My unashamed love for the films of Douglas Sirk may be described as an obsession, but it is to me, of course, a magnificent obsession. My attempts to influence others as to Sirk's genius have mostly failed. He's a director whose work you either get, or not. Those who view his works as camp masterpieces are very much missing the point. What is intrinsic in works of camp is the end product being appreciated in a manner that the creator had not intended. However, every camera angle of each frame, every nuance, indeed every color in every shot is totally intentional in all of Sirk's major films.
"Magnificent Obsession" is far from Sirk's best work, but it is perhaps his most important. Though he had made films in many genres, it was "All I Desire", his 1952 melodrama that paved the way for what would become his special place in cinema history. In the often ridiculed genre of so called "woman's movies", Sirk discovered there was great scope for artistic expression as well as social criticism and much more in this apparently vacuous genre. "Magnificent Obsession" is the first film in which this vision is realised.
To understand why this happened at all one must remember that Sirk was under a long term contract with Universal throughout the fifties, when they were by all accounts an inferior studio. As an European immigrant in need of work, Sirk signed to Universal, with the full understanding of the type of projects that would be offered to him. His intellectual and rich theatrical background would be put to use in clearly inferior material. When asked about this, he gave the example of how many of Shakespeare's plots are weak and uninteresting in themselves; it's the language that makes them art. Sirk was a master of cinematic language in all its aspects. The plots of his movies are often truly abysmal, but the language always pure joy to behold. "Magnificent Obsession" is a prime example of the abyss between screenplay and the cinematic language employed.
After reading the script of "Magnificent Obsession", Sirk called the plot "crazy" and did not want to make it. But as a contracted director, he had little sway with the studio heads and was persuaded, as always, to make the movie. It should be noted that he never had a bad word to say about Universal, even after he left Hollywood. He fully understood the contract he had made and simply made the best of his situation. It should also be noted that he gave Universal some of their greatest commercial successes of the decade, and created for them a star leading man, something they were in desperate need of. That star was Rock Hudson. "Magnificent Obsession" was Hudson's breakthrough film. He made eight films together with Sirk.
The magnificent obsession in question is the quest for spirituality; not exactly high on the agenda of materialistic, picture perfect, upper class American society of the fifties. Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) is a shallow, womanizing, heavy drinking, spoiled playboy. The movie charts his journey towards spirituality. He is guided on this path by an older intellectual artist, Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger). Many critics have noted the physical similarities between Kruger and Sirk himself. It's almost irresistible to develop this notion. It is Randolph who despite Merrick's crass behavior perceives a potential for greater things and leads him towards self fulfillment.
Similarly it was Sirk who first spotted Rock Hudson's star potential. Under his guidance and direction, Hudson would in a matter of two to three years, become one the most popular actors in Hollywood. Having worked closely on eight films, it would seem absurd that Sirk was not aware of Hudson's homosexuality. This did not deter Sirk, (who himself was not gay). Moreover it fits well with his fascination for what he termed "split characters". It's the embodiment of fifties picture perfect appearance shielding a very different reality that is central to much of Sirk's work.
Edward Randolph quietly removes himself when he realises his protégé has finally found his new self. His work is done. While Hudson was no heavyweight in the acting stakes, under Sirk's direction he gave some very respectable performances, "Magnificent Obsession" amongst his best. His post Sirk career would soon take him to Doris Day territory, a far cry from the likes of "Written on the Wind", "Tarnished Angels" and "Battle Hymn".
All of Sirk's films are worth taking a close look at, particularly from "Magnificent Obsession" onwards. There are a handful of directors who so well grasped the possibilities of film making and possessed the know how in using the many elements that make up this art form.