Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Cobweb (1955)

(For the one and only Yojimboen, here's a complete and slightly spruced-up version of the Siren's 2011 essay on The Cobweb, from the now-defunct Nomad Widescreen. Curtain going up...)



Here’s a little Siren idea for a film programmer: a double feature of Samuel Fuller’s scalding 1963 Shock Corridor, about a journalist who goes undercover in a hellish mental institution, with Vincente Minnelli’s 1955 The Cobweb, about a high-end loony bin where the inmates play croquet on a verdant lawn and make art projects in a chic studio.

Discussion to follow: Which movie is crazier? And the answer should be, “The one in Eastmancolor.”

The Cobweb certainly has every bit of the lush color and striking compositions you find in something like Minnelli's Gigi. It has 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. Shock Corridor (and Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit, from 1948) also bring up questions of who’s truly insane: the inmates, their keepers or the world at large. In its genteel way, though, the Minnelli, with its posh setting and leisurely pace, makes the strongest case for the craziness of the keepers.


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 (Susan 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 conducting a meeting in the library according to proper parliamentary procedure. They help each other, they don’t speak out of turn, 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.

Despite the simplicity of the goal--just remember, everybody wants their own drapes--the plot is a mess, but here goes. New clinic head Richard Widmark is bringing his newfangled notions to the staid clinic. His main goal is self-government for the patients, an idea whose appeal increases the more you get to know the staff. Widmark is married to Gloria Grahame, who’s at home with the kids and a maid and in need of something to do. Grahame decides she should take over ordering new drapes for the library. But Widmark wants Kerr, who is a painter of talent, to design the drapes. Beautiful Lauren Bacall, as the clinic's art therapist, agrees with Widmark. She's the understanding character: She understands Kerr and Strasberg and Widmark, heck, Bacall even understands what the deal is with the drapes. But Miss Inch, the secretary (played by a marvelously sour, embittered Lillian Gish) wants to get new curtains on the cheap. So there are three sets of drapes...Can I stop now?

The Cobweb’s best-looking effect is undoubtedly Gloria Grahame, all dewy perspiration, smudged makeup and hair flopping in and out of her eyes, as she flits around convinced that Widmark will surely rekindle their sex life, if only she can change the drapes. She seethes with repressed lust as she picks up Kerr on a road outside the hospital, talking to the teenager in a way that suggests she might throw herself at him at any minute. Grahame wiggles around a concert in a blinding white evening gown, her mouth a slash of red lipstick--no wonder Charles Boyer, as the alcoholic ex-head of the clinic, is dying to seduce her.


Widmark, though, is all zipped up with concern about whether his patients will be able to exercise their democratic right to make their own interior-design choices. Therefore he can walk into a bedroom, spot Gloria Grahame half-out of the covers--and walk right back out. I told you the staff's as crazy as the patients.

Strasberg is gentle and affecting as the phobic teen, especially in a scene in the town cinema where she goes to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Kerr. She stands to leave, the carefree young people pouring around her, and she timidly follows Kerr out of the theatre and onto to the sidewalk as panic starts to well up in her eyes. Minnelli keeps his camera back and the couple slightly off-center as Kerr takes her arm and leads her away, and she relaxes once more. The simple tenderness of the moment would have fit perfectly in the director’s great romance, The Clock.

Widmark’s straight-arrow character mostly channels Charlton Heston at his most righteous, but the movie finds its other affecting moments in his few scenes with his politely stoic son. The little boy moves quietly around the kitchen after his parents have a fight, and makes his own breakfast while Gloria Grahame storms off to have another fabric-related crisis. As Widmark tries to talk to his son, you see the doctor wondering if, perhaps, their parenting is creating a future patient.


And of course, there is Oscar Levant in his last film role, singing “Mother” while sitting 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 Siren gets a fleeting sense the movie is about to go all Hitchcock. It doesn’t, of course; the next morning, it’s back to the library and fabric selection.

