Bright Lights Film Journal

God Is Dead, or Through a Glass Darkly: On Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession

Jon Halliday’s indispensable Sirk on Sirk has confirmed what Sirk’s admirers and students had long suspected: that his films are not all equally “personal,” and that he had a much freer hand with some of his projects than with others. Today most critics agree about the worth and importance of the more “personal” films. Foremost among these are Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, whose titles are considered by Sirk himself to be the most eloquent. To these should be added A Time to Love and a Time to Die, a film close to Sirk for obvious reasons (notably its German setting), and an early American film, Scandal in Paris, which is a masterpiece of ironical cinema. The “irony” here is not that described by Paul Willemen when demonstrating Sirk’s distanciation from his material, but designates a general and explicit ambiguity, perceptible by the audience at large. Sirk soon felt that this technique was ill-suited to the American public, and, in this sense, Scandal in Paris can be regarded as “the most European” of his American films. The director’s signature — the initials D.S. — is moreover clearly carved on a wall in the opening scene of the film. Thus the second category consists of films over which Sirk had less control and which he therefore had to “bend” (his own phrase) in order to try and subvert their explicit meaning. It includes Imitation of Life, Interlude, All That Heaven Allows, Sign of the Pagan, and most certainly Magnificent Obsession. The distinction does not necessarily imply a difference in the quality of the films: Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows are recognized as essential components of the Sirkian oeuvre. Nevertheless, the feeling that “personal” should be equated with “creative” and therefore “better” remains strong, and it is a fact that even some of Sirk’s devotees have trouble in accepting Magnificent Obsession.

The difficulty begins with the gaudy mysticism of the title, and further derives from the pseudo-“literary” source on which the film is based and which Sirk himself described as “trashy stuff” — but with an “element of craziness.” He refers here to Lloyd C. Douglas and a philosophy which, using Christianity as a starting point, turns it both into magic (charity is seen as “a source of infinite power”) and into global conspiracy (the philanthropists are all members of a “secret society”; charity is likened to electricity, with “insulation,” secrecy, ensuring that “power” flows in the right direction). This brand of rather cheap spiritualism enjoys privileged links with the Hollywood cinema: Frank Borzage, for example, adapted Lloyd C. Douglas (Disputed Passage). The third difficulty lies in the cast.

The plot can be resumed as follows: playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) crashes in his high-powered speedboat. Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman) comes home to find that her husband, Dr. Wayne Phillips, has died. His resuscitator had been borrowed for Bob Merrick when Dr. Phillips had a heart attack. Merrick and Mrs. Phillips meet; he is immediately attracted to her. From Edward Randolph, a painter and a friend of Dr. Phillips, Merrick hears of the doctor’s belief in philanthropy as a source of energy and power. He meets Helen again, presses his attentions on her; in trying to escape him, she is run over by a car and loses her sight. Now disguising his real identity, Merrick befriends Helen and secretly helps her financially. He pays for her trip to Switzerland when he hears that Zurich specialists might cure her. But the doctors decide against an operation. Bob flies to Switzerland. He and Helen have a brief idyll. She has known who he really is for some time. He proposes to her and she runs away as she “can’t let him do it.” Merrick takes up his long-abandoned medical studies; after several years he becomes a famous brain surgeon. Finally Helen’s female companion Nancy (Agnes Moorehead) breaks her word and tells Randolph (who tells Merrick) that Helen is in New Mexico, gravely ill. Merrick flies there, Randolph convinces him to operate on her, she is saved — and cured, they are reunited.

