As I write this, we’re a bit into our second year here at Ken’s World/Jabootu’s Dimension of Bad Movies. It’s been a rewarding first year. We’re steadily heading towards having posted thirty reviews and miscellaneous articles. Figure those pieces at a conservative twelve pages apiece, and I’ve produced over three hundred full pages of text over the year twelve months. As well, I’m hopeful that I’ll be even more productive this coming year.
Most pleasant of all, though, has been the opportunity to ‘meet’ a number of extremely pleasant, humorous and erudite people. This has been through those of you kind enough to write me a note or post a message on our message board. As well, I’ve had cause to communicate with other folks who run their own Bad Movie sites. To a man, they’ve proven to be both as funny and as kind as could be. In particular, meeting Al and Rob over at the Oh, The Humanity! site, in the actual flesh at the 1998 B-Fest, was a great treat. I’m hoping to convince some of you out there to attend next year’s B-Fest, where we can all hang out and share our odd passion.
I can guess what you’re thinking. “Get on with it, you boring dolt!” Then you realize that that’s rude, and cover by saying, “Gee, Ken! Sounds like everything’s a big bowl of cherries!” Well, unfortunately, that’s not quite true. There’s one area where I’d like to see some increased activity. I’m referring, of course, to the paucity of ‘flames’ directed to us at Ken’s World.
Admittedly, fan mail is much preferable in the main. Yet flame mail is fun to answer (particularly since I always get the last word), it can provoke interesting interaction from other readers, and people bitching about stuff can be pretty darn amusing. Unfortunately, though, I’ve only been flamed once, by a woman who accused me of being sexist due to my Clan of the Cave Bear Review. This started a discussion on our message board, but since her arguments were pretty lame, and no one else joined in on her side, the whole thing petered out quickly. Oh, and one guy said I was a ‘fag,’ but frankly, folks, I expect a higher grade of flaming than that.
Then I thought, ‘Hey, Ken, if you want flame mail, jump into the deep end of the pool, buddy!’ So I thought I’d pick I film that I could review from a controversial perspective, one that is bound to offend somebody and get them to flame me out. (Note: Please use our message board for this, so that other readers can jump in, pros and cons.) Luckily, I’m a political and cultural Conservative, so I knew I wouldn’t have to make up a viewpoint in order to irritate someone. And, in fact, I may as well just build on the idea that I’m ‘sexist.’ An idea I reject, by the way. At least by what I would defend to be a logical definition of ‘sexism.’
Anyway, here’s my perspective for this review (which will not strike all as controversial): Guess what? Men and women are different. They are, in fact, as different psychologically as they are physically. (And please, no arguing that physical differences, like, I don’t know, the penis, are not real but rather ‘socially constructed.’ You will be mocked severely.) And it’s not because of socialization, either. Nope, we’re hardwired to think in completely different ways. It’s in our genes.
Now, obviously, I’m stereotyping. And I mean this in its proper, necessary sense. These are group traits I’m talking about. After all, the fact that men are physically stronger than women is true in the whole, if not in every single possible individual comparison. We as a society have become so afraid of drawing group comparisons (for fear of being called ‘racist’, or ‘sexist’, or some other ‘ist’) that stereotyping has fallen into disfavor. Yet, stereotyping is a necessity of life, and, in fact, is only dangerous when group characteristics are applied indiscriminately to individual members of that group.
Feminism was, initially, an important and just social movement. That’s because there were women, lots of them, who didn’t think the way, or want the things, that the majority did. And it was, of course, wrong for society to limit roles for women who didn’t feel the need, say, to stay home and raise their children. Ultimately, the Feminist Movement was required to force changes in society’s thinking.
However, as always happens when human beings are involved (something the genders do have in common), the Feminist Movement became corrupt. This, as per usual, occurred when the movement had largely gained it’s original goals, to the point where Feminism (of the old kind) morphed from a countercultural movement to being part of the Establishment itself. Having convinced the majority of society that its initial goals were just, the movement had to adopt ever more extreme goals to keep itself ‘relevant.’ And in doing so, it became guilty of the sins it once fought against.
If the majority of men and women of an earlier age found it difficult to believe that some women thought and wanted differently than the norm, well, surprise! So do modern Feminists. Look at the seemingly inherent, almost pathological hostility that Establishment Feminists evince to modern-day women who choose to stay at home. These women are either considered to be gender traitors, or literally delusional, suffering the effects of socialization that the Feminists themselves have managed to throw off.
So how am I going to tie this into an article? Because I believe that there is proof of inherent psychological gender differences in films themselves. By which I mean that there are certain films that appeal to one sex particularly, speaking to them at their deepest, baseline level, while leaving the other sex bewildered at their appeal. For men, these films generally entail war, violence, and male bonding under the most extreme of conditions. I’m talking about films like The Great Escape, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, The Dirty Dozen, The Naked Prey, and, in particular, Zulu. These are the movies that men can watch over and over and over, much to the general disgust and bewilderment of their girlfriends and wives. These are films that we watch, nodding along as they speak a seemingly secret language that only we understand.
And what are the women’s movies? They’re bizarre, insane (or so they seem to me, and most men) romantic pictures. ‘Weepies’ they were called at their height of their popularity, or ‘four hanky’ flicks, since the audiences would cry their way through four handkerchiefs. These films, with their ludicrous plot twists and laughable obstacles tossed in the way of final, true love, provided their intended audiences with a ‘good cry.’ They also provided agony to any male dragged along, who dared to mock these films only at risk of life and limb. Men’s Movies bespoke a Code detailing the unwritten rules of what constitutes manly behavior. Conversely, Women’s Films spoke to a separate Code, concerning rules for relationships and emotional involvement that no man ever has, or truly can, understood.
