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Film Friday: «Magnificent Obsession» (1935)

To celebrate Robert Taylor's 105th birthday, which happens to be today, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the film that made him an international superstar.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John M. Stahl, Magnificent Obsession (1935) tells the story of Helen Hudson (Irene Dunne), the widow of a distinguished doctor and philanthropist who died because the hospital's only pulmotor was being used to revive Bobby Merrick (Robert Taylor), a spoiled millionaire playboy who was drunk at the time he nearly drowned. Bobby, a medical student, falls in love with Helen at first sight, but she angrily rejects his romantic advances, as she holds him responsible for her husband's death. One night, Bobby gets drunk and is given refuge by a sculptor named Randolph (Ralph Morgan), one of the many beneficiaries of Dr. Hudson's money. Randolph reveals to Bobby that the late doctor had a philosophy: to help people in utter secrecy and never take anything from them in return.

 The following day, Bobby insists on driving Helen home and make a pass at her. She storms out of the car and is hit by another vehicle, losing her sight due to brain damage. Bobby watches her progress closely and befriends her, calling himself "Dr. Robert" so she will not know who he is. Helen's step-daughter Joyce (Betty Furness) and friend Nancy Ashford (Sara Haden), the superintendent at Brightwood Hospital, both recognize Bobby, but agree to keep his identity a secret. Upon discovering that Helen is nearly penniless, he secretly pays for specialists to restore her vision. When she is visited by eye specialists, she attributes it to her late husband's renown, unaware of Robert's interest. Finally, she travels to Paris, where she learns that her blindness is incurable and falls into a deep depression. Robert arrives in the meantime and proposes to her, confessing his true identity. Helen forgives him for everything, but goes away, not wanting to be a burden to him. Six years later, Robert returns to America a Nobel Prize-winning brain surgeon and finds out that Helen urgently needs an operation, which he performs without letting her known his identity. The surgery is a success and when Helen awakens, she has her beloved Robert at her side and her eyesight fully recovered.

Robert "Bobby" Merrick: Listen to me, my dear. You're mine. It isn't often that two people can say that to each other, but it's true of us. We'd be wretched all our lives if we didn't stay together now. Say yes to what I'm asking, dear, please. 

The son of a clergyman, Lloyd C. Douglas received a Bachelor of Arts in 1900 and a Master of Arts in 1903 from Wittenberg College, an institution maintained by the Lutheran Church in Springfield, Ohio. Also in 1903, he was awarded a Bachelor of Divinity at the Hamma Divinity School, the theological branch of Wittenberg, and was ordained into the ministry. Douglas began preaching in his homestate of Indiana, before moving on to become pastor of a church in Washington, D.C. His calling then led him to work as a chaplain and director of religious work at the University of Illinois, a position he held for four years between 1911 and 1915. In a move left unexplained, he changed denominations and spent the remainder of the decade as minister of the First Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, Ohio. After tiring of living in college towns, Douglas served as pastor of churches in Akron, Ohio; Los Angeles, California; and finally in Montreal, Quebec.

Meanwhile, the popular press reported the story of a man who died because the only available life-saving medical equipment was already being used for another patient. According to an article published in the AANS Neurosurgeon journal, the patient was Dr. Edgar A. Kahn, a renowned brain specialist employed at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor. This incident inspired Douglas to write Magnificent Obsession, "a novel in which not only medical technology, but the power of Jesus could bring new life to individuals as well as society." Published in 1929 by Willett, Clark & Colby, Magnificent Obsession soon became a best-seller and introduced themes that would reappear in the author's later works: a medical setting, the wealthy background and the conversion of the atheist hero into a practising Christian due to feelings of guilt this time after indirectly causing the death of a respected brain surgeon, Dr. Wayne Hudson. In 1933, at the age of 56, Douglas decided to leave the ministry to devote his time exclusively to writing. He went to pen such popular books as Green Light (1935), White Banners (1936), Disrupted Passage (1939), The Robe (1942) and The Big Fisherman (1948), all of which were adapted into successful motion pictures.

Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor
Considering the long-lasting popularity of the novel, Universal Pictures purchased the rights to Magnificent Obsession and initially offered the adaptation to Frank Borzage, who had won the first ever Academy Award for Best Director for Seventh Heaven (1927). When Warner Bros., which had recently hired Borzage, refused to let him go, Universal gave the assignment to John M. Stahl, who also signed on as producer. Borzage would later helm the screen adaptations of Green Light, Disrupted Passage and The Big Fisherman.

