In 1929, Lloyd C. Douglas, a Protestant minister, wrote Magnificent Obsession. It was made into a movie in 1935, which modified the story in the novel, and again in 1954, which modified the story in the earlier movie. Of the three, more people are familiar with the 1954 version, directed by Douglas Sirk, than the other two. For that reason, my review will begin with that movie. I have not seen the 1935 version, directed by John Stahl, so all I know about that movie is what I have read about it. I have read the book, however, which will be discussed later.
The 1954 Remake
When the 1954 movie begins, the tone is set for a religious movie of sorts when we hear a choir singing during the opening credits. Then we see Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) and a Miss Daniels in a speedboat on the lake. Merrick is heir to the Merrick Motor Company, and he is testing the motor in the speedboat. One of the members of his crew comments that he is “doing 150 or better.” I don’t know whether that is miles per hour or knots, and I didn’t think speedboats could go that fast in any event, but the point is that Merrick is reckless. So as not to endanger Miss Daniels, he lets her off at the dock, intending to really push it to the limit. One of his crew advises against it, but Merrick is rude and abrupt, dismissing the advice of a subordinate that apparently does not know his place. As he pulls away, one of the crew wonders whether he has any brains, and the other replies that he doesn’t need brains because he has “four million bucks.” (Adjusted for inflation, that would be almost $40,000,000 today.)
Then someone comments he is “doing better than 180 now,” just before the speedboat flips over. In the next scene, we see Merrick being put on an inhalator, also referred to as a resuscitator. When it appears that he will survive, someone says, “Bob Merrick just lives right.” This is clearly intended as ironic, since if Merrick had died, he would have gotten what he deserved.
At that moment, word comes in through a police radio that the resuscitator must be returned immediately to Dr. Wayne Phillips, renowned brain surgeon, to whom it belonged. But it arrives too late. Dr. Phillips has died from a heart attack, which he would have survived had his resuscitator not been on the other side of the lake, saving the life of Merrick. His assistant, Nancy Ashford (Agnes Moorehead), asks the doctor why this should happen to such a wonderful man, who did so much for people. The doctor says he has been asked that question many times, and he has no answer. This is the flip side of the situation with Merrick, where Dr. Phillips, a man who really did live right, has died. The injustice of these events is especially acute, since the one is the cause of the other, creating a feeling of moral pressure that must be relieved.
Dr. Phillips is survived by his wife Helen (Jane Wyman) and his daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) from a previous marriage. Helen is inundated by letters from people that admired Dr. Phillips and by visitors that are grateful to him for things he had done for them. Joyce tells Nancy that these visitors are evasive when asked exactly what it was that Phillips had done for them, “as though they belonged with him to some secret society.”
Meanwhile, a visitor is telling Helen, in the office once occupied by Dr. Phillips, that she wants to repay the money Phillips gave her. It was given on condition that she keep it a secret, but now that he’s dead, she figures it’s all right to talk about it. She says whenever she tried to give the money back to him, he refused, saying he’d already “used it all up.” Helen says that many of the letters quoted him using that same expression. Since Dr. Phillips did not want the money back, Helen refuses to accept the money too.
Joyce’s boyfriend, Tom, who was Dr. Phillips’ attorney, arrives to give Helen and Joyce some bad news: there is practically nothing left in Phillips’ estate. Notwithstanding all the money paid to him through the years as a surgeon, he basically died broke, having used all his money to help all those people referred to above, leaving Helen only the house they were living in. And the hospital is in financial difficulties too.
Now, let’s stop right there. Why would a man that was supposed to be so full of goodness leave his family in seemingly dire straits? It makes me think of those parents in The Boy with Green Hair (1948), who are so determined to help war orphans that they abandon their own son, dumping him on a relative that does not want to be burdened with him. On the other hand, Dr. Phillips and Helen had only been married for six months. So, whatever she was doing for a living before they were married, she could just go back to work now. And Joyce is old enough to get a job of her own. Furthermore, while Helen is looking for that job, she could let the maid and gardener go, put the house up for sale, which would be worth millions of dollars in today’s market, and get herself a modest apartment. So, there is no reason to think she can’t get by like most people. Still, Tom indicates that Dr. Phillips was giving away large sums of money right up until his death. You would think that a man who had recently married a woman that will be dependent on him financially would give some thought to her situation in the event of his death.