In terms of plot structure this is “melodrama” in the historical, late 18th/early 19th century sense: “coincidence” plays an exaggerated part, bringing about catastrophe upon catastrophe, and ultimately a happy ending. To start with, there is the coincidence of the two accidents (boat crash/heart attack) happening in quick succession to two men who are as different as can be but who are thus implicit)’ compared and even equated. (Melodrama’s recourse to blind chance is always balanced by the metaphysical assumption that there is no such thing as chance, only trial or reward of innocence and punishment of sin.) Through this coincidence Bob Merrick is made responsible for Dr. Phillips’ death. Secondly, Merrick is nursed in Dr. Phillips’ hospital. Thirdly, the first person he meets when escaping from the hospital is Dr. Phillips’ widow. Fourthly, when his car crashes into the ditch he stumbles upon Randolph — Dr. Phillips’ best friend. Fifthly, as soon as he endeavors to practice Dr. Phillips’ beliefs he immediately meets the widow again. He now becomes responsible for blinding her as well as for “killing” her husband. At the end of the film melodramatic catastrophe suddenly turns into its twin reverse, equally melodramatic Providence: having “turned into” a surgeon, Bob Merrick must operate on Helen. He cures her of the blindness he himself had inflicted on her (before the operation, he states quite explicitly: “it could be a fibroma — her old injury”). Obviously, he cannot undo his earlier “crime” and resuscitate Dr. Phillips — yet he atones for it, by becoming Wayne Phillips. The earlier, implicit and scandalous equation of the two men is, by the end of the film, both explicit and exemplary — that is, according to the film’s apparent standards. Bob Merrick is now a famous surgeon, a philanthropist, Randolph’s best friend, Helen’s husband: everything that Wayne Phillips was.

There are numerous other melodramatic elements in Magnificent Obsession. Firstly, the motif of blindness: melodramatic characters are very often pathetic victims suffering from some physical infirmity or deformity (compare an archetypal melodrama such as d’Ennery’s Two Orphan Girls, adapted by D.W. Griffith as Orphans of the Storm). Second, the motif of assumed identity, in this case Bob Merrick’s, an alias made possible by Helen’s very blindness. (At the same time, melodramatic symbolism often equates physical blindness with spiritual clairvoyance, and this is confirmed here, when Helen “knows” that it is with “Bob” she is in love.) Thirdly, the motif of complete loss of identity, the anonymity of disappearing without a trace (an extreme variant of the assumed identity). Helen Phillips becomes a “Madame X” although she stays on this side of amnesia. Her “self-effacement” is prompted by a spirit of sacrifice (a Christian melodramatic motif).

Mention should also be made of Switzerland. There is a sense in which melodrama is an escapist genre, and this is confirmed very literally by wish-fulfillment sequences which take place in an exotic earthly paradise or in its symbolic substitute. (For such a substitute cf. Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman and the scenic railway in the Prater.) Here this function is performed by Switzerland, a “postcard” country, and the first shot of Switzerland is actually a still postcard (sent by Helen to Bob) which is then set into motion. Later, when Bob joins Helen, he takes her to a “little old town” where he buys her armfuls of lilac and describes scenes of local folklore, dancing and the “burning of the witch.” Finally they dance alone to the fiddlers’ music. Two remarks may be in order here. Stylistically, such motifs as flowers, dancing, music, are melodramatic cliché-images. They are to be found in most “Romantic” literature and in melodrama in particular. In Magnificent Obsession bunches of flowers can be seen in abundance in Dr. Phillips’ hospital. Music plays an important part both on screen (as in the scenes outlined) and off screen. Secondly, we witness here a variation on one of the archetypal situations of melodrama: the Cinderella theme. Switzerland is “wish-fulfillment” fairyland; therefore — unless it appeared at the very end of the story, at the spot designated for the happy ending — it must come to an abrupt end, signaled in the fairy tale by the chimes of midnight. In Magnificent Obsession midnight is struck by a cuckoo clock (what else?), and the owner of the restaurant visibly feels that the dancing couple should go home (cf. a similar scene in, again, Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman). In retrospect it becomes clear that the Cinderella theme had been prepared by the “burning of the witch,” the wicked fairy and her curse.

We should also note that doctors are among melodrama’s stock characters. The explanation for this is that physicians are “healers” much in demand in dramas about physical, moral, metaphysical evil. As in the case of blindness, their function as physical healers can be symbolic of a spiritual role as priests or preachers. In addition, melodrama in general rejects psychology, and thus tends to define characters by reference to their social function, which is seen as summing up their individual essence. The socio-professional stereotypes are in turn endowed with a positive or negative moral sign. Hence doctors are normally “good” — Wayne Phillips, the Zurich specialists, Giraud who is Merrick’s professor, Merrick himself at the end of the film — whereas playboys are inevitably “bad” (Merrick at the beginning of the film). In passing one should mention that this generic element is reinforced by Paul Cavanagh’s presence as Dr. Giraud: He was one of the players in the Lloyd C. Douglas/Frank Borzage medical/mystical melodrama Disputed Passage.

