The Cobweb August 20, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s, Gloria Grahame , trackback
I have seen the Technicolor light and it is good. The Cobweb, not so much. Let’s say it’s a bad film, a ridiculous film, even a hideously dangerous film. It’s still kind of fun and it still has an auburn-haired Gloria Grahame in a low-cut glamour dress, a darkly lit nightgown and a shoulder-baring shower scene. So it can’t be all bad, right? The only way to really get through Vincente Minnelli’s CinemaScope melodrama is to realize it’s a trashy mess. The film’s plot centers around drapes in a mental institution’s library, for goodness sake. Over two hours about drapes! Would a jab about The Drapes of Wrath be too much? For this film, I think not!
So The Drapes-, er The Cobweb concerns a mental institution filled with patients waiting to be “healed” and a staff as ineptly nutso as the people being treated. Richard Widmark stars as the head doctor, Gloria Grahame is his wife, Charles Boyer is the faded shell of a once-great psychiatrist, Lauren Bacall plays a new employee getting over the death of her husband and child in an auto accident, and silent film great Lillian Gish is the bitter old woman who’s the clinic administrator. The eccentric cast is rounded out by Oscar Levant as a patient who gets to say some of the best lines in the movie, newcomer John Kerr as a troubled artist (in a role originally set for James Dean until MGM was unable to strike a deal with Warner Bros.), Susan Strasberg as the “phobic” girl Kerr falls for in the institution, Tommy Rettig as Widmark and Grahame’s son and the most sane person in the film, Paul Stewart as another of the clinic’s doctors, and, finally, Fay Wray as Boyer’s wife. Whew, an exhaustingly great cast Minnelli had to work with and at least they’re not the ones who let the audience down.
I can’t say the same for the ridiculous plot and screenplay. Based on a novel by William Gibson, who’s credited with “additional dialogue” in a screenplay written by John Paxton, the film actually tells the story of the trouble surrounding new curtains in the institution library. The competing potential designs are Grahame’s expensive flower pattern, Gish’s economy cotton, and a patient-designed choice based on Kerr’s artwork resembling elementary school fingerpaint drawings. The remaining difficulties in our characters’ lives comprise the meat of the story, but they’re basically ridiculous too. Widmark and Grahame are having (intimate) marital problems, she goes out with Boyer for four hours worth of cocktails to discuss the drapes (!), and when he drops by and makes a move on her the next day she is awestruck at such nerve from Boyer, who delivers an incredulously sincere response when accused of impropriety that must be heard to be believed.
Meanwhile, Widmark closes in on the widow Bacall, who ultimately puts a stop to their short-lived liaison, but not until Grahame has discovered her husband’s impropriety. Remarkably, Widmark and Grahame end the film as a happy couple and we’re left with the words “the trouble was over,” to bookmark the opening “the trouble began” seen at the beginning of the film. This is an absurd conclusion though, as ridiculous as the film’s repeated idea that a little analysis and time at the clinic will cure the patients and make them just like new again. The couple have been in icy turmoil the entire film, one’s had an affair while the other declined her own, and nothing has made the audience see why these two would have patched things up. Widmark especially comes off like a jerk for returning to Grahame only after Bacall declined to continue their affair.
There’s also an internal struggle amongst the administration at the clinic, with Gish, Widmark, and Boyer constantly at each other’s throats, over the drapes and other matters. The patients themselves are portrayed sympathetically, as though they’re rehabilitating broken bones. This dangerously simplistic take on psychological disorder seems common for the time, but no less negligent. Furthermore, the patients appear to have total freedom of their actions. The neurotic narcissist portrayed by Kerr is first seen wading through a field near the clinic and later takes Strasberg to the movies before inciting a panic by disappearing, only to turn up ragged and wet at Widmark’s house. Oscar Levant, who struggled with time in mental hospitals in real life, seems to pop up whenever and wherever a “look how funny the crazy person is” chuckle is required.
Scenes like Levant’s create a too frequent conflict over whether the audience should or shouldn’t be laughing. A significant amount of the film is played so deadly serious (again with the drapes!) that the viewer can’t help but snicker. This is a common problem I have with melodrama of the 1950s, but The Cobweb is almost in a class of its own for such a high-powered cast and director. The score by Leonard Rosenman is a big, overdone part of why the film works better as an unintentional comedy and has the effect of a jackhammer alerting the audience to just how important every little crisis can be. Rosenman also scored Rebel Without a Cause the same year, his first in the movies, and would win back-to-back Academy Awards, for Barry Lyndon and Bound for Glory. His work here in itself isn’t particularly bad, but it really doesn’t belong as a means of simply creating dramatic tension when there should be none. By the end of the film, it already feels like self-parody.
The only bright spots in the film come from its cast of second-tier movie stars. My affection for Gloria Grahame has been well-documented here in the past, and this is one of her better leading roles. Though billed fourth, it’s Grahame’s show and her reunion with Minnelli after taking home an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful three years earlier doesn’t disappoint. I guess I could see where some might find her annoying, and she goes unmistakably over the top, but for such a wacky film it fits. Often relegated to supporting roles, Grahame made the most of her rare star turns and The Cobweb pulsates in a littler higher pitch when she’s on the screen.
It’s also interesting to see Richard Widmark head the cast of a melodrama, in a role more often played by someone like Rock Hudson or even William Holden. I like Widmark, but Minnelli’s film (and the inane script) bring out his weaknesses more than his strengths. Bacall doesn’t bring a whole lot to her role either, and, like Boyer, isn’t in the film as much you’d think from the billing, while Lillian Gish’s character has a personality switch stuck on “angry old bitch.” It’s John Kerr, though, who overacts his way into bad film infamy as a troubled youth caricature. Seeing Kerr is enough to remind the viewer just how compelling James Dean was. Everything Kerr does plays like fake histrionics, bypassing any real emotion, whereas Dean commanded the screen with disillusioned anxiety like you were seeing a young man disintegrate before your very eyes. Don’t blame Dean for Kerr’s style either; East of Eden was released in March, The Cobweb followed in July, and Rebel hit screens in October of 1955.
The Cobweb was made for MGM and its home video rights are controlled by Warner Bros. Never released on VHS or DVD, there was a laserdisc MGM put out prior to losing control of the title. As terrible as the film often is, I would still like to have it on DVD (along with another unreleased Minnelli title Some Came Running) if the color and sharpness are up to snuff. It’s certainly worth seeing if you like Gloria Grahame or, I guess, Vincente Minnelli and if you enjoy melodramas that take themselves way, way too seriously then you might like it outright. Or, you could do like almost every character in the film and soothe your problems with a nip of alcohol. I’d think that would greatly enhance the film and you can smile along to the happy ending as Hollywood tells us everything is just fine. There’s no need to worry because the trouble is now over.