Magnificent Obsession (1954/2009)
Director: Douglas Sirk
Starring: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes Moorhead
Studio: Universal/The Criterion Collection 457 (2 discs)
Video: 2.00:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9 color; 4:3 B&W for 1935 film on 2nd DVD
Audio: DD mono
Extras: Complete John Stahl 1935 Magnificent Obsession (102 min.), Commentary track by film scholar Thomas Doherty, Video interviews with filmmakers Allison Anders & Kathryn Bigelow paying tribute to Sirk, Theatrical trailer, “From UFA to Hollywood” – 82-min. documentary on Douglas Sirk by Eckhart Schmidt, Illustrated booklet with new essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien
Length – main feature only: 108 minutes
This Criterion package is a real treat for lovers of classic Hollywood cinema. You get both a beautifully-restored Technicolor presentation of Sirk’s 1954 film which proved that Rock Hudson was not only handsome but a good actor too, and a fine restoration of the John Stahl 1935 B&W Magnificent Obsession with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne. Plus a load of bonus features which fans of this type of film should love.
Wealthy playboy Robert Merrick is at the heart of the soap-operaish story. He has an accident as a result of piloting his racing boat too fast and the only resuscitator in the area – kept at the home of the saintly Dr. Hudson who has heart problems – is borrowed to save his life. But while it is gone Dr. Hudson has a coronary and dies without the resuscitator. (Still with me?) Merrick is stricken with guilt when he learns the story, and more so when he meets Hudson’s widow, played by Jane Wyman. A kindly painter befriends Merrick after Merrick drunkenly pilots his car into a ditch outside his home. The painter, who was a good friend of Dr. Hudson, explains the doctor’s “magnificent obsession” good deeds and philanthropy, and Merrick agrees to change his evil ways and try it. His life becomes inextricably intertwined with that of Hudson’s widow, and they go thru a roller coaster of life-changing incidents – all portrayed in lush and bright widescreen colors with appropriate music. It’s definitely high-style Sirk, including the religious message behind the obsession.
Comparison of the two films is interesting. I was impressed with the high quality of both the image and sound on the 1935 film, which hasn’t been available on DVD at all. Merrick’s character is developed more in the earlier film, and I thought the accident which leaves the widow blind was handled better in that version as well. Two women filmmakers who obviously idolize Sirk are interviewed in the extras, and one points out that all of his films had a luscious surface appearance yet suggested another layer of reality just under that surface. Now that we all know what we do about Rock Hudson, there is still another layer to think about in his leading man roles. In his long talking-head interview, Sirk has many interesting observations contrasting his work at the German UFA studios with the new reality he had to deal with in Hollywood, as well as the contrasts between Europeans and Americans in general. He speaks of how he couldn’t understand why his fellow Germans didn’t oppose Hitler from the start; yet he himself stayed at UFA until 1937 – long after the other directors had fled to Hollywood.
– John Sunier