Born to an eastern European Jewish family, Stahl began his career as a actor in New York City, where a prolific film industry developed in the late 1900s. He appeared in a few bit parts in 1913, before moving on to directing with The Boy and the Law (1914). In 1924, he moved to Hollywood to work at the newly founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which he left three years later to become an executive at the independent studio Tiffany Pictures. When the company struggled to make a transition into the sound era, Stahl sign with Universal and quickly built a reputation as a director of women-oriented melodramas, with the hits Back Street (1932) and Imitation of Life (1934), the latter a Best Picture nominee at the 7th Academy Awards.

To adapt the novel to the screen, Universal engaged the husband-and-wife team of Victor Heerman and Sarah YMason — who had won an Oscar for Little Women (1933) — along with George O'Neill, who had co-written Stahl's Only Yesterday (1933). While the script maintained the almost vignette-style structure of the original text, numerous details were changed for the screen. For instance, the film not only removed the novel's backstory relating to the source of the Merrick family's wealth, but also changed it from an automobile empire to an electrical power company. It also eliminated any reference to there being an earlier romantic involvement between Robert and Helen's step-daughter, Joyce, and to the unconsummated feelings that hospital superintendent Nancy Ashford had for Dr. Hudson. In addition, Randolph, the sculptor who was Hudson's spiritual mentor in the novel, is dead before the story begins. In the film, he is alive and well and, in fact, indebted to Hudson for the access he has gained to the secret power, rather than the other way around.

Ralph Morgan and Robert Taylor
The most notable difference between Douglas's novel and the film, however, is the complete omission of Dr. Hudson's secret diary, in which he recorded the magic formula for his success. It is by decoding the diary that Robert eventually discovers how "to make contact with a source of infinite power" (in the screen version, he receives this knowledge through Randolph). In response to the thousands of letters from readers who wanted to know where they could find this book, Douglas decided to write Dr. Hudson's Secret Journal, which was published in 1939 and later adapted into a syndicated television series of the same name, starring John Howard in the title role. According to the book, the secret to success was the literal practice of performing good deeds secretly and thereby obtaining spiritual power to use in becoming an exceptional doctor. Robert calls this Dr. Hudson's "magnificent obsession."

Stahl initially tested Rosalind Russell for the role of Helen Hudson, but ultimately decided to borrow 37-year-old Irene Dunne, the star of Back Street, from RKO to play the character. A veteran of Broadway musical theatre, Dunne was spotted by Hollywood talent scouts during her road-company tour of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat in 1929. She subsequently signed a contract with RKO, making her screen debut in Leathernecking (1930), a musical comedy now considered lost. Her second film, Wesley Ruggles' Cimarron (1931), was one of the biggest moneymakers of the year, garnering the Academy Award for Best Picture and producting the first of five nominations for Dunne as Best Actress. She was attracted to Magnificent Obsession for both professional and personal reasons. First, the property was a higher-quality example of what Dunne was becoming known for melodramas, also known at the time as "weepies" and "woman's pictures." Second, besides Magnificent Obsession being set in her adopted state of Indiana, the novel had a strong religious foundation which appealed to Dunne's devoted Catholicism.

Betty Furness and Robert Taylor
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joel McCrea — Dunne's leading man in The Silver Chord (1933) — were both considered for the role of Bobby Merrick, before Stahl (and Dunne herself) selected MGM contract player Robert Taylor instead. The son of a Nebraska country doctor, Taylor once contemplated a career in medicine, but drifted to acting during his time as a student at Pomona College in California. While appearing in the campus production of R. C. Sheriff's Journey's End, he was spotted by a talent scout, which eventually led to his being signed by MGM. Making his screen debut in the Will Rogers vehicle Handy Andy (1934), Taylor was groomed in a series of low-budget pictures until the studio allowed him to chance to co-star alongside Eleanor Powell in Roy Del Ruth's hugely successful musical The Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935). 

