In 1935, unsung Hollywood director John Stahl tackled Lloyd C. Douglas' crypto-Christian novel Magnificent Obsession, about a carefree playboy who learns that the secret to success lies in helping others anonymously. Robert Taylor plays the redeemed nogoodnik, who becomes a skilled surgeon in order to improve the lot of Irene Dunne, a doctor's widow whose failing eyesight and dwindling bank account are both Taylor's fault. Once Taylor gives himself over to the philosophy known as "Dr. Hudson's Magnificent Obsession," and its methods of "establishing contact with the source of infinite power," he enters a community of artists and healers—and, through a combination of aggression and playing hard-to-get, he convinces Dunne that his love for her is real.
Today, Stahl's Magnificent Obsession is primarily a footnote in movie history, subordinate to Douglas Sirk's delirious 1954 Technicolor version. But viewing both films back-to-back—which is easier to do now that Criterion has packaged them together—confirms that while Sirk's is superior, Stahl's is more than just a curiosity. Douglas' story follows a kind of dream-logic, where everything that can go wrong does, and people solve problems with the most preposterous solutions possible. ("The girl I like can't see! I'd better go to medical school!") The 1935 Magnificent Obsession takes all this at face value, moving swiftly from one bizarre plot point to another, with a kind of off-kilter conception of the American dream that seems to have been inspired by the residual stresses of the Great Depression. It's one wacked-out melodrama, but it's wildly entertaining.
Sirk reportedly came to his Magnificent Obsession remake reluctantly, and was surprised by how big a hit it turned out to be. (He later remade Stahl's Imitation Of Life too, to even greater success.) The 1954 version stars the much softer Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, and smoothes out Douglas' story kinks a little—though Sirk also heightens the emotions, and plays up the religious angle by loading the soundtrack with heavenly choirs. As always with Sirk, it's an open question whether his Magnificent Obsession exhibits open contempt for its own ridiculous plot, or the director intended to maximize its potential by making everything bigger or brighter. In later years, Sirk talked up his own accomplishments; in interviews, he'd drop faux-profound nuggets like, "The angles are a director's thoughts; the lighting is his philosophy." But is that really what he had in mind in 1954?
Frankly, it doesn't matter whether Sirk had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he made Magnificent Obsession. The movie he made is enormously involving, featuring one lush, memorable scene after another. Anyone who needs to be convinced of Sirk's artistry need only watch both Magnificent Obsessions. The Stahl is good. The Sirk demands to be re-watched.
Key features: Tributes to Sirk by Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, a wry commentary on the Sirk version by scholar Thomas Doherty, and an 80-minute interview (in German) with Sirk about his days at Universal.