The deep drape focus has come in for a lot of head-scratching over the years. The Siren wonders, do they show this one in interior design class at a place like FIT? They should, they should. Drapes. Good lord, did even Cecil Beaton get this worked up over window treatments? Wouldn’t furniture be, well, weightier?

This Maguffin has some batty logic, though. The Cobweb is about a clinic staffed by people who are (with the exception of Lauren Bacall’s too-good-to-be-true teacher) way, way too self-absorbed, so much so that paisley versus floral versus silkscreen becomes an existential life crisis. The movie slyly suggests 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 film is in no way boring, that was probably a good choice. At its present length, The Cobweb'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 passions they 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 remark 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?”

18 comments:

Gloria said...

I loved Lillian Gish in the film... Fun and, so different from her Rachel in Night of The Hunter (Released the same year).

I recall that June Levant didn't like to see her husband in this film, too close for comfort, I guess.

Rebecca said...

I loved reading this.

Catmommie said...

My bad film bible, "Bad Movies We Love" gave The Cobweb it's highest recommendation. Since my bible has not yet steered me wrong, I raced to purchase the film when it was released on laserdisc; I was not disappointed. The film is a demented masterpiece.

barrylane said...

Crazy and boring. Gloria Grahame excepted from the boring part.

The Siren said...

Gloria, I seem to recall the same thing about Mrs Levant and I don't blame her. It's an *incredibly* creepy scene--the bath, Levant's singing, the nurse. I wonder if a horror director has ever tried to reference it?

Rebecca: :)

Catmommie, "demented" it is and while I don't know about masterpiece, for sure it's the best movie ever made about window treatments.

Steve Shilstone said...

Gloria ... Oh, God .... Gloria ... I ... You ... If only ... sigh

Yojimboen said...

Chere Madame Sirène! I am more than flattered to be the incipient recipient of your beneficence.

The Cobweb is like a beloved old football you come across in the attic every so often; you can’t wait to pump some air back in and find a grassy area to rekindle lost innocence.

I wouldn’t change a word of this (Scroll down to Vanwall’s comment beginning “Holy carp!” [4th from the bottom]) or my response.

Trish said...

Siren, many thanks for your piece on what is truly a "bad movie we love". Catmommie, I have that bible too, and also rushed out to buy the laserdisc!

I think the craziest character is played by the reliably unstable Gloria Grahame. She trumps Dorothy Malone any day. But the performance that always lingers with me is given by Oscar Levant in realistic decline. So sad for him...

Dan Leo said...

Wow, I never even heard of this one! Are you really sure it wasn't written and directed by John Waters?

But of course now I must watch it. I'll watch anything with Levant and Grahame in it anyway...

Vanwall said...

In 2009, I mentioned this film slightly:

"Holy Carp! "The Cobweb", the greatest movie ever made about drapes, (!!!) is on TCM!! It's all about colors, colors and more colors! (Oh, that's the cinematography, sorry - the rest of the film elements are as thin as gruel, and you won't want any more, sir.) And psychotherapy! Not far removed from trepanning with stone tools! And drapes! In a building fulla crazy people! With drapes!

Gloria Grahame is a reddish-brunette, and this is during her upper lip version 'X' period, the rather pouty bird-like one, but she still has 'It' in oodles - the scene where she's sweating in a phone booth could excite even eunuchal things, such as a granite boulder, or a tree. She hates certain drapes.

Lillian Gish with atrociously dyed hair is given the thankless role of cranky old bag, and Charles Boyer is a drunken Frenchy roué, a role he could play in his sleep, which he evidently is. They don't like a lotta things, and drapes are on the their lists.

John Kerr is a suicidal, flaky, whiny, incredibly wordy art weinie, having taken the wrong door on his way from one TV guest role to another - mebbe looking for the oolong, or a room at the Bali Hai - anyway, Susan Strasberg, wasted here,(you remember her, Marilyn's substitute for a kind of mental incest, and Burton's object de sade?) and Kerr have some kind of creaky, pure and clean relationship as madfolk, altho David and Lisa woulda kicked their asses like red-headed stepchildren. And made better drapes, too, I've no doubt.