Meanwhile, Merrick has been at Brightwood Hospital ever since his accident, and he sneaks out against doctor’s orders. Still in a weakened condition, he manages to get a lift from Helen on her way back to the house. He is immediately attracted to her, but when he finds out who she is, he asks her to stop the car and let him out. She does, but he collapses. She gets a passerby to help her get Merrick to the hospital where she finds out who he is. She is not pleased.
A little more than a week passes. Enter Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), a man who explains to Helen, but not us, what all those letters and visitors were about. And he explains why Dr. Phillips never mentioned it to her: “You don’t talk much about this belief. When someone’s ready for it, they accept it. Perhaps Wayne felt that you weren’t quite ready….”
As Randolph is leaving the office, Merrick comes in with a check for $25,000. Adjusted for inflation, that would be over $240,000 in today’s dollars. He wants to make amends for the trouble he has caused. But Helen refuses the check, contemptuous of the way Merrick always thinks he can use his money to buy his way out of any difficulty he has caused by his irresponsible lifestyle.
That night, Merrick, drunk and despondent, rejects the implied offer of sex from a beautiful woman and leaves the night club he was in. Driving fast, he plows through some “danger” signs and gets stuck in a ditch. He goes to the nearby house to get help, which just happens to be the house of Randolph. Merrick falls asleep on his couch.
The next morning, Merrick admires Randolph’s painting of Dr. Phillips, which we do not get to see. Randolph tells him that he used to be just a second-rate painter. But then, Dr. Phillips, his best friend, “unlocked everything,” showing him how to get what he wanted by establishing “contact with the source of infinite power.” He compares this power with that of electricity. Most people are like light bulbs that are turned off. But if you throw the switch, establishing contact with the powerhouse down at the dam, you have light. By the same token, if a person makes contact with the spiritual powerhouse, he can fulfill his destiny. That’s what Phillips did for Randolph, allowing him to become a great painter.
The key to unlocking this power, Randolph explains, is to help people in need, but always in secret, never letting the good deed be known, and never allowing yourself to be repaid. He returns to the powerhouse analogy: “If the wires in the dynamo are not protected by insulation, the power will be dissipated. The same thing goes for us. Most people are just grounded.” Either they let others find out about their good deed, or they allow the debt to be repaid.
Because Lloyd C. Douglas was born in 1877, he grew up as American cities were becoming electrified, a process still not completed at the time he wrote the novel on which this movie is based. So, electricity must have seemed almost magical at that time, not the commonplace that it is today. Hence the analogy with spiritual power. In fact, there are attempts at various points in the novel to distance this idea of spiritual power from religion, suggesting that it should really be thought of as a science, just as electrical power is a phenomenon studied scientifically. Bringing the two together, as a result of having expanded his personality through contact with the spiritual power, Merrick is able, in the novel, to invent an electrical scalpel that cauterizes as it cuts, and presumably uses it to reverse Helen’s blindness by doing brain surgery on her with it.
Back to the movie, Merrick seems to understand, saying, “You mean keeping these good deeds secret is like insulating the power of your personality.” The idea intrigues him. The only thing he wants, however, is Helen, and he just can’t see how helping someone else will get him in good with her.
Randolph says it can happen, but he advises caution: “Now, wait, Merrick. Don’t try to use this unless you’re ready for it. You can’t just try this out for a week like a new car, you know. And if you think you can feather your own nest with it, just forget it. Besides, this is dangerous stuff. One of the first men who used it went to the cross at the age of 33.”
