The 1954 movie Magnificent Obsession corrupts the idea of pay-it-forward with some magical thinking and converts a disgusting playboy into successful brain surgeon. Rock Hudson plays the successful medical student whose fabulously wealthy father just died at an early age. Rock sets about living life fast and furious and over the edge into various near-suicidal actions. In the first scene he flips an expensive hydroplane speed boat at very high speed. He survives because of the use of a resuscitator rushed in from a local doctor’s home, but that doctor dies because he has a heart attack while the miracle device is away. Rock continues his appallingly arrogant behavior in the hospital, which incidentally was owned by the now dead doctor. Rock and the Dr.’s widow have a few unpleasant encounters culminating in an accident where she is blinded.
Rock must have been a fine young man prior to his own father’s off screen death, but as the movie progresses he starts seeing the folly of his own callous behavior. His reversion to being a decent human being begins after a conversation with a successful artist, and friend of the dead doctor and the doctor’s widow. The artist’s idea was to give large gifts to people in need. He learned this life lesson from the now dead doctor. Part of the gift was that those who received the gift were required as part of receiving the gift not to repay it to the giver, but to help some other needy person. It was a one-direction transaction, resulting in eternal and unresolvable debt which magically transferred saintliness to the givers. In an effort to reclaim his blackened soul Rock begins giving huge gifts to the widow secretly through her lawyer, who is instructed to claim the money came from an insurance policy left by the late doctor-husband.
Rock then changes his name and sets about pursuing the blind widow romantically and via the unlimited money he makes available to her through the secret money he is transferring to her, he gets her to the world-renowned brain surgeons in Switzerland who proclaim her blindness to be permanent. Rock, in his alternate fake identity, eventually confesses his love for the widow, asks her to marry him, but as part of his moral clarity confesses his true identity as the one who inadvertently killed her husband and blinded her. She forgives him, but overnight, with the aid of her maid she runs away. Years pass and he has returned to his medical career and graduates into a brain surgery specialty. The artist finds Rock working at his hospital and tells him the widow is dying at a clinic in Arizona. Rock flies out on the next plane. She is comatose. He operates on her brain. She lives. She wakes up. Her sight is restored. They promise eternal togetherness. – THE END –
Rock Hudson’s performance was astonishingly modern. It takes this hokey story and with his many emotions clearly portrayed on-screen makes it come to life. At first, as a playboy, he is so disgusting it is painful to watch the screen, but slowly he develops through stages of understandings and feelings for humanity. His demeanor goes through many changes and by the end he has grown into a very lovable and honorable man.
I was told this movie was about pay-it-forward and I wanted to compare this idea to my concepts of kindness and kindness training. There is some similarity in the idea of giving without requiring a return of favor. A standard economic transaction is giving of a value for another value received. Pay-it-forward is the giving of a very large and valuable gift to a person other than the one to whom you owe a debt. It is like owing a debt to your dead parents and paying that debt forward by creating and providing for your own living children. The expectation is that the children will pay-it-forward by providing for their children. For people in general we pay-it-forward to humanity what we owe to our ancestors by leaving the world a better place than we found it.
Kindness is a little different; it is the giving of very small things of little value in themselves but which help the recipients find their way to what they are doing. They are best when they are fitted to the immediate situation; they are actions that are so brief they go almost unnoticed and require no response from the recipient. These kind acts open the way to a better life.
A good life is one based on trust earned with frequent acts of simple kindness.
The method for accessing the infinite power is described more clearly in the 1935 movie Magnificent Obsession. “You merely go out, find people who need help, and give them help.” … “But, what ever help you give, must be in absolute secrecy; the world must never know, and you must never let anybody repay you.” You can repay me, “By giving this theory a trial.” In the 1935 version the playboy is more a more responsible and even guilt ridden from the beginning because of accidents, only randomly related to his behavior. During six intervening years studying medicine abroad he gets a Nobel Prize. — He says, “But, not to better myself in any way. It was for one person, one person, a woman I happened to have cared for and to have lost, and needed help; the kind that doctors can give her; all I did was done indirectly for her, hoping that she might be one of those helped, somewhere without my knowledge.”
A strange and unrelated thing I saw in this movie was the car driven during the accident.
The rather rare car used in the scene may have been owned by my father. He exhibited an identical one in the Santa Barbara, Concours de Elegance 1958. I drove it around Santa Barbara a few times, but never picked up any rich widows.