Yet, at their core, both of the Codes speak to much the same thing: How to conduct oneself in extreme circumstances in ‘the correct’ fashion. For men, this entails the qualities of courage and stoicism (or even humor) in the face of physical suffering and death, physical competence, toughness and sacrifice. The Women’s Code, however, speaks of how to act when confronted with situations involving emotional extremes. One is about bearing pain physically and the other bearing pain emotionally, both to martyr-ish lengths if necessary.
For example, take A League of Their Own. When Geena Davis intentionally ‘sacrifices’ a Baseball play-off victory in order to make her obnoxious, whiny sister feel better about herself, well, that’s a woman’s moment. I know that I became literally enraged at the scene (a reaction I had no control over, by the way), thinking that Davis had no ‘right’ to steal a victory from her teammates, all of who had worked so hard to get to the play-offs. What she did, by the rules of The Men’s Code, was utterly dishonorable. When you join a team, you accept that the team comes first. I believe that almost any guy would back me up on this.
Exhibit B is Sleepless in Seattle (itself a ‘Chick Flick,’ the modern, watered down version of the old hardcore ‘Weepies’). In a hilarious scene, Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell start reminiscing about the improbable events of An Affair to Remember. This classically nutso Weepie involves a heroine hiding the fact that she’s recently crippled from the man she loves, Cary Grant, for fear that he’ll stay with her only because of her condition. As the two recite the objectively rather improbable plot twists of this picture, they break out in tears at the sheer beauty of the heroine’s sacrifices, and how romantic the whole thing is.
Meanwhile, an incredulous Tom Hanks sits by with a male friend. They are finally driven to start crying, in a mocking fashion, about the beautiful sacrifices of the characters in (significantly) The Dirty Dozen. The women roll their eyes at this comparison, not understanding that The Dirty Dozen speaks to the guys as deeply as An Affair to Remember speaks to them. And if they did really understand, they would merely consider it evidence of how juvenile men are compared to women.
In any case, men and women today are too ‘sophisticated’ to allow such works to be currently produced. That’s because the Codes are extremely simplistic, and we are now taught that there are no simplistic truths (or pretty much any truths, for that matter). For these films to work, they must be viewed with an irony-free state of mind. You must utterly give yourself over to them. And since the greatest fear in this country is to be un-hip, one of the people who ‘don’t get it,’ well, only in the privacy of our own homes, or in the presence of a few trusted souls of like mind, do we admit the power of these flicks.
Actually, looking at the above paragraph, I realize that it’s not entirely accurate. More than the audiences itself, it’s the Hollywood community that, more than any other segment in the country, fears the ‘un-hip’ label. This explains their reactively ‘progressive’ politics, which is why they themselves are largely incapable of making pictures like this anymore.
Yet the film that comes closest to following the Codes in recent years, James Cameron’s Titanic, coincidentally has become the biggest world-wide money maker in film history. It’s canny mixture of the Man’s Code (how do I honorably act as the ship sinks?), mixed with the rather unlikely romantic stuff for the women (and the death of DeCaprio is pure ‘four hanky’ hokum). The simplicity of these elements tainted the film for some. For those who chose to accept it on its own terms, however, this very simplicity gave the film its extraordinary power.
In any case, for my review to make sense, you must be aware that Magnificent Obsession is itself completely and utterly free of irony. No matter how daffy the plot twists, they are played completely seriously. No matter how ludicrous the events facing them become, the characters react in an utterly straight fashion (insert your own Rock Hudson joke here). The film was directed by Douglas Sirk. Quentin Tarantino fans may recall that in Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman orders a “Douglas Sirk Steak.” The joke is that it only comes “burnt or bloody.” That’s Sirk (and this film) in a nutshell: No half measures. Still, it should be noted that of the film’s I’ve reviewed so far, only Magnificent Obsession was a huge hit. It was one of the very top box office hits of 1954, and for many years after was considered a classic.
As you might expect, the film announces its style in its very first seconds. As the names of the stars, Jane (the ex-Mrs. Ronald Reagan) Wyman and Rock Hudson appear on a pink, silky background, overly lush ‘romantic’ music swells up over the soundtrack. To this is added, almost immediately, a choir making angelic ‘Ah-Ah’ sounds, of the type generally heard when characters in old movies have brushes with angels and the like. This is soon replaced with harp music (!). Then the choir’s back, all building up for the final credit to Douglas Sirk.
This scene of angelic calm is instantly supplanted by a noisy, chaotic scene. We cut to dissolute millionaire Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), zooming across a lake in a racing boat. At his side is his latest ‘girlfriend,’ who’s beside herself with fear at the recklessness of the thrill-seeking Merrick. Showing himself to be somewhat of a cad, Merrick merely laughs off her protests. Just in case we don’t get how he’s going fast and all, we cut to a couple of observers on the dock. (Actually, all the scenes with actors were shot in a studio and then intercut with location footage of the speed boat.) “He’s doing a hundred and fifty or better!,” the fellow exclaims in expository fashion.
Merrick pulls into the dock, but only to drop off his date so that he can really cruise. The boat’s mechanic points out that it’s getting choppy out on the lake. Merrick huffily tells him to mind his own business and heads back out. We cut back to the others left on the dock (the movie’s first really poor back projection shot), where the workmen discuss their rude, headstrong boss. “Hasn’t he got any brains?,” one asks. “He doesn’t have to,” comes the reply. “He’s got four million bucks!”
As should come to the surprise of practically no one, Merrick pushes it too far and flips the boat over. Next we see him on shore, hooked up to a portable resuscitation machine. He’s been stabilized, and an ambulance is coming to take him to the local hospital. Meanwhile, a watching cop gets a radio call. He’s ordered to immediately return the resuscitator to the home of Dr. Wayne Phillips. Waiting impatiently outside Phillips’ house is neighbor Nancy Ashford (Agnes Moorehead, Endora on the television series Bewitched.) She tells the cops that Dr. Phillips has had an accident.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Helen Philips (Jane Wyman) and her twenty-ish step-daughter Joyce are driving back to the house. Their car is loaded with stuff for that night’s Anniversary Party, commemorating Helen’s marriage to Phillips (!). Joyce is a little blase about the whole affair, as it’s only her father and Helen’s six-month anniversary (!!). But there’s no raining on Helen’s parade (for about another minute, anyway). “I’ve never been married six months before,” she cheerfully replies. “And I want to tell the world that I love it!”
