There is a spiritual premise underlying Magnificent Obsession. Ultimately, it is Christian in nature. We know this in part because Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) refers to Jesus at one point in the movie, and in part because it is based on a book by Lloyd C. Douglas, who was a devout Christian. But it is more than that, because whereas everyone knows about Christianity, the particular spiritual principle in this movie seems to be known only to a few, as if there were a secret society to which they belonged. Why it is a secret is not explained, which is hard to understand, because if more people knew about it and applied that knowledge, the world would be a much better place.
The secret principle is karmic in nature, and is explained by analogy with electricity. The way it works is that if you do good things for people without letting other people know about it, and you refuse any attempt on their part to repay the debt, you build up a spiritual charge of good karma that rewards you. If you allow them to repay the debt, the spiritual force is discharged. Most people are grounded, never accumulating a charge, because they allow people to return the favor. If you tell other people about your kindness or charity, the spiritual force will dissipate, as with a wire without insulation. This need to keep one’s good deeds a secret in order to build up a spiritual charge is to be distinguished from the secrecy surrounding knowledge of the principle itself. Even if you accept the former, that still does not explain the latter.
The story begins when the reckless behavior of the rich, irresponsible playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) inadvertently causes the death of Dr. Wayne Phillips, who we later find out was the one who initiated Randolph into the secret spiritual principle. Dr. Phillips was such a good man that he used up all his income and borrowed against all his assets to do good deeds, leaving his wife, Helen (Jane Wyman), and his daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), nothing. Merrick tries to make amends, but Helen is insulted by his efforts to use mere money to atone for the death of her husband. Later, Merrick learns about the karmic principle from Randolph, but he is a bit crude in his attempt to put it to good use. He helps someone out who needs money, and then, figuring he is all charged up with a lot of good karma, tries to make a dinner date with Helen, whom he now has the hots for, even though she is a widow of only a few weeks. In trying to get away from his persistent advances, she is struck by an automobile and blinded. Thoroughly chastened, Merrick decides to go back to medical school, becomes a doctor, and then has to perform an emergency operation on Helen, which saves her life and restores her vision, allowing them to marry and live happily ever after.
If the spiritual metaphysics of this movie is just too incredible to suspend disbelief, it becomes an outrageous melodrama of coincidence. Furthermore, we are appalled that Dr. Phillips did not provide for his wife and daughter in the event of his death. We get the sense of a man who was so caught up in the idea of helping strangers that he neglected his family. But given what he believed in, I guess he figured his spiritual estate would take care of them, on the assumption that good karma can be inherited.
In any event, even an atheist who does not believe in karma can understand that helping out your fellow man can be rewarding, that you are paid back, in a way, for your kindness. Furthermore, there does seem to be some truth to the idea that telling others about your acts of charity spoils the effect. Instead of continuing to feel good about what you have done, the minute you tell others about it, you begin to feel like a braggart, someone who is taking great pride in his magnanimous gesture. If others see you acting in a kind and generous manner, or if they find out about it by some other means, that is fine. Then they will admire you. But if you have to tell them about your virtues, the effect is ruined, and they may even despise you for it. And thus, the movie can be accepted allegorically and enjoyed as a good tearjerker.