Later on, Merrick finds out that the man that operates the telescope for viewing the lake is in financial difficulties. His wife lost the baby they were planning on, and the bills are piling up. Merrick gives him some money on condition that he tell no one about it, and that he never try to pay it back. He turns around, and wouldn’t you know it, there is Helen. Full of confidence that what Randolph told him is true, he approaches her, even being so crude as to ask her out to dinner, recent widow though she may be. He refers to Dr. Phillips’ notions about tapping into that spiritual powerhouse, saying he’s going to go out and find someone that needs a couple of thousand bucks, and his worries will be over. Helen says he is turning her late husband’s beliefs into something cheap.
She gets in a taxi, and he gets right in with her. Exasperated by his importunities, she gets out on the other side, right into the path of an oncoming car, which strikes her, causing her to go blind. Fortunately, while Dr. Phillips had borrowed against his life insurance policy so he could give the money away, Helen later refers to an accident insurance policy she had, which is enough, apparently, for her to keep that multimillion-dollar house and its servants.
Chastened by the experience, Merrick tells Randolph he is fully committed to dedicating his life to others, in accordance with Dr. Phillips’ theory. Randolph says that once he goes down this path, he will never be able to give it up, he will be bound by this motive power. It is will become a “magnificent obsession.”
Merrick befriends Helen while she is sitting alone by the lake, believing him to be Robbie Robinson. Furthermore, there really was no accident policy. Through his connivance with Tom, Merrick has been the one supplying Helen with money. He arranges for her and Joyce to go to Europe to see about an operation on her brain that might restore her sight. They will think the doctors are doing it out of their respect for Dr. Phillips, but Merrick will be paying for it. And he will make a generous offer on that house, supplying them with the means to live from then on.
But the doctors are unable to do anything for Helen. Joyce asks Nancy, “What has she done that all this happens to her?” Once again, we are reminded of the injustice that Merrick must bring into balance.
To that end, Merrick has gone back to medical school to become a brain surgeon. He interrupts his studies and goes to Europe when he gets word of the negative prognosis. Helen is happy to see him. It turns out that she has realized who he was for some time. They love each other, and he asks her to marry him. But not wanting to be a burden on him, she flees with Nancy, asking him in a letter not to try to find her. I guess she doesn’t mind being a burden on Nancy. And I guess it didn’t occur to her just to decline the proposal. Merrick and Joyce try to find her anyway, but to no avail.
Time passes, and we read that some anonymous doctor has donated enough money for a medical center to open a new wing for neurological patients. So, it appears that Merrick is getting himself charged up with a little more of that higher power. We also read that he has completed his internship and has joined the staff there. Next, we see a scene where a grateful mother agrees not to tell anyone about all the help Merrick has given her and her son, but still wants to repay him eventually. He refuses, cryptically saying it will be all used up in a few years anyway.
Randolph gets word from Nancy that Helen’s health has declined. She is in a coma in a sanitarium. He and Merrick fly there. She must have brain surgery immediately, and Merrick is the only one in the vicinity who can perform it, though he says he does not have enough experience. Randolph persuades him to use his skill to save her. He operates on her, not only saving her life, but restoring her sight as well. They will live happily ever after.
All the names in the movie are the same as in the novel, except that Dr. Phillips of the movie is Dr. Hudson in the novel. Perhaps the change was made because it was feared that when someone referred to Hudson, the audience would think he was talking about Rock Hudson.
The Helen of the novel is different from the Helen of the 1954 remake in three ways. First, Dr. Hudson of the novel is forty-six years old when he marries Helen, who was a friend of Joyce when she was in college, but a couple of years older. That means that Merrick and Helen are about the same age. I believe the author wanted to avoid having Merrick fall in love with an older woman. In fact, Nancy was in love with Dr. Hudson, and she would have made a more appropriate match for him, being about the same age.
In the 1935 movie version, Helen is played by Irene Dunne, who was 35, while Bob Merrick is played by Robert Taylor, who was 24, a difference between them of 11 years. In the 1954 version, Jane Wyman was 36 and Rock Hudson was 28, a difference of 8 years. Furthermore, Jane Wyman is one of those people that always look older than they really are. This has led some critics to see an Oedipal situation in these two movies. But I suspect that those that made these movies thought it was a little creepy to have a middle-aged man marry his daughter’s friend in college, so they preferred to make Helen a little older than Merrick, but not by too much, as the lesser of evils.