To play Joyce Hudson, Helen's step-daughter, Universal borrowed another RKO contractee, 29-year-old Betty Furness. The daughter of a wealthy business executive from New York City, Furness began her professional career as a model, before signing with RKO in 1932. Her first film role was in Thirteen Women (1932), which starred Dunne, but her scenes were deleted in post-production. Also working on loan-out from RKO was Sara Haden in the role of Mrs. Nancy Ashford, the dedicated superintendent at Brightwood Hospital. Haden, who made her screen debut opposite Katharine Hepburn in Spitfire (1934), was the daughter of Charlotte Walker, a prolific stage and film actress. Comedian Charles Butterworth was cast as Tommy Masterson, a friend of the Hudson family who ends up marrying Joyce, while Ralph Morgan (older brother of Frank) appeared as sculptor Randolph, one of Dr. Hudson's many beneficiaries. Coincidentally, both actors had a degree in law Butterworth from the University of Notre Dame and Morgan from Columbia.

Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor on a break from filming
Magnificent Obsession was filmed in sixteen weeks between July and October 1935, with a budget of $948,697. According to Dunne's stand-in, Kathryn Stanley, the actress served as somewhat of a mentor to Taylor, who was thirteen years her junior. She constantly encourage Taylor, reheased lines with him, offered suggestions as to how he could improve his performance and even assured him, "You're going to be a big star after this picture." For his part, Taylor saw Dunne as "dignified" and "felt the strenght of her great experience," saying that "her confident poise could not fail to help anyone with whom she played."

Magnificent Obsession premiere at Radio City Music Hall in New York on December 30, 1935 to generally positive reviews from critics. The Hollywood Reporter was particularly impressed, saying that the film "comes as near as can be to the title of 'the perfect picture.'" For their part, Variety wrote, "If its 110 minutes' running time makes it appear a bit sluggish, the sensitive and intelligent development [...] ultimately makes the initial lethargic progression appear justified. With its metaphysical theme of godliness and faith, the spiritual background of Magnificent is magnificent. [...] Besides its general credibility to the industry, Universal has a box-office entity of no small caliber. It should capitalize on it handily." The same reviewer also described Taylor and Dunne as a "stellar pair." On the other hand, Andre Sennwald of The New York Times was not as pleased, calling the film "tedious and overwrought," adding "Despite its mystic appurtenances, the drama is strictly of the made-to-order kind, and its movements are never remarkable for their conviction or plausibility." He did, however, praise the two leads: "Miss Dunne rises to what probably should be respectfully referred to as dramatic heights as the blind girl. Mr. Taylor plays the reformed wastrel with such aggressive charm that the only word for his performance is cute."

Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor (deleted scene)
Despite frigid weather, audiences flocked to see Magnificent Obsession, which became one of the biggest commercial hits of the year and made Robert Taylor a favorite among female moviegoers. Following the film's release, thousands of fan letters were delivered to MGM addressed to Taylor written by women across the country, until ten thousand letters were arriving each week. In the first magazine assessment of the 24-year-old actor, Adela Rogers St. Johns described him as a "prince charming." Magnificent Obsession also catapulted Taylor to international fame, with the London Observer declaring that "1936 will go down as the year of Edward VIII, the Spanish war and Robert Taylor."

Douglas's story, as improbable as it as, proved just as effective when Universal remade it in 1954 with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman taking the roles of Bob Merrick and Helen, whose surname was changed to Phillips, perhaps to avoid confusion with the film's male star. The rest of the cast included Barbara Rush as Joyce, Agnes Moorehead as Nancy Ashford, Otto Kruger as Randolph and Greg Palmer as Tom Masterson. Directed by Douglas Sirk, Magnificent Obsession was Universal's highest grossing picture of 1954 after The Glenn Miller Story (1954), turning Wyman into the ninth biggest box-office draw of that year. (The only other actress to make the list was Marilyn Monroe.) Just as the original version had helped make a star out of young Robert Taylor, so did the remake established the young Rock Hudson as a romantic leading man, as well as Universal's top male star. Wyman received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, but lost to Grace Kelly for her performance in George Seaton's The Country Girl (1954).

A Life of Barbara Stawyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (2013) | Being Religious, American Style: A History of Popular Religiosity in the United States by Charles H. Lippy (1994) | City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures by Bernard F. Dick (1997) | Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume 1: The Authors edited by Philip A. Greasley (2001) | Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood by Wes D. Gehring (2003) | The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies, With Filmographies for Each by Daniel Bubbeo (2002) | "
A Magnificent Obsession Classic Novel Should Resonate With Neurosurgeons" by Gary D. Vander Ark, MD (2001) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. I haven't seen the earlier version, have watched the Rock Hudson version a couple of times. I actually kind of got to like it. It was so corny, so serious, so sincere, it almost seemed like camp and I sort of enjoyed for it's humorless sincerity.


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