Just to add a little more goo to this mushy scene (as if it needed it!), Joyce reveals that she’s come to consider Helen to be her mother, the only one she’s ever known. (OK, already! Enough expository dialog!) As they enter the circular drive to the house, we see the cops leaving through the other end. “I sure feel sorry for them!,” one grimly states. (bum bum bum!!!)
The women stop chattering long enough to be told that Wayne’s had an accident. Rushing inside, they learn from family friend Dr. Dodge that he’s more accurately had ‘an attack.’ Tearfully, they enter Phillips’ room, as Nancy comes into the house. She and Dodge take the opportunity for a little (yes) expository dialog. This informs us that Phillips had been a mix of Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa, only without the bad parts.
This is the point where the film starts getting really wacky. Joyce comes out and asks Dr. Dodge what happened. After he’s finished, she asks why the resuscitator didn’t help. Dodge tells her that it wasn’t there. Joyce is bewildered. It turns out that the resuscitator has been sitting around for years, just in case, ever since Phillips had a coronary episode some years ago (!). Gee, what are the odds that it would be out of the house, for the first time, exactly at the moment when Phillips would finally have need of it? Boy, it’s always something, isn’t it?
Joyce is even more put out to find that the unit was gone because Bob Merrick needed it. “I know him,” she sputters. “He’s a stupid, spoiled darn fool!” In other words, an anti-Phillips (burned or bloody, remember?). Helen reenters the room long enough to inform us of her great love for Phillips, with whom she only had these few, short months.
Cut to the hospital, where Dodge is entering Merrick’s room. Merrick is on the phone, ordering his underlings around in a blustering manner. In case we haven’t ‘gotten’ it yet, this is to help illustrate that Merrick is a grade-A jerk. Anyway, guess what time it is? That’s right! Expository Dialog time! Merrick confuses Dodge by throwing around Doctor words, like ‘cranial cavity.’ (Actually, this film appears to be the work of people themselves sporting some rather prominent ‘cranial cavities’.) Merrick, we learn, was once enrolled in Med. School. While he was there, his father died, at the tender age of forty-two. Shaken, Merrick dropped out and decided to live life to the fullest while he could.
Dodge meets Nancy in the hall (it turns out that she’s a nurse). There they exchange a little dialog about what a “complete waste” it is that Phillips died so that the jerkola Merrick could live. Then Nancy enters Merrick’s room, where the smoking (gasp!) Merrick is chatting up one of his numerous chicks on the phone. Merrick, unaware of the situation, tells Nancy to get Dr. Phillips, so that he can arrange for Merrick’s release. When Nancy tries to take his temperature, he turns his back to her. “It’s absolutely immaterial to me, Mr. Merrick,” Nancy archly observes, “But I’m going to take your temperature. One way or another!” (Comedy!) (Insert your own ‘Irony of reference to sticking something up Hudson’s rear’ line here.)
Merrick, again unaware of the Phillips’ situation, begins spouting off to Nancy about the poor service he’s been getting here at the hospital. Nancy replies with a detailed list of his character deficiencies, then tells him half the story, that Phillips died a few days ago. (Merrick’s ignorance, of course, is being stretched out for later plot purposes.) Merrick demands to be discharged, but Nancy informs him that he might be stuck there for a few days yet, then leaves. Merrick, of course, jumps out of bed and begins to get dressed, prior to sneaking out of the hospital. (Do you ever get the notion that people sneak out of hospitals a lot more in movies and TV shows than in real life?)
Out by the reception desk, a nurse hands Joyce a bundle of letters. Joyce enters her father’s office, where Helen is straightening up. She’s on the phone at the moment, talking to Tom Masterson, her lawyer and Joyce’s boyfriend. She hangs up, and they begin looking through the letters. These are from grateful people from around the world (!), all adding weight to the ‘Phillips was a great guy!,’ thing.
Joyce leaves and a Mrs. Eden comes in, there to give Helen a personal testimonial to her husband’s greatness. (We get it already!!!!) Mrs. Eden reveals that Phillips loaned her dough, some $4,000 (a good hunk back then), and would never allow her to repay the debt. (Believe it or not, that ‘heavenly choir’ starts Ah-ahhing as she tells her tale.) She tries to give Helen a check to cover the debt, but Helen follows in her husband’s footsteps, and refuses it (see below, in IMMORTAL DIALOG). Instead, she asks Mrs. Eden to keep the money and to use it when somebody else is in trouble. Having heard similar tales from several people, Helen realizes that perhaps even she didn’t know what a great man her husband was (Ah-ah-ah-ah!)
Outside the hospital, Merrick is making his escape (keep an eye out for the camera man’s shadow playing over the lawn furniture). Hiding, he sees Tom Masterton arrive and share a gooey hello with Joyce. Meeting with Helen in Wayne’s office, Tom drops a bombshell: Phillips has left no estate to speak of. Every time he made one of his gigantic fees, it would soon disappear in a series of cash withdrawals, of which Tom (Wayne’s lawyer) knew nothing. Helen, of course, now knows that Wayne was always giving away money to the needy, and refusing repayment. Helen will get the house, and little else. Even the hospital will have a tough time of it, now that Wayne’s gone.
As Helen drives home, we see a not-as-healthy-as-he-thought Bob Merrick come stumbling down an incline and fall into the road (why didn’t he grab the cab that Tom Masterson came in? IITS!) Helen pulls over to lend him a hand. Offering this stranger (bum bum bum!!!) a ride, they climb into the car. (Cue poor back projection.) Bad condition or not, Merrick soon reverts to form and begins flirting with Helen. Needless to say, she’s not really in the mood, given the recently dead husband and all.