Whilst the various genre elements account for most of Magnificent Obsession‘s glossy surface and for the meaning just beneath the surface, other elements strike a more distinctly “Sirkian” note. By a strange coincidence Switzerland has come to play a part in Sirk’s own life, since he eventually retired there after returning to Germany. The “coincidence” becomes uncanny when one realizes that he too (although, of course, many years after Magnificent Obsession) had to consult Zurich doctors. Yet another piece of the puzzle is the resemblance between the American lake at the opening of the film and Lake Lugano which Sirk can now contemplate from the window of his apartment, with its similarly steep and1 luxuriant banks. (As a matter of fact, Sirk had visited Lugano as a young man, to call on the writer Hermann Hesse.) Above all, there is the almost disturbing resemblance between Sirk himself and Otto Kruger/Edward Randolph. Similar build, pale blue eyes; the same “ethnic” background (German), in spite of the Anglo-Saxon names; the same age group; the fact that Randolph is a painter (Sirk on Sirk: “I first studied law, but later on I gradually turned to philosophy and the history of art. And all the time 1 did some painting, which then was one of my main interests . . .”). More generally, the “painter” can be seen as a symbol of the artist — such as a film director.

For the moment I shall not press the point. I should simply like to note that the device has been used before and commented upon, notably in Josef von Sternberg’s films. In particular, it is widely reported that Lionel Atwill was chosen by Sternberg for The Devil is a Woman because of his physical resemblance to the director. Besides, I wish to show that there is a way in which we can “check” Sirk’s possible personal contributions to Magnificent Obsession, because the film is a remake of an earlier work of the same title, directed by John M. Stahl in 1935. Sirk himself has explained that he never saw the Stahl film but that Universal used the original treatment of the Lloyd C. Douglas story for their 1954 remake. Two apparently minor differences are significant: in the Stahl film the “never-never land” is Paris, not Switzerland; Randolph/ Ralph Morgan is a sculptor, not a painter (which enables Stahl to achieve a nice visual touch, lost in the remake: when Randolph wears his stone-cutter’s white smock, he looks like yet another doctor).

Stahl’s film further confirms that the Lloyd C. Douglas-inspired dialogue about Phillips (Hudson in the 1935 version) and his beliefs has been transferred to Sirk’s film almost verbatim. In the words of the old lady who wants to pay her debt to Dr. Hudson’s widow, “God couldn’t have helped us more.” That is to say, Dr. Hudson/Phillips is “God.” His and Randolph’s belief could be defined as “playing God” to fellow humans. Like God, the secret society’s members are “love” itself and the “all-powerful.” Dr. Phillips is implicitly equated with Christ since he needs a “resuscitator”; there is also the chapel-like atmosphere of his hospital, painted in blue and bright with fresh flowers (in Sirk’s film). The reference to Christ is made explicit by Randolph later on: “Besides — this is dangerous stuff — one of the first men who used it went to the cross at the age of 33.” It could be mistaken for a reference to orthodox Christianity were it not for the fact that, clearly, Christ was only “one” among several who achieved infinite power through philanthropy. No doubt this philosophy is aptly described by Sirk as “a combination of kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness” — where the “crazy” element potentially redeems the trash. To this material Stahl and Sirk react in entirely different ways. In Stahl’s film the talk between Bobby Merrick and Randolph is openly humorous. Sirk on the other hand chooses to underline the “magnificent obsession” instead of undermining it. He repeatedly calls on the support of a chorus (off screen) based on Beethoven’s Ninth and therefore plays the melodrama “straight.” As in the opera, the expression of virtually ridiculous ideas or sentiments is made acceptable by the stylistic over-emphasis on music, gesture, decor. Stahl on the contrary also makes use of comic relief of a decidedly “low mimetic” nature, with the character of Masterson (Charles Butterworth), who marries Dr. Hudson’s daughter (in the Sirk version there is nothing comic about the impeccable attorney who plays the equivalent part).

