Saturday, June 04, 2011

Nomadic Existence: The Cobweb (1955)



The Siren posts another excerpt from another Retro-Fit column at Nomad Wide Screen, this one on Vincente Minnelli's mad, mad, mad, mad Cobweb, with a cast that includes another eternal favorite around these parts, Oscar Levant.


The Cobweb has all of Minnelli’s dazzling acuity of vision, with every bit of the lush color and striking compositions you find in something like Gigi. It has good performances, with standout work from John Kerr, Oscar Levant, Susan Strasberg, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish and, above all, Gloria Grahame. What it doesn’t have is a huge emotional hook. The patients at Castlehouse, the aptly named mansion where wealthy people go for what they used to call “rest cures,” just don’t seem that sick. Sure, Sue (Strasberg) is agoraphobic, Mr. Capp (Levant) is depressed and mother-fixated, and Steven (Kerr) is depressed and father-fixated, but they and the other patients have no problem sitting down in the library and conducting a meeting according to proper parliamentary procedure. They help each other, they take turns, they go back to their rooms and have little parties with a phonograph playing and everybody laughing. One old woman can even handle her own wheelchair.



The staff, on the other hand, can’t even order a set of drapes without causing a chain of catastrophes.

[snip]

And of course, there is Oscar Levant, in his last film role, singing “Mother” while sprawling in a hydrotherapy bath and waiting for his sedatives to take effect. When he looks at the nurse and tells her, “you remind me of my mother,” the line is so funny, and so sinister, that the audience may have a fleeting fear that the movie is going to go very Hitchcock. It doesn’t, of course; the next morning, it’s back to the library and fabric selection.



The fact that the plot hinges on those drapes has come in for a lot of head-scratching over the years. I wonder, do they show this one in interior design class at a place like the Fashion Institute of Technology? They should, they should. Drapes — good lord, did even Cecil Beaton get this worked up over window coverings? Wouldn’t furniture be, well, weightier? The battiness of this MacGuffin has its own internal logic, though. The Cobweb is a movie about a clinic staffed by people who are (with the exception of Lauren Bacall’s too-good-to-be-true art therapist) way, way too self-absorbed, so much so that paisley versus floral versus silkscreen becomes an existential life crisis. Thus does the movie slyly suggest that the patients are picking up on the staff’s narcissism, and not the other way around.



The Cobweb’s original running time was two and a half hours, and producer John Houseman convinced Minnelli to cut it down. Despite the fact that The Cobweb is in no way boring, that was probably a good choice; at its present length, the film’s beauty and roiling, neurotic cast retain a headlong charm. Toward the end, Widmark’s character tries to make the case that the fuss about the drapes was a metaphor for all the human passions unleashed, but he convinces no one. Levant, who spent a lifetime in and out of psychiatric treatment, came much closer to the heart of the matter in a quip he made on set. Director and actor quarreled a lot during the shoot, and Levant muttered to the assistant producer after one spat with Minnelli, “Who’s crazy, anyway — him or me?”


From the keenly observant Arthur S. over at This Pig's Alley, a more in-depth look at The Cobweb, with beautiful screen caps.

15 comments:

barrylane said...

This picture is so boring you could scream. Levant is fun, but the rest of these people are low keyed to the point of depressive self-absorption. When you end up talking about the art work, or cinematography you know the picture flat out stinks.

mikeg said...

My web-book on Minnelli takes a deep dive into THE COBWEB:
http://mikegrost.com/minn.htm

THE COBWEB is indeed a grim movie. But it is also a very creative one.

The Siren said...

Oh no, I didn't find it boring at all. Weird as all-get-out, but not boring. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone though, that's for sure.

Rachel said...

I only know this film through Cool Cinema Trash's hilarious review.

You have a cast that includes Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall, Richard Widmark, and Charles Boyer, throw them in what looks like the makings of some glorious, twisted love triangles--and then have them spend the movie talking about drapes?

Now I want to go back in time and propose an epic where Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Burt Lancaster, and Eleanor Parker have a passionate contretemps over the Dewey Decimal System.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"When Gloria Grahame puts up the draps it's curtains for everyone!"

Now why didn't they use that for the ad campaign?

DavidEhrenstein said...

Interesting The Cobweb is playing on television in a scene in Point Blank.

Why?

Same studio and producer.

The Siren said...

Rachel, there you have summarized the agony and the ecstasy of The Cobweb.

I would so totally watch your movie, and I would probably give it a good writeup, too. That's the kind of thing that might prompt someone to commit ME to Castlehouse.

Vanwall said...

I commented, rather irreverently but honestly, here in August of '09 regarding this film, which is awful...pretty. Or awful and pretty. Or pretty awful. Gloria and the rest were wasted effort - sorry, that's just me I guess. Nice Nomad counter-punching, tho, Siren.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I have absolutely no desire to beat up anyone else for disliking this movie; it's the sort of thing you wonder if you're wrong to enjoy even as you're enjoying it. I would defend the looks of the thing to the death, and it's well-acted, but ... the drapes. It's a really freaking weird movie that may well be strictly for fans of the various actors, and Oscar Levant, and of course Minnelli.

Vanwall said...

Oh, no prob, Siren, I have no doubt this film could lead to blows, tho. It's for completists only in my book. I watched it in '09 just to make sure I wasn't remembering it wrong, but it was like I remembered it, sadly. I wasn't kidding then when I suggested a "What's up, Tiger Lilly" solution, maybe I could stand it better with all-new dialog, altho the physicality of some of the actors was 180 degrees from Bow or Brooksie moving on-screen - they looked, well, like mannikins sometimes, the articulation of the limbs seemed forced and non-human. Judicious editing could help there, too.

Rozsaphile said...

Also notable for Leonard Rosenman's score -- the first time a composer managed to get twelve-tone music into a studio movie. There was even a soundtrack album! You can hear samples here: http://www.filmscoremonthly.com/cds/detail.cfm/CDID/277/Cobweb-Edge-of-the-City-The/

blankemon said...

I love The Cobweb. Weird, no doubt, but with some great stuff in it. I love the look of self-loathing on Widmark's face when he's dropping his son off at the friends' house.

Trish said...

I feel a little sorry for Gloria. She's a neglected wife who is only trying to involve herself in her husband's work. She doesn't understand the concept of art therapy because Widmark is rarely home to explain it to her.

I understand why people don't like it -- it IS weird AND distant. And it's sad to see Levant as a small and sickly shadow of his former self. But the movie always beautiful to look at. Gloria's bedroom, Gloria's brown hair and red lips, Bacall's modest apartment, and Levant's bathtub. And I can't help but wonder whatever became of the fabric samples...

Kevyn Knox said...

I love The Cobweb. Great crazy movie. I recently posted a piece about it at my blog saying just how much I love it.

Bobby Wilson said...

Check out this new indie film:

http://xfinitytv.comcast.net/movies/Jelly/155899/1464430233/Jelly/videos