s month long Magnificent Tears program. If you live in Austin, you can buy your tickets here. If not, pick up the Criterion Collection release below.