I review the Criterion release of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession and dig deeper into the for Turner Classic Movies.
You could call Magnificent Obsession the defining film in the career of the Douglas Sirk, the German-born director who came to cinema from avant-garde theater and found an unlikely marriage of the two in a string of Hollywood melodramas. It was a long road to find and perfect that alchemy. Sirk was born in 1900 to Danish parents in Hamburg, Germany. He had become one of the most successful directors at Germany’s state-run UFA studios when he fled Nazi Germany with his Jewish wife in 1937. He eventually landed in Hollywood and moved between genres and studios until the continental sophisticate found a home at Universal Studios, turning out bubbly Americana and romantic comedies with a light touch and a hearty affection for the trappings of social conventions and domestic drama. It was there that he first teamed up with Ross Hunter, who proved to have an unerring instinct for commercial properties, and Universal contract player Rock Hudson, who Sirk helped transform into a leading man and rising star. Everything came together when Hunter put Sirk and Hudson together with leading lady Jane Wyman. She wanted to star in a remake of the 1935 melodrama Magnificent Obsession, based on the 1929 best-selling novel by Congregationalist pastor Lloyd C. Douglas. Sirk was resistant to the project at first (“Ross Hunter gave me the book and I tried to read it, but I just couldn’t,” he revealed to Jon Halliday in the interview book Sirk on Sirk. “It is the most confused book you can imagine…”) and was still dubious when he read the treatment, which was based more on Stahl’s film (which Sirk had never seen) than the book. “My immediate reaction to Magnificent Obsession was bewilderment and discouragement. But still I was attracted by something irrational in it. Something mad, in a way – well, obsessed, because this is a damned crazy story if there ever was one.”
While never a slave to realism, Sirk uses the studio resources and the Technicolor palette to transform the screen into a canvas of exaggerated sets and artificially recreated settings. The lakeside village of Brightwood is a sleepy little place in the heart of God’s country: part idyllic, unspoiled small town, part playground for the rich, all wooded and bright. But apart from a few location shots, the Eden-like town is artificially created in the movie studio to give the director a painter’s control of his backdrop. And paint he does, embracing the unreal hues and playing with his lighting schemes as if he was directing a piece of expressionist theater. “You must never forget that this is not reality,” he explained in an interview. “This is a motion picture. It is a tale you are telling.” His lighting is not expressive of the physical world but of the emotional temperature of the scenes, rising and falling like the lush score. When Helen loses all hope of regaining her sight, the room around her is suddenly swallowed in shadow, even though the previous scene was brightly lit in the classic Hollywood manner. Yet for all its artificiality, he never breaks the spell of his heightened world of American affluence and emotional turmoil, or of his fantasy of picture-postcard Europe. When Bob arrives to pick up Helen’s spirits (brightening the room by his very arrival – apparently the dimmers are powered by the human glow of desire), he takes her for a tour of the local countryside (narrating the sights for her), ending up in an idyllic Swiss village. It is, of course, yet another studio creation, this one of a timeless European town of ancient stone masonry and a cobblestone town square where the peasants celebrate the harvest with a roaring bonfire that stands in for the lovers’ unspoken passions.
Read the complete feature at TCM.com here.