16 November 2007 | bkoganbing
A Big Hit On the Road
I suppose Magnificent Obsession could best be described as a religious soap opera. It's definitely the kind of film that both of its stars, Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor would identify with in real life given their politics which were on the right. Even more so for Irene Dunne who was a prominent Catholic lay person.
It was a best seller in 1929 for newly minted writer Lloyd C. Douglas, a former Methodist minister who had retired from the pulpit and spent the rest of his life writing fictional works with a religious theme.
Irene Dunne was by this time a very big star and Magnificent Obsession entered the pantheon of her big hit films. But for Robert Taylor it was the breakout film of his career, establishing him once and for all as a star player with potent box office.
Taylor was a special favorite of Louis B. Mayer at MGM, it wasn't an accident he established a record for the longest studio contract in film history. Taylor was coming along in his career quite nicely as and had gotten notice in some supporting roles and had even had a lead in Murder in the Fleet. He had also played part of a love triangle as another doctor in Society Doctor with Chester Morris and Virginia Bruce.
I'm betting that it was that this was the film that Carl Laemmle saw at Universal when he asked Mayer for Taylor's service on a loan out. This would have been a win-win situation for MGM. If Taylor clicked they had his services and if he didn't it was Universal's loss.
Anyway it was in this role as the shallow playboy who becomes a noted surgeon that Taylor scored his big hit. His growth in some ways is similar to Tyrone Power's later on in The Razor's Edge. In fact had this been done at 20th Century Fox Power would also have had a big hit. But his breakthrough year was one year away.
Through a combination of unfortunate circumstances a noted doctor, esteemed for his good works dies suddenly of a heart attack. He might have been saved, but a resuscitator was being used on a young Taylor who was involved in a speeding boat accident. He becomes a hated figure with the family and friends of the late doctor, especially his new widow, Irene Dunne.
Later on Taylor while in an inebriated state meets up with Ralph Morgan who lets him spend the night and sober up on his couch. When Taylor awakens, Morgan talks to him about trying to tap into a higher power by doing some good works and it will redound to his favor on earth and in heaven. And the idea is to shun publicity for the same.
Taylor expects some more immediate return on good works, but it he gradually comes to a full realization of what Morgan is talking about. Former minister Lloyd C. Douglas had used as the basis for this philosophy, Matthew Chapter 6, 1-4. The substance of which don't flaunt your good works before humanity openly because then you'll be courting favor with the world. But if you do it with as little fanfare as possible, God will reward you in heaven and on earth.
Robert Taylor was 24 when he made this film and the part called for him to age several years and he succeeds as both the playboy and the mature and spiritual doctor. Magnificent Obsession was remade 19 years later with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman and proved to be as big a hit with audiences then as in the Thirties.
Robert Taylor made very few films away from MGM until his contract was up after 1958. I suppose his services were Louis B. Mayer's Magnificent Obsession.