To return to the equation Dr. Phillips = God, it is interesting to note the extent to which Sirk’s film centers around God’s absence. “God is dead” in more than one sense. We witness Bob Merrick’s accident, not Wayne Phillips’ attack. When the lady who wants to settle her account comes to see Helen Phillips in her husband’s office, there is a photograph of Helen Phillips, not of the doctor, on the desk, in the foreground of the shot. This is, of course, logical, but it would have been equally logical to show Helen replacing her own photograph by one of her late husband. From then on Wayne Phillips is conspicuous by his absence, an absence whose functions are several. On the plot level, quite simply, it means that no obstacle stands in the way of Helen and Bob getting together. On the Lloyd C. Douglas level of significance, it means both that Wayne Phillips only existed for others and that, like God, he cannot be seen although he is omnipresent (perhaps also that, like the Moslem God, he should not be represented). According to the film’s (as opposed to the script’s) own frame of reference, it implies that Dr. Phillips/God is only defined by his absence/does not exist. Later on, when Merrick goes to Randolph’s place, he is arrested by a painting — a portrait of Phillips by Randolph — which remains invisible for the audience. “He is haunting me,” Merrick explains (a remark which perhaps anticipates Attila’s defiance of God in Sign of the Pagan). But whoever or whatever haunts him is not visible, and therefore does not exist, for the audience. This is not quite the case in the 1935 version, in which one does see at least the back of Dr. Hudson’s bust, carved by Randolph.

Phillips remains unseen and consequently his very existence is in doubt. But a kind of God substitute is present to guide Bob Merrick faithfully throughout the film and gradually to lead him to becoming the fictive Dr. Phillips: Edward Randolph. He instinctively trusts Merrick when they first meet at the hospital, even though he has every reason to feel hostile to Merrick, the man responsible for his best friend’s death. After the explicit scene which follows Merrick’s car crash, and the night he spends at Randolph’s (a scene during which Randolph literally pulls the strings, thereby appearing as light-giver: cf. the lamp he switches off and on again, the curtains he opens), Randolph silently offers solace to Merrick, who has just been rebuked by Phillips’ daughter (“She’ll never see again — thanks to you”). Towards the end of the film Randolph appears as omniscient Deus ex machina. He tells Merrick that Helen is “desperately ill” in New Mexico. Merrick decides to fly there. Randolph has the plane tickets ready!

Soon there follows what is probably the most striking sequence of Magnificent Obsession. Helen is so ill that there is “no time to fly Giraud [the specialist] over.” So Randolph persuades Merrick to perform the operation himself and thereby repay “that old debt.” During the operation itself, in three successive shots Randolph is shown looking down at the operating room through a pane of glass in an upstairs gallery. Randolph is shot from below; the operating room is reflected on the pane and therefore superimposes itself on Randolph’s head and shoulders. One can hear (off) the music and chorus of the “Magnificent Obsession.” Finally, in a fourth similar shot Randolph is seen walking away. His function has been fulfilled: he has played a discreet but persistent God to Merrick and has successfully turned him into Wayne Phillips. The shots are extremely striking and beautiful not only on account of Randolph’s elevated, God-like position (as, for example, in Baroque painting), with Merrick looking up at him for inspiration, spiritual guidance, but also because of the use of the pane as a mirror. Mirror shots are, of course, very frequent in Sirk’s films and in his Universal melodramas in particular (cf., in Magnificent Obsession itself, the scenes of Joy Phillips having a baby in hospital, or Nancy arranging flowers in a vase and bringing them to Helen’s bedside). In this specific case, the fact that Randolph is himself looking at the scene through what is in effect a mirror, and the impression of complexity and mystery achieved by the two superimposed images, reminds one of the phrase “through a glass darkly” which Sirk himself said best expressed the artist’s — his own — vision.

To sum up: on the one hand, God (Dr. Phillips) is dead, there is no God; on the other, the painter (the artist) is a God-substitute, who watches — and directs — “through a glass darkly.” Randolph (Otto Kruger) looks like Sirk; Randolph provides Merrick with counsel and guidance. Similarly, Sirk directed Rock Hudson’s performance, turned a mediocre actor into the remarkable “Wildermann” of the Universal melodramas (this is particularly true of All That Heaven Allows. But the primitivist “Wild Man” or “Green Man” is already apparent in Magnificent Obsession, as it will be later in Written on the Wind: see the scene in which the little girl Judy dubs Merrick “Tarzan” when he helps her launch her boat. Because of Hudson’s interpretation, a reading of the film is actually made possible which contrasts — rather favorably — Merrick’s energy against Phillips’ invisible abstractions. From the silken color and texture and syrupy music of the titles Sirk cuts abruptly to Merrick’s “Hurricane” speeding across the lake — an early instance of the irruption of speed and technology into melodrama — cf. the sports cars of Written on the Wind).

