(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?”