Monday, January 3, 2011

Magnificent Obsession

Irene as Helen Hudson

Release date 12.30.1935

"He said, he couldn´t take it back because he had already used it up.
Then he told me to invest it myself.
When I asked him, what was a safe investment. He said:´Any poor devil!´ "

Helen Hudson (Irene) loses her husband to a heart attack because the for the rescue of Dr. Hudson necessary pulmotor resuscitator was at that time used on Bobby Merrick (Robert Taylor), a playboy on a drunken binge. Dr. Hudson was a renowned, honored surgeon with a hospital of his own, and soon his widow learns about his many secret philanthropic efforts.
After Dr. Hudson’s death his beneficiaries feel relieved of the promise they gave him never to talk with anybody about his help, and express their gratitude to Helen. This reveals Helen even more how deep her loss is,and how much she hates Bobby Merrick. Of all things, Bobby ended up in Dr. Hudson’s hospital, and though he feels guilty that he was saved and the doctor was not, his main concern is to get out of this place and search for some distraction. Fleeing from the hospital, he meets - of all people - Helen and not knowing who she is keenly starts flirting with her.

Bobby Merrick (Robert Taylor) and Mrs. Hudson

Helen reacts slightly annoyed, but as soon as she discovers the guy’s identity, she denies any further contact. Not getting his way, Bobby Merrick once again turns to the bottle and this time ends up in a ditch at the house of Randolph (Ralph Morgan). Randolph happens to be one of the persons Dr. Hudson helped to find their right place in life. He tries to introduce Bobby to Hudson’s philosophy of secretly helping people and thus making contact with an allmighty power. Once accustomed to this style of living this will become a "Magnificent Obsession". Giving it a try, Bobby feels rewarded when he meets Helen. Angered by his once again starting flirtation Helen flees, and is run down by a car. Helen survives the accident but is blinded.

fate strikes a second time...

Feeling guilty, Bobby Merrick tries to help Helen supporting her secretly financially, and arranging for specialists to examine her in Paris. He manages to introduce himself as “Dr. Robert” to her, and Helen not recognizing his voice, slowly falls in love with him. The examination in Paris ends with a negative result: at the moment there is no chance for a surgery to restore Helen’s sight.

No hope...

At this low point of desperation Robert turns up, not only showing through his eyes Paris to Helen, but also proposing and revealing his real identity. Well, the next day, though she is in love with Robert, Helen is vanished, because she doesn’t want to be a burden to him. All attempts of locating Helen are in vain, and ultimately Robert returns to his studies. After six years abroad, he returns to the United States as esteemed surgeon and soon learns that Helen lies in a hospital. Her condition is life threatening and only a risky, complicated operation can help…

Helen and Bob doing Paris...

“Magnificent Obsession” is a very beautiful film with an option for being grand which the picture not completely fulfills. Considerable screen time of this for its time rather long film - 112 minutes - is wasted on distracting actions. Especially Charles Butterworth, in one of his typical funny sidekick roles, takes up some time. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if I wouldn’t feel deprived now and then- deprived of imaginable, wonderful screen moments. Why, with an actress like Irene Dunne at hand, don’t I get a dramatic scene in which she explains to one of her companions why she can’t except Robert’s proposal? Instead, her character just plainly drops out of the action for about ten minutes. Why is the happy interlude so short? Moreover, where is my Irene Dunne close-up in the last scene? I really waited for this one, and all I got is Irene stuck in a frame with Robert Taylor. As much as I liked Stahl’s directing in “Back Street”, all he offers here is solid, but that’s as far as it goes. At times the film kept me too much at a distance instead of directly aiming at my tear glands. This wouldn’t matter, if the alternative to having to fill many story gaps and not following the characters we are really interested in, wouldn’t be Mr. Butterworth.

Miss Dunne and Mr. Taylor inhabiting the same frame...

That said, let’s concentrate on the reasons that make “Magnificent Obsession” a worthwhile our attention film, namely especially two: Miss Dunne and Mr. Taylor. Irene recommended Robert Taylor - at that time at MGM and not yet a “name” - for this role, and this was not only a nice boost for his career, but also the perfect choice for the film. Irene who always had the attitude that “it is the picture at a whole and not only the star, which determines box office success” helped Taylor, encouraged him and rehearsed lines with her co-star. Robert Taylor proves that he was worth this support by giving a fine, subtle performance making the development of his character as believable as possible. Especially in the beginning, he manages to show boyish charm, good-for-nothing behavior, real honesty and likeability in quick turns: the possibilities for his character all are there to start with. All of this sums up to a coherent, convincing presentation of a human being and some great Irene Dunne-Robert Taylor scenes.

one of those beautiful publicities for "Magnificent Obsession"

As for Miss Dunne, “Magnificent Obsession” illustrates the quintessence of her acting. Now under a short term contract for Universal - after “Roberta”, Irene left RKO, never again picking up such a sort of studio contract again - Irene prepared as consummate as ever for her role as a blind woman. She worked with a blind consultant on how to walk and carry herself as a sightless person and this definitely came to fruition. She gives the perfect portrayal of a blind woman and Irene did not - like Jane Wyman in the remake - take the easy way by simply wearing sunglasses. Playing a woman who has lost one of her five senses, Irene turns even more than normally to expressing herself by the skillful use of  her speaking voice. Anyway one - maybe the - outstanding forte of her acting, she plays on her voice like an accomplished instrumentalist. And the part of Helen Hudson really offers something to play with: emotions in a range from A to Z, quick changes from desperation to happiness - no wonder Irene preferred drama to comedy because of challenges like that. Just listen to Miss Dunne in the last scene - lying in bed, after surgery with a bandaged head, that’s not the moment for grand acting, but Irene expresses everything: feeling strange, tiredness, joy, excitement…and all of this with a half-anesthetized, muffled voice. Simply wonderful!

this scene is not in the film - obviously the original happy interlude was longer!

The Dunne of “Magnificent Obsession” is the Dunne of the coming soon comedies; some habits which are “typical Dunne” and part of Irene’s delightful comedy persona are already at hand. Her slightly wiggling shoulders, the fast moving eyelashes and even this characteristic, throaty, very-difficult-to-describe, marvelous Dunne laughter are around.
A recommendation of “Magnificent Obsession” goes without saying - not only as terrific Irene Dunne vehicle but as exemplary representative of the 30s melodrama and last not least as early Robert Taylor film.
The last thing to mention is one of my beloved details: while dressing to “do Paris” with Robert, we hear Irene sing off-screen. Sometimes the perfect expression of happiness is singing! Thank you, Miss Dunne!