Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) is a daredevil. Notorious for pulling off dangerous stunts, he’s an adrenaline junkie. One day, while driving his speedboat too fast on the lake, he crashes. In the small town of Brightwood, there’s only one resuscitator, so it’s brought to the scene of the crash from the house of Dr. Wayne Phillips, the head of the local hospital.
Bob survives thanks to the resuscitator, but tragedy strikes when Dr. Phillips suffers a heart attack. The resuscitator isn’t brought back to his house in time to save him, and he passes away, leaving his wife Helen (Jane Wyman) and daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) without a husband and father.
When Helen and Joyce learn that the resuscitator couldn’t save Wayne because it was being used to save Bob, both are horrified. Still recovering in Dr. Phillips’ hospital, Bob has been nothing but rude to the staff. Even when he learns what happened to Wayne, he sneaks out of the hospital and then tries to pay his way out of trouble.
As time passes, Bob becomes desperate to earn the forgiveness of Joyce and especially Helen. He may get the chance to do just that, but not before tragedy strikes again.
Douglas Sirk directs 1954’s Magnificent Obsession.
Magnificent Obsession is a film of contrived coincidences and high melodrama, even by Sirk standards. The Criterion Collection’s blurb on the film refers to it as “flamboyant,” and that’s the perfect way to phrase it. It’s ridiculous, but entertaining, gripping the viewer the whole way through.
In a way, the film seems Capra-esque. It’s sentimental and, at its heart, has a message of altruism. Helen faces her problems with a positivity that is inspiring. Bob makes a heartwarming transformation from daredevil playboy to generous man. Added all together, it makes for a genuinely weepy weepy!
The film is anchored by the performances of Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, both of which are strong.
Wyman is a predictable choice for the role of Helen, as she was great at portraying emotional, sweetly-sad stories. The fact that she’s the expected choice for this type of role takes nothing away from the film, as she’s wonderful to watch. The character is an inspiration, but at the same time, the film doesn’t shy away from her struggles. She feels guilt over the “burden” she feels she places on people due to her tragedy, and seems unwilling to truly let herself live, despite her perseverance following a string of personal troubles.
As for Hudson, his character also struggles with guilt, over his role in the tragedies Helen faces, and especially the fact that he feels responsible for Wayne’s death. Bob is a very troubled man, and was before the speedboat crash occurred. He’s spent years incapable of dealing with his problems, instead drowning them in alcohol and insane stunts… which only, of course, create more problems for himself and others. Hudson succeeds in portraying his character’s flaws, but getting the viewer on his side as the film progresses.
Some of the dialogue in the film is on the corny side, but this cast is so dang effective that it doesn’t matter one bit. Magnificent Obsession is a top-notch Sirk melodrama, and I appreciate it even more after giving it a second look!