He continues hitting on her until he finds out that’s she’s Mrs. Wayne Phillips. Realizing that he’s been acting in an inappropriate manner (to say the least!) he gives her his condolences on her husband’s passing. This leads Helen to bitterly comment that perhaps they’ll get a second resuscitator now. Confused, Merrick asks what she means, and finally learns that Phillips died because he was hogging up the resuscitation unit. Horrified that his callous actions resulted in another man’s death (and that he’s currently talking to the guy’s widow), Merrick asks to be dropped off at the side of the road. He gets about ten feet and promptly collapses.
Helen gets Merrick into the car and drives him back to the hospital, where everyone’s in a frenzy over his disappearance. Helen runs inside and tells Nancy about the man she met on the road. Looking out the window, Nancy spills the beans, and Helen discovers that the man she’s been driving around with is the guy who caused her husband’s death. Although shocked, she expresses relief that she’ll never have to see him again. (Boy, if only she knew, huh?)
Cut to a week later. Finally recovered, Merrick comes to the front desk to pay his bill. (Wouldn’t most millionaires have accountants to do that stuff?) Hearing that Helen is in her husband’s office, he tears up his first check and writes out a new one for $25,000 (again, major moola in ’54). Inside, Helen is talking to Edward Randolph, an old friend of Wayne’s and someone who shared his bizarre ‘used it all up’ philosophy. (We know that Randolph’s wise, because he smokes a pipe, movie shorthand for a scientist or intellectual.) Apparently, he’s clued Helen in, and she feels some closure on the issue. Randolph takes his leave, explaining that she can find him at his studio.
As Randolph leaves, Merrick barges in, demanding to talk to Helen. In a rather ham-fisted attempt to apologize, Merrick shoves his check at her. Perhaps he intends that she use it to buy herself an even better husband. Needless to say, this doesn’t cut it. “Smash up somebody’s car when you’re drunk,” Helen sneers, “and write out a check! Get in a mess with a showgirl and write out a check! And when a man dies, write out a check to his widow. Account Paid in Full!” Then she kicks him out, cueing a dramatic swell of music.
Next we see Merrick at a bar with his sycophants and their high class floozies. But Merrick is too troubled to find solace in a bottle or a blond (boy, is that wordsmithery or what?). He stumbles out, somewhat the worse for wear. As Merrick drives his car in front of a frantic rear screen projection, ‘exciting’ music, somewhat reminiscent of the ‘witch’ music from The Wizard of Oz, informs us that something’s about to happen. Sure enough, Merrick smashes his car up, and then laboriously climbs out to look for help. He leans over and picks up part of a sign that he smashed through, with the word ‘danger’ on it. This is symbolic. Or ironic. Or humorous. Or something.
Luckily, the secluded spot where Merrick happened to crash is about ten yards away from a house. Even more amazingly, this edifice turns out to be the home and studio of Randolph, the fellow we met in Helen’s office a bit back. Wow, what a coincidence, huh? (Or is it? Check out the AFTERTHOUGHTS section at the end of the review.) Here Hudson the actor treats us to a tour de force portrayal of someone who is drunk. He is so realistic that one is forced to conclude that he actually found a guy who was drunk, studied him for two or three minutes, and then modeled his performance on that. Or maybe he just caught Foster Brooks’ act and aped him.
We get to watch Hudson’s drunk routine (and believe me, ‘routine’ is exactly the right word) for a couple of minutes, while Randolph smiles at his guest’s antics. This is a clue to all of us that this is supposed to be ‘funny.’ Luckily, we are spared further ‘high jinx’ when Merrick looks around at Randolph’s paintings and finds a portrait of Wayne Phillips.
We, of course, don’t get to see the portrait. Phillips is never viewed by the audience in any way, the better to convey to us his mysterious, ‘otherworldly’ goodness. However, the heavenly choir returns to remind us of Phillips’ saintliness. Confronted with this reminder of his guilt, Merrick half sobers up. Spilling his guts to Randolph, Merrick explains his theory that the film’s absurd series of events is a sign that Phillips is haunting him. Which, actually, is as good of a theory as any. With that, Merrick passes out on Randolph’s sofa.
The next morning Randolph wakes Merrick up, leading to the inevitable ‘humorous’ hangover lines. After a quick shower, however, Merrick is so refreshed that his shirt and suit, which he slept in, are now magically cleaned and pressed. Coming downstairs, he finds that Randolph has prepared a hearty breakfast for the two of them. Now that he’s sober, Merrick remembers meeting Randolph in Helen’s office, and learns that he was Wayne Phillips’ best friend. (Of course. Who else’s house would Merrick crash in front of?) When Merrick compliments Randolph on his skill as an artist, he replies that if so, the credit belongs to (who else?) Phillips.
Here’s where we delve fully into the movie’s bizarre theological morass. It was hinted at earlier during that goofball conversation between Helen and Mrs. Eden, but now we get it all spelled out (See IMMORTAL DIALOG). Randolph explains that he was never able to create new art until Phillips showed him how to, “establish contact with a source of Infinite Power.”
After a lengthy and rather inane New Age-y conversation, Merrick reveals that his only real goal to be square himself with Helen. He figures that if this ‘helping the needy in secret’ thing is workable, well, he’ll give it a go. Randolph here sternly warns him not to mess with this if he’s not ready, then implies that Jesus Himself got His power this way (!). And look what happened to him… (Of course, Jesus came to Earth to bring Man the Word of God, not to help folks out in secret. Still thoughâ€¦)
Car fixed, Merrick drives back to town and stops to grab some lunch. Chatting with a local workman, Merrick learns that the fellow just lost a child, that his wife is still in the hospital, and that the bills are stacking up. Merrick gives his good-byes, starts to walk off, then realizes (duh) that this is the perfect opportunity to begin his new way of life. He tosses the guy a wad of cash, under the conditions that he tell no one about this and that he never try to repay him. (Of course, a guy with four million bucks can give a lot of people three hundred dollars without really getting pinched.)
