MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (John M. Stahl, 1935)

An iffy actress, as likely to give bad performances (My Favorite Wife, The White Cliffs of Dover) as good ones (Life with Father, Anna and the King of Siam), Irene Dunne never bettered the extraordinarily centered one she gave as Helen Hudson, who waits a lifetime—well, seven years—to see again her benefactor, the playboy who has become a Nobel Prize-winning surgeon just so he can restore her sight after involvement in the accident that blinded her, in John M. Stahl’s quiet, engrossing version of a Lutheran minister’s novel, Magnificent Obsession. The boy is in love with her, and she with him; but what also has turned Bobby Merrick’s life around is the enlightenment he has received, at a remove, from Helen’s first husband, in whose death he also was involved. The “remove” is Randolph (Ralph Morgan, not so spiritually exalted as Otto Kruger in Douglas Sirk’s 1954 remake), the sculptor whom Dr. Hudson had gifted with the idea of philanthropy, which Randolph passes on to Merrick, calling it a “theory” by which to live. Look; there are worse messages one could be dispensing during the Depression.
     The story, of course, is ridiculous, and Robert Taylor is no more convincing than Rock Hudson would be twenty years later; when Merrick is supposed to be grown up, is even a bit gray, Taylor plays his acting cards very close to the vest. Apparently love’s passion has all been sublimated in Merrick’s medical pursuits.
     But Dunne is shaded, touching, powerful—a portrait of pride (the “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone”-bit) without reliance on rhetoric, chin-jutting nobility, or condescension: elsewhere, Dunne bugaboos. A double bill of this and Leo McCarey’s comedy The Awful Truth (1937) should convince anyone that Dunne could act.

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