Lauren Bacall is some sort of lust interest for Richard Widmark, but they talk too much to really do anything feral and nasty. And they have some kind of thing for drapes, I'm sure a shrink could figure out if it means they loved their fathers and hated their mothers, whatever. Oh, yeah, they're the doctors, it's hard to tell, and they prescribe liquor for their own and their patient's problems more than a mountebank patent medicine barker, so they're all too impaired for good judgment, anyway.

Why Widmark's doc wasn't banging Grahame's lusciousness (she plays his little round heels of a wife) like a screen door in a hurricane is beyond belief, and proof positive he's crazy. Unless it's the drapes - menacing, semiotic, and brightly colored, the ur-drapes of all that followed in the pantheon of drapery films. They have so many meanings in this film, they're...they're...just hanging there, drape-like!

I won't go into the score. No, sorry, I ain't going there.

And Oscar Levant as Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy."

Vanwall said...

And I elaborated a little in response to M. Yo at that time:

"Every time Widmark picked up the phone, I expected him to bark into it, "Get me the Commissioner!", or some such, and sadly, all he would do would blather on about drapes - no kidding! And no wheelchairs and convenient stairways to correct any superfluous characters, darn it. The whole Doc's family was kinda weird, too, but damned if everything wasn't amazingly rich in hue and shadow; if the rest of the film had any sand in it and could stand long enough on its own, this film might be much better remembered, as few films ever looked as sumptuous, evidenced by the skin tones that made even Gish look red-blooded and almost alive.

The dialog was atrociously arch in an unconscious manner, and in non-human cadences - at one point Kerr is channeling what must be Minnelli's vision of James Dean, and is stalking, emoting, running in lurches and rambling on in something resembling Method-ic jabber, and for life of me, no matter how good-looking this film was, scenes like that make me question where the finances came from almost as much as a I wonder the same about any Judd Apatow or Diablo Cody retch-fest.

This is possibly the most egregious example of wasted talent from the Studios, and the direction: stagy, flat and unimaginative, plus the execrable script, just doomed it to curiosity hell. The potential was there, the setting was ripe with possibilities, and some of the actors were at the top of their game, and they wasted it all. It would be interesting as a completely overdubbed film, ala "What's Up Tiger Lily?", and you could go dramatic or comedic. Too bad Schulberg never had a crack at this one.

I had read about Lenny Rosenman's score some time after seeing this so many years ago, and it must've bothered me unconsciously all that time - as soon as I read it, I remembered with crystal clarity acting and scenes I'd rather have forgotten - is that a measure of success? Or just suck-ness?

Turn the sound off if you watch this one, you won't miss a thing important, and it looks very pretty, like Bacall and Grahame deserved.

I wasn't half kidding about Levant, either."

gmoke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gmoke said...

I caught the opening scene with the super-title something like "The trouble began when...." and knew that this was going to be some kind of trip. Unfortunately, I had to go on to other things. Will pick it up some other time but look forward to the existential terror of window treatments.

Yojimboen said...

Your fan club beat you to it, M VW, you didn't check my link.

Vanwall said...

Ah, M Yo, many thanks, 'at's wot I get for not reading everything again when I get home from work. Thank, very much!

Casey said...

I couldn't get into The Cobweb at all, even as camp. It just seemed flat to me, and I think it's largely Minelli's fault. He's so focussed on creating the visual landscape, he seems to forget that the actors need attention. I actually think Rosenman's score could have worked with a movie that really delved into the characters' psyches. His complex, abstract music is totally wrong for the glossy melodrama that plays out on the screen.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"When Gloria Grahame changes the drapes it's curtians for everyone!"

Jeff Gee said...

Watched this on TCM a few days ago with friends. None of us had any idea what was coming. A spontaneous drinking game erupted about 40 minutes in-- "Everytime somebody mentions drapes..." I had to suspend play well before the end of the movie to prevent blindness or death.