However, Merrick tries to profit from his new ways too quickly. Seeing Helen sitting in the same resturant, Merrick figures that her presence is a reward for his initial selfless act. He actually gets off on the right foot by apologizing for his boneheaded play with the check. However, he quickly screws it up by getting too aggressive and pressuring her to go out on a date with him. Then he totally blows it by blabbing about his good deed, which of course sours all the good karma he accrued from it in the first place (or something). When he brags that he’s going to follow in her husband’s footsteps by handing out cash to the needy, she reacts angrily, feeling that he’s twisted her husband’s beliefs. Again, she tries to leave.
This sets up perhaps the film’s goofiest and most outrageous ‘tragic’ moment. Merrick chases after her, intent on explaining what a great guy he’s become. Annoyed, Helen tries to get away, and, entering the street, is hit by a car (!!). We cut to the hospital, where Joyce, Masterson, Randolph and a pacing Merrick are waiting for a report on Helen’s condition. Meanwhile, down the hall, Nurse Nancy and Dr. Dodge (hey, isn’t that a Country & Western song?) discuss Helen’s grim prognosis.
Proving to be quite the humanitarian, Dodge enters his office. This leaves it to Nancy to deliver the latest dire news: Because of trauma caused by the accident, Helen has a lesion on the brain. This has resulted in her being blinded. Joyce, not too surprisingly, goes off on Merrick. “She’ll never see again, thanks to you!,” she cries. “Write a check for that, Mr. Merrick!” This, of course, has Merrick feeling, yet again, like a major league heel. He leaves the hospital with Randolph in tow.
Cut to sometime in the future (it’s now Winter, which is meant to convey that some time has passed). Helen, now blind, is back home and sitting up in bed. Nancy informs her that Merrick is again asking to visit with her. Helen, however, while not blaming Merrick for her misfortunes (yeah, right), feels nothing would be accomplished by, uh, seeing him. Nancy goes to deliver the news, and the disappointed Merrick leaves.
Cut to the coming of Spring. My, how time flies! Helen is out on the patio, being visited by Randolph. We learn that Randolph will be leaving for a trip to Chicago shortly, and that Nancy is no longer living with Helen, but just drops by to help her down to the beach and back. (Thank you, expository dialog!) Helen apologizes to Randolph for being such a handful these last months. Then, in his honor, she attempts for the first time to walk down to the beach alone. This is via a guide rope tied from her backyard to the shore below. Nancy drops by, and is also impressed with Helen’s recovery.
Down on the beach, Helen meets with the tomboyish Judy, a (roughly) thirteen year old girl who’s been hanging out with her. Helen lets Judy read to her, but she was late today, and Judy started without her. As she helps Helen to her chair, though, Judy fills her in on the antics of ol’ Huck Finn. (Helen’s lucky: Today, Judy would undoubtedly be reading to her from the unending Fear Street books by R. L. Stine.) Judy then gives Helen a ‘Lake’ report, and reads to her from the paper. Meanwhile, silently sitting nearby, Merrick is watching over them. Now, I understand that Helen can’t see him, but why does Judy ignore him, and why doesn’t Helen smell his cigarette, as he’s only about ten feet away from her?
Judy soon has to leave, and Helen elects to stay on the beach. However, Judy can’t get her little boat into the water, and asks the nearby ‘stranger’ for help. Helen, hearing this, realizes for the first time that there’s someone else on the beach. She engages him in conversation, and Merrick, realizing that she doesn’t know who he is (!), gives her a fake name, ‘Robbie’ Robinson.
Having successfully made contact, Merrick retreats, promising to return to the beach some other day. Inspired, Merrick visits Randolph and informs that he is finally ready to turn his life over to Randolph’s ‘powerhouse,’ or whatever. Randolph warns him not to lightly enter onto this path, for it will utterly change his life, consuming him for all time. “Believe me,” Randolph intones (here it comes!), “it will be a Magnificent Obsession!” [Cue heavenly choir]
Merrick returns home (choir still Ah-ahhing), where he finds Tom Masterson awaiting him. It turns out that the ‘insurance’ settlement that Helen and Joyce have been living on is in fact money from Merrick. Masterson has been surreptitiously depositing these funds into Helen’s bank account. Of course, as Masterson is Helen’s lawyer, this totally violates his ethical duties (even if he’s lying to her in a good cause). This, however, is never addressed.
Merrick drops a bombshell. He’s been in consultation with his mentor Dr. Giraud. They believe that there’s a small chance that, if Merrick can assemble the three greatest brain surgeons in Europe, Helen could be cured. However, one of the surgeons never leaves Switzerland, so they must arrange for Helen to travel there. Joyce and Nancy will go with her to attend her while they wait, as it’ll be some months before the surgeons can get together. To fund the trip, Merrick will secretly buy Helen’s house, at a healthy chunk over market value. And so that Helen doesn’t learn that Merrick is funding the operation, she’ll be told that the surgeons are operating out of respect for her late husband.
I might as well bring up something else. The first time I watched this picture, it was with my Bad Movie comrade in arms Andrew Muchony. We both immediately noticed a sort of ‘devil’ looking mask that incongruously adorns Merrick’s living room. We forthwith named it ‘Jabootu,’ and proclaimed it to be the real source of all this power that everyone’s talking about. Having seen a lot of horror movies growing up, this seemed to make a lot more sense than the film’s half-assed version of ‘Christianity.’
Merrick, meanwhile, continues to pursue his new life. His first step is to re-enter Medical School. He even gets Dr. Giraud to promise him an internship when he graduates. Next we see him on the beach with Judy and Helen, who’s still unaware of his true identity. Helen relates her good fortune, about the operation and how her house sold for a fat sum. We cut to Masterson and Joyce coming down to the beach. Improbably, ‘Mr. Robinson’ has avoided being seen by anyone who could identify him to Helen. Joyce, unaware, is looking forward to ‘meeting’ this fellow that Helen is always talking about.
