We all know that so many Hollywood stars got their start on the stage, Broadway or otherwise, and one of the most famous is Vincente Minnelli. Among the things Minnelli did so well in his films was communicate emotion without beating an audience over the head, and one of his lesser-known films is 1955’s The Cobweb.
The film takes place at a psychiatric clinic for patients who have issues and mental illness to work through but who aren’t a danger to others. It’s all very entrenched in the old school and old money, since it’s run by a board of directors in Chicago who only occasionally come out to see what’s going on. Closer to home, it’s overseen by the matronly Vicki Inch (Lillian Gish) and Dr. Douglas Devanal (Charles Boyer), who have both worked at the clinic for decades.
Well, the library needs new drapes and Miss Inch has ordered some but they’re super-ugly, which the patients aren’t happy about. Neither is Karen McIver (Gloria Grahame), wife of new doctor Stuart MacIver (Richard Widmark), who’s got some very pretty and very expensive drapes picked out. Miss Inch is incensed because she picked out the previous drapes herself in 1907 and how dare this young, fashionable upstart push herself in?
Stuart has his own problems. He’s a very compassionate and competent doctor, but he’s very much about keeping his work and home life separate, so much so that he and Karen have forgotten how to talk to each other and he barely sees his children. Stuart doesn’t want Karen to come see him when he’s working, either, which gets awkward because she wants to be involved in the clinic. However, Stuart has no problem getting chummy with Meg (Lauren Bacall) the widowed art director, or Steven (John Kerr), the tortured and sometimes suicidal young artist who fanticizes about women.
The patients are a pretty colorful group, in particular Mr. Capp (Oscar Levant) who has a mother complex, and Sue (Susan Strasberg), who has phobias and anxiety so badly she hasn’t left the clinic since she checked in. The latter does find a measure of escape with Steven, who invites her to a movie in town, and after some hesitation, Sue takes him up on it. I have to wonder if Steven doesn’t scare her a little bit, though, because he sometimes makes a habit of tearing around and ripping his artwork off the walls or breaking glass windows.
Meanwhile, Karen, who’s had enough of going at it with Vicki, has a drink with Doug, who, when invited to her house later on, gets a slap in the face after he tries to nuzzle Karen. It honestly serves him right because he’s kind of a sleazeball. Karen also gets tired of waiting for Stuart to make time for her and goes to a concert by herself that she’s been looking forward to even though Stuart has to work.
Finally fed up, Karen takes matters into her own hands and goes down to the clinic, where she hangs the drapes she’s picked out, and to be fair, they look really good. Stevie doesn’t agree, though, because he thought his artwork was going to play some role in the design, and he goes missing on an apparent suicide attempt. Also fed up, Vicki tries to expose Doug’s behavior to the board but Steve shuts her down because it implicates him, too.
Irony seems to be the byword with this movie, as its biggest conflict is who’s going to update the library drapes, and the ensuing tug-of-war between the old and the new. If nothing else, this plot device shows up the deep-seated problems and resentments that were already there, but it’s too bad that the trigger is so seemingly trivial.
Yeah, it’s a bit tough to engage with a film whose story shows characters going off the rails, wondering what’s happening, and then finding out the drapes are the problem. Every time. It’s the proverbial Boy Who Cried Wolf. After a while the response becomes “So what?”
If the story had piled on a few more issues, such as patient care or poor living conditions it might have meant more, or maybe even discussed Dr. Devanal’s philandering, but none of that happens. The drapes are of the utmost importance. As one patient put it during one of the patients’ confabs about the new drapes, “Do we have a patient government or don’t we?”
I wish the movie could have just forgotten about those silly drapes and focused more on the relationships between the patients and the doctors, as well as Stuart and Karen. That right there would have been vastly more interesting than what we get. It also would have felt meatier and much more natural.
Maybe this didn’t happen because there was a lot of conflict behind the scenes. Producer John Houseman didn’t want Charles Boyer in the film but Minnelli insisted. Minnelli and Oscar Levant clashed on several occasions as well. Not only that, but Minnelli felt there was too much going on and tried to rein in the action through editing, but Houseman disagreed, aided and abetted by then-head of production Dore Schary. It sounds like everyone involved just had to paste on a smile or at least look deadpan and keep going until the whole business was done, leaving audences with a messy, lackluster product.
Unfortunately for The Cobweb, moviegoers couldn’t summon up excitement one way or the other over drapes. As one audience member at the preview commented, “Why don’t you buy Venetian blinds and have the conflict done with?
The film flopped at the box office, ranking at number sixty-three for the year and bringing in $4.3M. According to John Houseman, though, the film is much better regarded today than it was at the time of release, but I’m having trouble believing that since it doesn’t exactly get the star treatment on streaming services.
So yep, The Cobweb is pretty meh. Except for a few shows of genuine anxiety and conflict, the clinic might as well be a very fancy boardinghouse.
For more Broadway, please see Day Two’s entries here. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for Day Three…
The Cobweb is available on DVD from Amazon.
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Levy, Emanuel. Vincent Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer. New York: St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2009.