Second, Helen’s blindness, which occurs toward the end of the novel, is the result of a railroad accident, and it is not Merrick’s fault. His efforts to help Helen are primarily driven by his guilt at having survived at the expense of Dr. Hudson, whereas in the movie, it is mainly on account of his guilt at having caused her blindness.
Third, she is not in financial difficulty on account of her husband. She owns stock in North-western Copper that pays a dividend of $6,000 per year. Adjusted for inflation, that would be over $90,000 per year in today’s dollars. And if we assume that this income was generated by a 5% dividend, then the value of her stock, adjusted for inflation, would be $1,800,000. There is no indication that Brightwood Hospital is in financial difficulty. Nancy estimates that the stock Helen owns in it is worth $20,000, or over $300,000, adjusted for inflation, giving her a net worth based on her stock ownership alone of $2,100,000 in today’s dollars. The novel indicates that Hudson had both a house in the city and a retreat he called “Flintridge,” which was by the lake. There is a reference to caretakers for the latter. One must suppose that these two pieces of real estate would add significantly to Helen’s net worth.
For some reason, she lets her cousin Monty Brent handle her affairs, as if collecting dividends was too much for her to cope with as a helpless widow, so she needs a man to see to such things. He tells her the dividend has been suspended, but Helen is suspicious, since Joyce is still collecting the dividends from her stock in that company. (Apparently, Joyce is capable of collecting dividends all by herself.) Brent had surreptitiously sold the stock and lost all the money on bad investments and loose living. That is what puts Helen in difficult financial circumstances. And I guess if she was too helpless to collect those dividends all on her own, she is too helpless to hold down a job. But in any event, her husband was not to blame for all that.
Merrick finds out about Brent’s malversation. He forces Brent to write a letter to Helen saying that the money from the stock has been reinvested in Axion Motor Company preferred. (“Axion” is the name of Merrick’s motor company in the novel.) The stock is worth over $1,700,000 in today’s dollars. Brent also writes that he will no longer be handling her investments. So, as in the movie, Merrick helps Helen out financially, but for completely different reasons.
To get rid of Brent for good, Merrick insists that he move to Buenos Aires. He gives him a steamship ticket and $2,000, or about $30,000, adjusted for inflation. Brent is so grateful that Merrick is not going to report him to the authorities for embezzlement, that he says he will try to use the opportunity to start a new and better life. One thing leads to another, and Merrick ends up telling him about establishing contact with a higher power.
I could have skipped over this part, I suppose, but I couldn’t resist referring to it on account of a theme that intrigues me. This is the fifth movie or novel I have come across from the first half of the twentieth century in which people decide to go to South America to start a new life: Stella Dallas (1937), Kitty Foyle (1940), Tom, Dick, and Harry (1941), and Imitation of Life are the other four. It would seem that with the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, famously written about by Frederick Jackson Turner, Americans could no longer move west to start a new life. So, I suppose all they could do was turn south. It all ended after World War II, when the Nazis decided to move to South America to start a new life. That stigma eventually wore off, but the mystique of South America as a place of renewal was gone for good.
Anyway, in watching the movie, we gradually become aware that Merrick is taking the place of Dr. Phillips, becoming a great brain surgeon just like him, and then becoming Helen’s future husband as well. But in the novel, there is nothing subtle about this idea of replacing the great doctor. When Merrick tries to write a big check to make amends, Nancy rebuffs him, much in the way Helen does in the movie. But then she suggests that Merrick go back to medical school so he can replace Dr. Hudson. As this takes place in the second chapter, the whole thing seems ludicrous, as indeed it would be in real life.
In the novel, Randolph is dead. Dr. Hudson learned about the secret belief from him. Then Hudson kept a journal about this belief in code, which Merrick had to decipher in order to read it. It tells of how Randolph was just a second-rate sculptor, who became great when he discovered his “theory of personality projection.” The idea is that if you help someone in secret, and you don’t allow him to repay the debt, your personality is expanded by the personality of the person you helped. As your personality becomes expanded by helping more and more people, you are able to excel at whatever you want.