Helen and Merrick are on the verge of a romantic breakthrough (no, not that, you pigs!) when he hears Judy greet Joyce. Judy, of course, is rather put out to find out that ‘Robinson’ is really Merrick, but elects not to accuse him directly in front of Helen. Masterson plays along also. Joyce instead follows Merrick as he leaves and demands an explanation. She asks him what will happen when Helen regains her sight, and sees that the man she’s fallen in love with has been lying to her all of this time. She hisses at him to get out of Helen’s life before more damage is done.
Cut to a really, really phony airport departure gate. Masterson is saying good-bye to Nancy, Helen and Joyce. Holding Joyce in his arms, ‘Masterson’ blows his line, telling Joyce that, “I love you, Helen,” (!) before a big smooch. After watching a rear projection of an airplane taking off, Masterson notices Merrick standing off to one side, watching silently. Tom manfully clasps his shoulder and tells him that everything will be all right.
Some time later, we see Merrick studying in his living room. In pride of place is a photo of Helen on the beach (and, needless to say, Jabootu). The mail arrives, including a postcard to ‘Robbie,’ which details Helen’s excitement at her upcoming consultation. Then we segue to Switzerland itself. Joyce and Helen enter the lobby of the Institute. Like the airport departure gate earlier, this is patently a set. As well, the ‘street scene’ viewed outside the ‘Institute’s’ front window is ‘realized’ via a huge, blown up photograph (shades of The Brainiac!).
The doctors examine Helen’s eyes with a little flashlight for about ten seconds, then ask if she has headaches. She gets those and the occasional dizzy spell as well. The doctors send her off, but it’s obvious something is going on. Back in their apartment, Joyce and Nancy are uncomfortable when Helen asks them to jot off another postcard to ‘Robbie.’ And their reactions when Helen dictates that they’re ‘optimistic’ about her chances clues us in that things aren’t all they could be.
Cut to Dr. Giraud’s office (yes, an obvious set with a large window looking out onto a giant photo of a Big City street). Merrick is crushed to read the pessimistic report from the specialists, but Giraud tells him to buck up. Then we cut back to ‘Switzerland,’ where Helen is awaiting the final word. She meets with the doctors in, that’s right, an obvious set featuring a window looking out onto another giant photo of a Swiss street. Needless to say, it turns out that they can’t do anything for her. Helen is obviously crushed, but tries to bear it all with a stiff upper lip, thanking the embarrassed surgeons for their efforts. Presumably, this scene is where at least one of the putative ‘four hankies’ got used up.
Back at the apartment, Joyce talks about how much she admires Helen’s strength. Nancy then tells Joyce that she (Nancy) admires her (Joyce’s) strength as well. Joyce then points out that it’s been hard on Nancy too, andâ€¦well, you get the idea. Nancy goes out to get some supplies, and Helen enters the room. She tells Joyce how hard it’s been, you know, with the blindness and all. This gets Joyce to crying (and me to yawning). Helen apologizes, and asks Joyce to get her some warm milk. Since they’ve none on hand, Joyce goes out to procure some.
Alone, Helen stands up. Weird piano and choir music begins and continues to grow louder as Helen feels her way out to the balcony. Apparently, she’s decided to end it all. However, she loses her nerve after accidentally sending a potted plant plummeting off the railing. Good thing, too. She’s only about fifteen feet up, and knowing this movie she’d end up blind and crippled for her trouble. Oh, and it’d somehow be Merrick’s fault. Hey, speak of the devil! For as she reenters the sitting room, the front door opens and none other than Merrick himself enters.
‘Rob’ and Helen finally fall into that inevitable, long awaited romantic clinch. He tells Helen that he’s going to take her on a super-duper vacation, and that she’ll have more fun than she’s ever had in her life. Meanwhile, Joyce has returned with the milk. Hearing Merrick talk to Helen, Joyce realizes for the first time that he truly loves her. Elated by ‘Rob’s’ presence, Helen goes to change into appropriate ‘night on the town’ clothes. This sets up another big tearjerker moment, as Judy confesses to Merrick that she had him all wrong. If he can make Helen happy, that’s all that matters.
Next we see Merrick and Helen in evening dress ‘driving’ in front of a spurious ‘mountain road’ projection. Helen is gushing about how happy she is to be with ‘Rob’ again. They end up in one of Hollywood’s generic backlot ‘European towns,’ of the sort familiar to fans of the old Frankenstein Monster pictures. Coincidentally, there’s a harvest festival occurring in the town (much, in fact, like the one in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), with music, and fireworks, and the whole smear. The natives are even wearing the inevitable ‘peasant’ clothing, including lederhosen and little feathered hats for the men. This is climaxed by the ceremonial burning of a witch in effigy (?). How romantic!
Helen and Merrick end up dancing in an empty resturant, serenaded by (yes) a roving violin player. Figuring that this is ‘the moment,’ Merrick spills his guts about his true identity. (Good! Now I won’t have to type ‘Rob’ anymore.) Helen reveals that she figured it out some time ago anyway. I guess she was just yanking his chain by keeping mum. Merrick, relieved, pops the question. Helen, however, is concerned that she’d cause him to be ‘pitied.’ She asks him if she can give him her answer tomorrow. He agrees, obviously thinking it a done deal.
Suddenly, the desiccated corpse of Wayne Phillips appears, vowing unholy revenge on Helen for catting around with the man who caused his death. Helen screams in horror, as Phillips strangles Merrick with cold, rotting handsâ€¦Then I wake up, and find that nothing so interesting has happened. Actually, Merrick drops Helen off at the apartment. There, Helen confides to Nancy that she can’t marry him, not when she’s, you know, blind and all. Helen makes Nancy swear that she’ll never leave her alone.