If we turn to Stahl’s version we find that no similar interpretation is possible. Merrick and Randolph do not meet before the night spent in Randolph’s place. Randolph does not appear to ease the Hudsons’ rejection of Merrick after Helen’s accident. Towards the end of the film, when Merrick comes back from Europe after completing his medical studies, Randolph waits at the pier, but, incredibly, Merrick has forgotten Randolph (in Sirk’s film, the emphasis on planes as opposed to ships, made possible by the updating of the story, also confirms the God-like status of Randolph and Merrick, as well as the technological dimension of melodrama) and has to be reminded of “Dr. Hudson’s Magnificent Obsession.” — another indication of Stahl’s lack of belief in the Lloyd C. Douglas material. In the Stahl film, Randolph does not have the tickets ready; finally, instead of the “glass darkly,” there is only a shot of Randolph looking through a small window in the door of the operating room. The window is thus on the level of the room and shows no reflection.

Not that Stahl’s film is without merit. Two examples should suffice. Humor is present when Merrick wakes up in Randolph’s place between statues of an Angel and the Virgin (Randolph here is a sculptor, not a painter). The scene which immediately precedes Merrick’s arrival in Paris/Switzerland, so remarkable in the Sirk, is already more than outlined in the Stahl: blind Helen (Irene Dunne) bumps into a table, takes her head in her hands. She walks towards the window, bumps against a stool, opens the curtains, “looks” at Paris. The doorbell rings. Merrick’s (Robert Taylor’s) face appears framed in a small round mirror, opposite the entrance door (etc.). Similarly, in the Sirk film, Helen (Jane Wyman) rises from a couch (piano music and chorus, off). Shot against the light, she rests herself against a piece of furniture (the chorus getting louder). She walks towards the window (but here she is shot from the outer side of the window and through a curtain, “through a glass darkly”). At the window, without the curtain. On the balcony. She gropes for something, knocks down a flower pot (piano music, off), bursts into tears. A knock at the door. Bob is shot (through window and curtain) as he moves forward across the room. They embrace, then kiss. The scene is poignant because it underlines Helen’s helplessness and need for Merrick — but it is also more impressive in the Sirk film for purely stylistic reasons: the dramatic tension is heightened by the climactic use of music; window and curtain function as a “screen” to blur, embellish and simultaneously distanciate the action.

Thus Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession can be “read” on at least two distinct levels, that of melodrama, that of a statement on the artist as substitute for a God who has died and whose haunting absence provides the “blind” focus of the film. (Yet another reading — along the ideological lines suggested by Jon Halliday — would emphasize the scene in which Judy, the little girl on the beach, reads out the newspaper headlines, and decides that “things aren’t so hot” anywhere in the world — the time is 1948, a period of acute tension between East and West — and also the age of the principal characters. With the exception of Merrick at the beginning, they are all — let us be kind — middle-aged: Randolph, Giraud, Nancy. Helen/Jane Wyman, although she is Dr. Phillips’ second wife, is clearly not Merrick’s/Rock Hudson’s contemporary. All That Heaven Allows, a film made possible by the unexpected commercial triumph of Magnificent Obsession, actually renounces the fiction of a youngish Wyman and stresses that she is older than Hudson and has grown up children. In Magnificent Obsession, apart from Judy, children do not play as considerable a part as in other Sirk films; and the young generation, apart from the energetic Merrick, is insignificant: Joyce Phillips and her nondescript husband. Hence the impression of a country peculiarly preserved from the world’s troubles and unnaturally senescent.) The muscular Christianity of Lloyd C. Douglas is turned on its head as the artist/painter/director appears as puppet master, the benevolent but desperate creator not of life, but of “an imitation.” At the end of the film Helen Phillips sees and exclaims “Tomorrow — tomorrow” (melodramatic wishful thinking), but all she can see is a kind of painted backdrop through a window all too clearly . . . Randolph’s voice (off screen) repeats “But believe me — it will be a magnificent obsession” — a phrase which thus becomes synonymous with the “imitation of life,” with the “craziness” of art emulating the real world, of the artist emulating a dead God. Randolph walks out of the screen as one hears (off) for the last time the chorus of Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy.