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Minnelli's "The Cobweb" explores the fascinating, disturbing idea of a
mental institution where the personal quirks of the staff and their
unwittingly have an impact on the patients. In Minnelli's films, his
neurotic, lonely, unsettled characters always lead to some climactic
nightmarish outburst (even the musicals), but here the whole movie is
a neurotic outburst. Amazingly, it all snowballs out of seemingly the most
trivial decision: the new draperies.
What's interesting is that there is no antagonist; like "Howards End" or Eastwood's "Unforgiven", all the characters do bad things for understandable reasons and thus construct the cobweb. This compares favorably with other nuthouse movies, especially ones about the group therapy system--"Cuckoo's Nest" (based on Ken Kesey's novel of 1950, 5 years before "Cobweb") and "The Caretakers" with Joan Crawford as the inflexible head nurse. Those films tend to focus on patients having hysterics and running riot. They don't indict the system but one despotic individual within it (a head nurse); Kesey's narrator claims that she represents a larger controlling force but even then shows that other wards in the hospital are not the same. However, "Cobweb" takes a more subtle nobody's-fault approach that ultimately has wider, darker implications. It implies that these pitfalls are endemic to the system because they are part of human nature, which is a more sinister idea (especially for the 50s) than being able to blame a convenient mini-Hitler. Therefore, it works more convincingly as a microcosm of a society that thinks it's healthy. It's also more salutary and hopeful than those films because it proceeds from this clear-eyed cautionary assessment.
In the true sense of "melodrama," it underlines apparently innocuous early scenes with heavy foreboding music by Leonard Rosenman. It's also astonishing to watch Lillian Gish play a b----. And she does a great job.
Richard Widmark is a psychiatrist in "The Cobweb," also starring Lauren
Bacall, Lillian Gish, Charles Boyer, John Kerr, Susan Strasberg and
Gloria Grahame. It's quite a cast, especially when you realize that
they were directed by Vincent Minnelli.
It's an absorbing story of the patients and the doctors at a mental institution. Widmark has basically taken over from the troubled Boyer - though Boyer retains his title, Widmark's contract gives him more power. Bacall, a recent widow, is a doctor on staff, and Lillian Gish is an administrator. The patient most focused on is Stevie, played by John Kerr. He is making good progress with his recovery, and in fact, some of the better patients are given control over designing their lounge. The sticking point becomes the draperies which become a political football. Widmark's wife, Gloria Grahame, wants to impose herself onto the institution that is taking her husband away from her by working with a board member on the drapes; Lillian Gish wants to save money and go the cheap route; and the patients have their own ideas.
This is a very good drama with good acting from all involved. Grahame is a brunette here and has never been more beautiful, plus she gets to wear some beautiful clothes. She, along with the others, gives a terrific performance.
The one with the best role is Lillian Gish, and she is fantastic. What an actress and what a career. Who could have believed she could play such a perfect bitch? Well worth watching if the plot is a little thin.
MGM put together quite a stellar cast for The Cobweb, another film in
the tradition of Private Worlds and The Snake Pit about an insane
asylum and the politics of running the place. After seeing this crowd
at work, I'm not sure that the patients haven't taken over the place as
they did in that classic Star Trek episode.
Richard Widmark is a new psychiatrist whose new methods allow granting of more freedom of the grounds to the inmates. What Widmark's character might think today of the number of patients walking around completely free today with only our trust that they will take their medications is interesting to speculate. Anyway it puts him at odds with Charles Boyer who is the medical head of the place.
Boyer is a man beset with problems of his own of a personal nature, he's drinking and wrenching around openly, a man going through a midlife crisis and playing it out in front of everyone including all the enemies he's made. Widmark however as a former disciple of his can't quite pull the trigger to get rid of him.
And Widmark is having his own problems, a neglected wife in Gloria Grahame and a fetching Lauren Bacall to tempt him.
But the best performance of the film comes from that grand old lady of the screen, Lillian Gish. She's the civilian record keeper of the place and a politician to the max. She plays off Widmark and Boyer, in fact The Cobweb would have been a better film had she been the central character. There's also a real good performance by Olive Carey as a Ratched like nurse, Ms. O'Brien.
John Kerr, Susan Strasberg, and Oscar Levant are all inmates of the place which is a rather posh establishment for the richer brand of neurotics. You can't imagine Widmark trying his experiments in freedom on the inhabitants of The Snake Pit.
The Cobweb is a film whose parts are greater than the whole effort. It could have been a whole lot better than it was given the talent involved.
This movie, based on a novel, was made when expensive private mental hospitals provided months or years of psychoanalytically-oriented treatment for small numbers of affluent patients. None of today's antipsychotic or mood-stabilizing pharmaceuticals was yet in use. (One scene shows a patient in a hydrotherapy tub - used for sedation.) Dr Devenal, when things are falling apart, ruefully looks at the book he has written "The Theory and Practice of Milieu Therapy." This was an important movement in the 1950's, proposing that the patient community was a significant element of the treatment. Patient governments voted on many aspects of institutional life and even, at times, on treatment decisions that properly were the responsibility of professional staff. Conflict over new drapes seems today to be a foolish plot element, but, although exaggerated, it fit the context of the time.
Confounding melodrama taken from a William Gibson story, produced by John Houseman and directed by Vincente Minnelli (talk about a bizarre group of chefs!). Richard Widmark heads up posh, upscale rural nervous asylum, where his loose wife battles with self-appointed queen bee Lillian Gish, and Widmark himself gets the straying eye for staff-newcomer Lauren Bacall, who is putting her life back together after the death of her husband and child. Facetious and muddled, set in an indiscriminate time and place, and with a "David and Lisa" love story hidden in the plush morass. Widmark and Bacall do have some good chemistry together, but this script gives them nothing to build on. For precisely an hour, most of the dialogue concerns what to do about the drapes hanging in the library (this thread isn't used as symbolism, rather it's a red herring in a non-mystery!). The picture hopes to show the loggerheads that disparate people come to when they're working in the same profession and everyone thinks their opinion is right, but unfortunately the roundabout way Minnelli unravels this stew is neither informative, enlightening nor entertaining. ** from ****
There is an element of escapism in Minnelli's penchant for melodrama,
and joy is the voice of the escaped psyche, but he hasn't quite
released himself from his frustrations with reality, as they are all
over his melodramas, disparaged by the atonal brasses from composer
Leonard Rosenman. Like Minnelli's Hollywood melodrama The Bad and the
Beautiful, his 1955 film The Cobweb depicts the indoor routine of a
secluse, insulated group of people, and like the former, it focuses on
professional careers atoning for emotional hang-ups, particularly
isolated, disheartened home lives. In a sense, the film follows the
quest for the perfect family. The film's effect relies on the acute
lucidity with which the audience can relate to the characters. The
Cobweb becomes a personal film for Minnelli in more manners than one.
The psychiatric environment embodies a disparaging enthrallment for Minnelli, after years of shepherding Judy through myriad institutions. The curious scenario, and some of the characters, strike a unity, playing to the inner pretentious aesthete in us all. The animosity between the clinic's patients and the bickering personnel detonates over a presumably frivolous decorative issue, the choice of new drapes for the lounge. Though for an epicure like Minnelli, the matter is invariably not frivolous but crucial. Furnishings express not only ornamental but more deep-seated conscientious matters as well.
Richard Widmark plays a clinical psychiatrist stuck between his household family of his wife Karen and their two children, and the makeshift family that he propagates in his clinic with self-motivated staff worker Lauren Bacall, and agitated teenage artisan John Kerr. Widmark and Bacall ask Kerr to create new drapes for the clinic's library as a healing activity, not knowing that Gloria Grahame, Widmark's frustrated wife, and a stately administrator at the clinic played with bureaucratic bustle by Lilian Gish, have already taken charge of doing it. This unfolding intrigue conveys considerable labyrinthine kindred, civil, and administrative warfare. Reproach flourishes in the forms of the artist as refugee, profession as rectification for private disenchantment, the grind between cultivating one's identity at the cost of solitude and the compulsion to follow and synthesize into a comprehensive society.
The clinic on screen doesn't parallel any specific or incidentally real institution. The group scenes play out like Minnelli's usual party scenes, a neurotic congregation of loose-lipped free-thinkers and recoiling self-observers, boldly highlighted by Charles Boyer's admirably self-effacing performance. He is an actor utterly sure of himself and needs no abstract means of support. And no matter how many times one has heard thoughts expressed by however many people, Lauren Bacall always makes them sound original. Thus The Cobweb is not impaired by a lack of realism but embellished by a uniquely expressionistic blend of tones.
The movie's household scenes are more horrific than those at the clinic. Many couples will identify strongly with the arguments between Grahame, who believes her husband is implying malicious affronts, and Widmark, who never says anything to his wife that means anything but exactly what he's saying. Widmark is not giving a wooden portrayal of a sensitive man but a sensitive portrayal of a man who is not bothered by much. Conversely, Grahame famously said, "It's not how I looked at a man; it was the thought behind it." I believe her, because she plays Widmark's wife as someone unhappy with who she is and what she has because her mind is scattered and she is not content with thinking.
It's a nugget of blackly hilarious, embroidered reality that indicates the immediate misanthropy about family life in the flush 1950s, and how many American marriages persist in self-insulated conditions to this day with similar results. Note this bit between a patient and his psychiatrist: "Your'e supposed to be making me fit for normal life. What's normal? Yours? If its a question of values, your values stink. Lousy, middle-class, well-fed smug existence. All you care about is a paycheck you didn't earn and a beautiful thing to go home to every night." Or the fleeting brush between Grahame and Kerr, in which they consider the connotations of flowers.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This movie is a silly melodrama and I loved every self-spoofing minute
of it. Not since "Die, Mommie, Die!" have I had this much fun. In fact,
I would like to see a remake of this movie with Charles Busch in the
Gloria Grahame role.
The fight over who will choose the new draperies for the sanitarium is wonderful. At first, I thought there must be something else to the plot of this movie. I was absolutely delighted to discover that there isn't! Lives, a marriage, a man's professional reputation, and people's sanity all hang in the balance as the fight rages on over who will design the new curtains.
I think the curtain fight is meant as a device to demonstrate how exorcised a group of people can get over something completely trivial when their lives are otherwise so empty. It begins to make more sense when you substitute some of the faux issues of our own day for the curtain fight, like Jerry Falwell's bizarre assertion of yore that Teletubby Tinky Winky was gay. However, in the context of this movie, the central conflict is just funny.
It is hard to believe that the man who made "An American in Paris" made this movie -- which I plan to watch again, preferably with a group of fun friends.
This is a very strange film about a mental institution which is operated by Dr. Stewart McIver, (Richard Widmark) and Dr. Douglas Devannal, (Charles Boyer). Stewart is married to Karen McIver, (Gloria Grahame) and they are both having marital problems, she claims he does not pay much attention to her and especially in bed. Meg Rinehart, (Lauren Bacall), is a new employee with the hospital and is divorced and has a young son. All of the staff has their own serious problems as well as trying to take care of some very serious mental patients who require a great deal of attention. It is hard to believe that the main subject in this film is about just plain simple drapes and just where to hang them and this is causing a great deal of problems with the patients and staff. Richard Widmark and Lauren Bacall gave a great performance along with the very sexy gal, Gloria Grahame. This is a very crazy film and it will keep you guessing just how this picture will ever end.
Well what was that?! Cockamamie confection isn't even psychiatry lite
just some nonsense that's all about the DRAPES!!!! Truly odd film is
loaded with great actors and a ludicrous story.
How it ever got the green light from the studio is mystery number one, that Vincente Minnelli said okay to directing it is the second although that would explain why so many great actors allowed themselves to be involved.
Everybody gives overheated performances except Lauren Bacall who keeps a low-key dignity amongst the melodrama and Susan Strasberg offers a restrained quiet portrait of a shut-in who is making her first tentative steps towards reemerging into the world.
The rest of the players aim for the rafters to varying degrees from Richard Widmark's impassioned but distracted doctor who is merely agitated then there is Lillian Gish who chews a bit of scenery as a bitter spinster as well as many other respected actors who show little restraint.
The real standout though is Gloria Grahame as Richard's hot mess of a wife, she seems to realize how silly the whole thing is and pitches her performance to that tempo, she's jittery, flouncy and fun plus she looks great.
Laughable take on mental health but good for one fun viewing as a camp catastrophe.
You can see what attracted Minnelli to this story, as it's partly about
a conflict over decor. Maybe this worked in the novel, but it's hardly
the stuff of compelling screen drama. Of course the choice of drapes is
symbolic of independence to the patients, and symbolic of her power to
Miss Inch, and it's actually a realistically mundane conflict such as
might actually occur anywhere. It just seems to be much ado about
nothing when it's acted out.
Minnelli uses a bit of the soundtrack of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, here (the picture that trumped his own Brigadoon at the box office) - in a scene at the movies. Guess he had no hard feelings.
One of Minnelli's interesting misfires. Even though it doesn't really work, I've seen it three or four times.
The acting is good, overall. Richard Widmark (as the director of the clinic) has two leading ladies, Lauren Bacall and Gloria Grahame. This is one of the few times I've ever really seen Grahame miscast. She had a wide range, after all she played everything from Violet Bick in It's A Wonderful Life, to Rosemary Bartlow in The Bad And The Beautiful, to Ado Annie in Oklahoma. But I think you will agree her role defeats her best efforts here. She starts out very well but I'm not sure I always understood where she was coming from as the film wore on. Bacall plays a simple, sensible girl, and does a good job. Lillian Gish plays the unpredictable Miss Inch, Charles Boyer the self-destructing Dr. Devanal, John Kerr the young and artistic Stevie (a role originally announced for James Dean). Oscar Levant is called upon to go outside his usual comfort zone and I'm not sure he makes it. Susan Strasburg is excellent in a small role.
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