Joyce comes back from an errand the next day, finding a note from Helen. Sure enough, she’s flown the coop rather than burden poor Merrick with her blinditude. Within seconds, of course, Merrick himself just happens to walk in. Joyce hands him the note, which basically outlines the above, and requests that Merrick not look for her.
Cut to five weeks later. Merrick and Joyce are checking in with the Swiss police. They learn that a continent wide search has turned up nothing. The officer confides that, if a person really wants to disappear, it’s almost impossible to find them. Yeah, it must be difficult, in Europe, to locate two traveling American women, one of whom is blind. They get the same results from the private agents that Merrick engaged. At a loss for further action, Merrick and Joyce fly back to the States.
They arrive at the exact same phony gate as before, only now ‘movie magic’ has transformed it into an ‘arrival’ gate. Masterson meets them and takes off with Judy. Merrick, meanwhile, pensively drives out to the beach where he first ‘met’ Helen in his secret identity. Pulling out all the stops, they actually use the cornball ‘hearing voices from the past’ (i.e., earlier in the movie) bit as he gazes into the lake. At least a circle of the other character’s heads doesn’t appear and begin rotating around his screaming face. Next stop on the pity parade is Randolph’s place. There’s no comfort to be had there, either. Randolph’s had to leave town, and won’t be back for some months. Merrick hears old dialog there, too, including the ‘Magnificent Obsession’ line.
Cut to an anonymous hand opening a copy of Newsweek magazine. Inside there’s a picture of Merrick. We can tell that some time has past, because the hair at his temples is now adorned with classy streaks of gray makeup. The caption informs us that he’s watching the dedication of a new wing for neurological patients (wow, just like Helen!) at the New York Medical Center. (Is that name generic enough for you? Maybe it’s a square white building with the word ‘HOSPITAL’ written on it in blocky black type.) The wing was funded by an ‘unknown donor.’ Hmm? Could it beâ€¦?
Merrick has now graduated Med. School and is past his internship. We see him meeting with an ‘adorable’ young boy who we know is a patient because the top of his head is wrapped in bandages. Either that, or he began working on his Mummy costume and got bored (rimshot!). I guess that means he’s either ‘a patient’ or ‘impatient! Ha! I’ve got a million of ’em!
Thanks to the skilled hands of Dr. Merrick, the boy’s operation was a success. However, Mom stops to talk to the good Dr., and we learn that’s he’s also paying for a fancy school for the kid and has gotten her unemployed husband a job to boot (!). Of course, she’s under strict obligation to tell no one, even her family, of Merrick’s good deeds. When she talks about repaying him someday, Merrick uses that ‘it’s all used up’ line that Phillips used to peddle, and it doesn’t make any more sense coming from him.
In the Doctor’s Lounge, Merrick meets up with Dr. Giraud. This provides an opportunity for some expository catch-up dialog. We learn that Merrick is now a neurosurgeon, that Joyce and Tom got married a year ago and that she’s just had their first child. Taking Merrick aside, Giraud (and we) learn that’s he’s never heard from Helen in all this time. The last he heard was that they were back in the States somewhere, but he knows nothing else. Going back on rounds, Merrick pops upstairs, where Joyce is recovering after having the baby. Merrick asks Joyce to give ‘little Helen’ (boy, I hope it’s a girl!) an extra hug for him, then leaves the room.
Merrick goes home, and is pleased to find his old friend Randolph visiting. Randolph has dire news (as if there’s any other kind in this flick): Nancy has contacted him, against Helen’s wishes, because Helen has become deathly ill. (Oh, brother! Well, you knew it had to happen.) (As a side note, Jabootu makes another noteworthy appearance in this scene.) Helen’s languishing in a hospital in New Mexico, and Randolph has brought airline tickets with him.
Seeing their car arrive, Nancy leaves the sleeping Helen and meets them along with Helen’s attending physician. Randolph begins to question Nancy, but her grim expression is all the answer he needs. Merrick and the Doctor go over her chart. Amazingly, it turns out that Helen’s suffering from the sort of injury that only a top notch neurosurgeon can alleviate
Merrick knows that he doesn’t have enough experience to perform the operation, but Dr. Giraud, the logical candidate, is too far away. The operation must proceed soon. Randolph tells Merrick that he’s got to give Helen a chance, even one in a thousand, or one in a million. Merrick, however, is terrified of operating on the woman he loves. If she should dieâ€¦? Randolph tells Merrick that he can do it, and that this is his chance to finally square off that old debt.
Since they’ve got that ‘putting on a show’ feeling going, Nancy even gowns up and helps with the operation. Entering the Operating Room, Merrick has some last minute jitters. However, he looks up to see Randolph standing at the observation window, and that ‘heavenly choir’ music kicks in again (?). Randolph nods at him kindly, and Merrick regains his nerve. The operation begins. His work here done, Randolph walks off to the strains (an appropriate word, here) of harp music playing in the background.
We cut to Randolph in the waiting room, a technique used to indicate the passage of time. Once the operation is finished, we hear Nancy discussing its difficulty with the clinic’s Doctor. Now, they can only wait and see if Helen regains consciousness. (I hope you’re all sitting down, because I don’t want any of you to fall over when you learn the outcome.) Unable to sleep, Merrick paces Helen’s room throughout the night and into the next day.
Suddenly, Helen moans, then comes awake. She says it doesn’t hurt as much, movie shorthand for ‘it worked!’ As an added bonus, she even regains her sight (gee, who’d have thought?). At last, Helen and Merrick’s years of travail are over, and they will know only happiness for the rest of their lives. Randolph leaves smiling, the heavenly choir kicks up again, and we hear his line about, “a Magnificent Obsession!,” for the third time in the picture. Then, finally, the movie is over. Thank Jabootu!
After the death of her husband, Helen hears many tales of his saintliness. Here, a Mrs. Eden (hmm, ‘Eden’) drops by to relate a typical, if confusingly told tale (at the indicated juncture, imagine heavenly Ah-ahhing beginning on the soundtrack and playing for the rest of the scene). If anyone can figure out what’s going on here, please drop me a line:
Mrs. Eden: “Dr. Phillips insisted that it be kept secret. But now that he’s dead, I suppose I can talk about it. Don’t you?”