In the movie, Randolph refers to Jesus only one time, and then without explicitly naming him. In the novel, he is referred to by Dr. Hudson only as that “Galilean.” This is bizarre. Why refer to Jesus with a generic, geographical term when everyone knows his name? Presumably, it is intended to create a sense of distance between Hudson and Christianity, as if it were something completely foreign to him.
There are passages in the Bible referred to in Hudson’s journal that are suggestive of the idea of giving away one’s money in order to get something of greater value, but we never get chapter and verse. That I shall supply instead. There is a story about a treasure in a field, for which a man sold all he had in order to buy that field, which is in Matthew 13:44; and about a man that sold all he had to possess a pearl, which is in Matthew 13:45-46.
Merrick says, “the Galilean had postulated three types of general capacity related to one another as 5:2:1.” That is an obscure allusion to the parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30. Merrick is like the man who was given five talents, from whom much is expected.
In fact, Randolph shows Dr. Hudson a Bible in which one page has been removed because it is the only page in the Bible that Randolph cared about, the one with the “secret formula for power.” Of this page, Randolph says it “contains the rules for generating that mysterious power I mentioned. By following these instructions to the letter, you can have anything you want, do anything you wish to do, be whatever you would like to be.”
We are not told which page that is. I believe the reason for this is to make the reader a participant in solving the mystery. If he has to figure out for himself which page in the Bible is being referred to, he is more likely to embrace this theory of personality projection as his own; whereas if it were spoon-fed to the reader, he would be more likely to remain aloof.
However, not wanting to depend on the reader’s familiarity with the Bible, Douglas does provide chapter and verse for a prefatory quotation: “‘Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,’ Matthew 6:3.” Undoubtedly, the first page of Matthew 6 is the page Randolph thought was special, especially the first four verses:
6:1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
6:2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6:3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
6:4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
This last verse, in its reference to being rewarded “openly,” suggests that the reward will be granted while one still lives and not only when one dies and goes to Heaven.
Merrick finds from Dr. Hudson’s journal that Jesus practiced what he preached when it came to keeping things a secret:
He noted, also with keen interest, the numerous occasions when the Galilean, having performed a service for someone, would ask him, as a special favour, not to tell anybody about it.
Presumably, he is referring to passages like that of Matthew 9:30, after Jesus has just restored sight to two blind men:
9:30 And their eyes were opened; and Jesus straitly charged them, saying, See that no man know it.
So, let’s say we buy into this theory of personality projection, in which keeping the doing of alms a secret is essential to expanding one’s personality. But is there a need to keep the theory itself a secret? In one sense, there does not seem to be such a need. After all, the verses from Matthew 6 are part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which a multitude is told to give alms in secret.
But in another sense, it is as if the theory of personality projection itself must be kept a secret. After all, why would Dr. Hudson keep a journal in code? Merrick makes reference to the way this Galilean had shared certain mysteries only with his intimates:
He had been entirely frank about saying to his intimates, in an intensive seminar session, that there were certain mysteries he could and would confide to them which he had no intention of discussing before the general public for the reason that the majority of people would be unable to understand.
Presumably, he is referring to passages from the Book of Mark:
4:10 And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.
4:11 And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables:
4:12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.
There is something selfish about all this. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “We know the mystery, so we will go to Heaven; but we won’t tell anyone else, so they will go to Hell.”
And there is something a little selfish about keeping the theory of personality projection a secret as well. The reward for those that practice this theory is excellence. Whatever they really enjoy doing, in that they will excel, being a great sculptor or a great brain surgeon in the novel. But in order to be great in any such endeavor, it is necessary that others be mediocre. Had Randolph told everyone about his secret, the world would have been full of other sculptors equally great. Had Dr. Hudson told everyone he knew of this secret, there would have been a glut of great brain surgeons. In a world where everyone is great, no one is.
