Bright Lights Film Journal

Cooler Younger Sister Effect: Barbara Rush in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION

The recent Criterion release of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1954) makes a good–not great, but still worthy–addition to our cooler younger sister collection. This 1954 Douglas Sirk soap was a big, big hit and it put Hudson on the map as a bona fide star; he’s much prettier than his co-star Jane Wyman, who looks rather puffy and unstreamlined but is in fine form, acting-wise. In his crisply ironed collared shirt or silhouetted against hospital curtains or scrubbing down shirtless before going into the ER, Hudson proves men can be objects of desire as easily as females… be they millionaire creeps… turned millionaire saints.

But then there is Barbara Rush as Wyman’s cute sister, saving the day with the only feminine sex appeal in the film… aaside from one short scene with Hudson’s requisite hot blonde arm candy [Sara Shane] in one of those swanky swingers’ lounges). Rush’s hotness doesn’t quite reach out and grab you (that would be Shane’s dept.) but it’s there when you need it and makes one think well of Jane Wyman as a star. Sharing billing with prettier younger actresses was not always in a diva’s nature (Bette Davis didn’t mind, but Joan Crawford would have torn Rush’s hair out and made her appear in a fat suit). I guess Wyman’s not worried, her character is supposed to be blind and heavily martyred after all — and martyrdom trumps sexy in the soap opera poker book. While Rush plays the adorable, angry and supportive hand, Wyman gets to lose both her saintly physician husband and her eyesight, a veritable royal flush of sudsy martyrdom –with Rock as the pot! Of course neither chick would pass muster in a feminist’s eyes as having, you know, things to do with her life other than fret about men, cry, and/or move flowers from boxes to vases… but forget it Jake, it’s Sirk-town, and while the Big outdoorsy American lake reflection you see may not be your own, it’s better that way, isn’t it?

One thing strikes me on this go-round with Sirk: the difference in time frames between guy movies and girl movies. For guys, romance runs like a day in the life of a mayfly: they have only a few hours to land the woman, plant the seed, raise the family, take out some insurance and die. Female-targeted soaps like MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION on the other hand, span decades, generations, centuries. One doesn’t merely wait a week to call–one waits decades. While the actual running time that elapses may be only a few seconds of dissolves, it “feels” longer and when we next find our heroine, she’s got a touch of gray, her brain injury is worse, Rock Hudson has become a physician, they’re burning effigy witches in Switzerland… and even young Rush looks puffy and overcaked in make-up, like a beer-battered clown wife. (It’s interesting to note that in just 3 years she went from playing gamins in sci fi films like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE [1953]to being James Mason’s denial-stricken hausfrau in BIGGER THAN LIFE [1956]).

All right, maybe not like a beer-battered clown wife, I just like that phrase. But I will always love Barbara Rush since she was in IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953, pictured) as the love interest-cum-hot alien zombie. She looked great whether–pre-alien possession–buttoned up to the neck in a sexless tunic and caught in a cock blockage between visiting astronomer Richard Carlson and the jealous townie sheriff; or sultry in a hot space girl outfit (pictured above), trying to blast the nosy Carlson to atoms with her laser. In OBSESSION, had she kept her laser, she would have easily blasted Hudson to atoms early in the film for hogging her dad’s heart resuscitator right when dad needed it most. But even hating Rock for all the carnage he inadvertently wreaks on her family, she doesn’t rat him out later when he poses as Jane’s invisible suitor. Now that’s cool of her. Already swept up before the credits by a hunky but square lawyer with a cool deep voice, Gregg Palmer, Rush’s romance gets a few kisses and words of affection as bridges in Sirk’s sublime slow tracking shots, takes a backseat to the much more “important” guilt trip-exchange of Hudson and Wyman, but that’s a good thing. If you want your romance to last longer than a few happy picnics, you’re much better off with Sirk peeping elsewhere; freak accidents follow his camera like the the furies of Aeschylus!

The film works so well, I think, for men, because it provides us casual playboys with a hard slap in the face about what’s “really important” without being nagging about it. Otto Kruger is the key figure for this transformation in Hudson; he’s like an AA sponsor or life coach, a contented vaguely Christ-like artist, the older brother figure Hudson needs to learn to “fly right.” When women tell us to behave, we scoff or recoil; they’re trying to castrate us! But when Otto Kruger tells us in his aerodynamically honeyed tones, we listen, hypnotized, like Mike Mazurki (pictured) in MURDER MY SWEET. It’s a damned hard role to put off, without seeming Ned Flandersish, but Kruger does a hella good job. Even so, our poor Christ figure/artist winds up the film single, wandering off into the desert as his voice plays above like a one man heavenly choir. Maybe, like so many happy singles, he’s got plans to die old and alone chained to a tenement radiator, but maybe, just maybe he’s even one step ahead of Rush and has a lover of his own, so far to the side that even Sirk’s clever camera can’t sniff out a whiff of subtext in his angelic aura. To paraphrase Robert Evans: Can we call such an obsession magnificent? You bet we can call it magnificent.

(For more of the hotter younger sister effect, scroll below, or visit Acidemic, for Diane Baker in MARNIE; and Caroll Baker and Carolyn Craig in GIANT).