Mrs. Eden, pulling out a check: “It came to four thousand dollars altogether, and I want to pay you back.”
Helen, confused: “Why didn’t you return this to Dr. Phillips? Why do you come now?”
Mrs. Eden [Ah-ahhing starts here]: “Oh, my dear! I tried so many times, but he wouldn’t take it! He’d become very excited, and he’d say, ‘You haven’t told anyone about this?,’ and I’d say, ‘Of course not, you told us not too!’ And then he’d say, ‘That’s right, Mrs. Eden, any help I give you is just between us.’
Helen, still confused: “And he wouldn’t let you repay it?”
Mrs. Eden: “He’d say he couldn’t take it back, because he’d already used it all up! And then he’d say to invest it. ‘Invest it in what?,’ I’d say, and he’d say, ‘Any poor devil.’ Wasn’t that strange?”
Helen: “Mrs. Eden, what did he mean when he said ‘used it all up.’
Mrs. Eden: “I’ve tried to think so many times. Don’t you know, Mrs. Phillips?”
Helen: “No, it’s very odd. In four letters this week there’s exactly the same expression.”
Mrs. Eden: “But it is a debt. And I want to take care of it.”
Helen: “You don’t owe me anything, Mrs. Eden. If Dr. Phillips couldn’t accept this, than neither can I.”
Mrs. Eden, taking back check: “Well, if that’s what you want, Mrs. Phillips.”
Helen: “You keep it and use it, for ‘any poor devil.'”
Mrs. Eden: “All right. He was a very remarkable man, wasn’t he?”
Helen: “Yes, he was. Perhaps more remarkable than any of us knew.”
[Ah-ahhing swells up.]
Now, a follow-up to the above conversation. Randolph explains to Merrick (who happened to smash up his car right outside of Randolph’s place) how Wayne Phillips gave him the ability to become a great artist, via the heretical teaching of, I would deduce, some mad electrician:
Merrick: “How’d he do that? How could a surgeon help?”
Randolph: “Well, he taught meâ€¦he showed me how to establish contact with a source of Infinite Power.”
Merrick, speaking for the audience: “That sounds fine. What does it mean?”
Randolph, laughing: “Well, let me put it this way. [Turns to a lamp.] This lamp isn’t working now. It cold and it’s darkâ€¦all the parts are there. It’s a perfect lamp, butâ€¦”
Merrick: “It’s just not turned on?”
Randolph: “Right. But if I turn the switch [Lamp comes on.], and establish contact, the bulb will draw power from the powerhouse down at the Dam and it’ll do what it was meant to do. Which is to make light.”
Merrick, probably thinking that it’s ironic that he goes to the houses of Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than the other way around: “All right, so you’re saying that people have a sort of powerhouse, too.”
Randolph: “Right. When you establish contact with that, you can do what you’re meant to do. You can fulfill your destiny.”
Merrick: “I can turn on a light.”
Randolph: “I don’t think that that’s your destiny. Do you?”
Merrick, starting to awaken spiritually: “No, I guess not. But assuming there is a, well, power of some kind, or whatever you want to call it. How do you establish contact with it?”
Randolph: “It’s very simple. Just be of real service to people. Find people who need help, and help them. But always in secret. Never let it be known. Never ask to be repaid.”
Merrick: “But if you’re in service to people, then why does it have to be kept secret?”
Randolph: “That’s probably the most important part of his belief. Let’s go back to the powerhouse. If the wires in the dynamo are not protected by insulation, the power will be dissipated. The same thing goes for us. Most personalities are just grounded, that’s all that ails them.”
Merrick: “I see. You mean keeping these good deeds secret is like insulating the power of your personality.”
Randolph: “Yeah, that’s near enough.”
[Skipping a couple of lines, we go from the dimwitted to the offensiveâ€¦] Merrick: “Well, is it’s as simple as all that, why, I’ll certainly give it a chance.”
Randolph: “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. [Cue heavenly choirâ€¦] Besides, this is dangerous stuff. One of the first men who used it, went to the cross at the age of thirty-three…”
OK, aside from the fact this entire film is an awkwardly stitched together collection of unbelievable mishaps and insane coincidences, there’s also the matter of the truly bizarre and bewildering ‘theology’ which underlies the film. It’s the kind of thing that would have L. Ron Hubbard rolling his eyes (page 48).
I’ve read the above quoted conversations (see IMMORTAL DIALOG), which purport to explain it all, a number of times (and I have the headaches to prove it). And I’m left more confused than ever. Apparently, Randolph and Phillips were members of some sect that gave them a direct spiritual connection to God. When Phillips had accomplished all he could on this Earth (I’m trying to put this all together here), he died in such a fashion as to put Merrick on the road to redemption, at which point he’d continue the tradition, or whatever.
Also, Jesus apparently wasn’t the Son of God (although they don’t actually say that), but merely one of the first acolytes of this sect. Or maybe not. After all, Randolph appears to be (maybe) an angel of some sort. He nudges Merrick onto the path and oversees Helen’s operation, all while the film’s ubiquitous ‘heavenly choir’ music plays. Presumably, he also ‘arranged’ for Merrick to smash up his car directly in front of his studio. Emotionally vulnerable, this is moment when Merrick is ready to begin his ‘spiritual journal.’
Of course, we understand that Merrick has all these sins to expedite before he’s ready to, uh, tap into the powerhouse. But why does Helen have to go through so much crap? (Actually, because the audience demands it. That’s what makes the picture so ‘romantic.’) And in spite of all the stuff that the lovers have to go through to end up together, their relationship isn’t the title “Magnificent Obsession.” That, as we are constantly reminded, is Merrick’s adoption of Randolph’s and Phillips’ path.
I’ll tell you what. Let’s just blame the whole thing on Jabootu.