This selfishness even reaches the point of being hateful and meanspirited. Randolph tells Dr. Hudson of the time he helped a man who was down on his luck find a job, even to the point of buying him a wardrobe so that he could make a presentable appearance in an interview. But the man broke his promise to keep it a secret, blabbing about it to a neighbor. The man got the job, but as far as Randolph was concerned, the money was wasted because he didn’t get to benefit from his act of charity, saying “that didn’t do me any good! You’d better believe—the next time I made an outlay I informed the fellow that if I ever heard of his telling anybody, I would break his neck.”
After Jesus told those two blind men, whose sight he had restored, to let no man know about what he did, they went ahead and told anyway:
9:31 But they, when they were departed, spread abroad his fame in all that country.
One wonders if Jesus was as irked about that as Randolph was when his good deed was spoiled by the faithless recipient of his largesse.
Of course, Randolph is at pains to say that you can’t use this theory for crass, selfish reasons, to get lots of money, for example. You can’t do the right thing for the wrong reason. So, in using this theory to become great at something, it must be for the sake of some “higher altruism.” I’m not sure how his becoming a great sculptor is some kind of higher altruism, however. In any event, there is an inherent element of selfishness in this theory of personality projection that cannot be dispelled merely by saying it cannot be used for selfish purposes.
There is something paradoxical about being rewarded for being good, whether in regard to this theory of personality projection in particular, or in regard to religious beliefs in general. Whether it is the idea that one will go to Heaven, or one will be rewarded with a better life when one is reincarnated, or that our good deeds will benefit us within our lifetime, such beliefs undermine the moral quality of what we do, for they transform the categorical imperative into a hypothetical one.
Consider Matthew 25, the chapter alluded to above that includes the parable of the talents. Jesus talks about how those that have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, given shelter to the stranger, and nursed the sick will be rewarded by God. But of those that did not do these things, he says:
25:41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
25:46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
Does this not make it a matter of mere prudence to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.? The most wicked man on Earth would do that, if he feared that Hell awaited him if he did not.
Likewise, if you believe that you will be rewarded or punished when you are reincarnated, depending on what you do in this life, is it not again a matter of mere prudence to do good and eschew evil?
A similar paradox arises with karma. In a simplistic understanding of this principle, good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. In the television series My Name Is Earl (2005-2009), the title character wonders why bad things always seem to be happening to him. He wins the lottery, but while jumping for joy, he gets hit by an automobile and winds up in the hospital, with the lottery ticket lost in the process. But while watching television, he hears a man talking about karma, and Earl realizes that’s what his problem is. He has bad karma, on account of all the bad things he has done in his life, though none of them worse than petty thievery. He makes a list of all his misdeeds, intending to make amends. No sooner does he make up for one of his sinful acts than he finds the lottery ticket. And so it goes. As he makes up for the things he has done wrong, crossing them off his list as he does so, his life continues to get better.
But we have to wonder. If Earl’s only reason for “trying to become a better person” is so that good things will happen to him, does he really deserve the reward he seeks?
Now, My Name Is Earl was a successful comedy. And since it was funny, all sins are forgiven. We are not concerned about the logic of the karmic principle that motivates Earl, because we are too busy laughing. But Magnificent Obsession is a serious novel, and so the idea of using the secret karmic principle for selfish ends is problematic.
Let us consider a man who has no religious beliefs. His irreligious nature may be summed up in four principles:
1. There is no God.
2. There is no immortal soul. There is no Heaven or Hell, and there is no reincarnation. Death is final.
3. There is no karma. We do not live in a just world. Bad things happen to good people, while there are wicked men who live quite comfortably and will never be punished for the evil that they do.
4. Suffering has no meaning. The world is full of pain and misery that serves no purpose, ending only in death.
What should we say of a man that embodied these irreligious principles, if he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and nursed the sick, a man that helped others because he cared about them? Would not this man be more deserving of praise for what he does than one who expects to be rewarded because of some religious belief that he holds?
Only if there is no expectation of a future life can our actions in this life be truly moral. Only if we have no illusions about living in a just world can our good deeds be truly praiseworthy.