The Cobweb (1955)

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Director: Vincente Minnelli

The Cobweb (1955) is an all star soap opera that takes a look inside the problems and power struggles of a posh psychiatric clinic, where, in the words of one character, “everybody’s tilted and you can’t tell the patients from the doctors.”

Dr. Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark) is the chief analyst juggling paperwork and endless meetings with patient sessions. He’s a tough love practitioner, a fierce defender of patients’ privacy rights and advocate for their self government. His terms among his colleagues are unconditional surrender to his methods and decisions, which the board thinks are too lax and experimental. The demands of his job leave him little time for his own family. His daughter tells people she wants to be a patient to get more of daddy’s attention, his sweet son waits for the chess games to get some time with father, and wife Karen (Gloria Grahame) is desperately needy and bitter about his neglect. She consequently ties her self worth to flirting with other men and getting involved in making decisions at the clinic.

One such decision, the central one of this plot, is the escalating and bizarre struggle centred on selecting the clinic library’s drapes. Once the secretary, Miss Inch (Lillian Gish) chooses a fabric swatch that Karen deems an ugly rag not fit to wash a car, Karen sees a chance to assert herself, goes up to the Chairwoman and rush orders more lively drapes. Meanwhile back at the clinic, the patients have offered to make the drapes themselves, printed with graphics provided by the resident artist Stevie (John Kerr). Widmark approves of this project as a perfect fit into his therapeutic policy, oblivious to the battle brewing between Inch and Karen.

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As they say in couples counseling, the argument is never just about the drapes, so those curtains (which I got so sick of hearing about by the end of the movie) pull back to reveal a variety of other neuroses and tensions. Karen takes the issue to Dr. Devenal (Charles Boyer), who everyone assumes is the head of the institute but who’s actually lost his power thanks to his own problems with booze and women. Devenal decides to make a play to regain control of the clinic, as well as a play for the vulnerable Karen. When it looks like Karen’s drapes have won the contest, the patients’ lose faith in McIver and his promises, they rebel, Stevie disappears, and Karen’s finds out her husband spends lots of time with understanding art therapist Meg (Lauren Bacall). By the end of the movie McIver questions his ability as he races to keep his job and his marriage, keep his patient alive and put out all the fires started by insecure, selfish characters around him.

Those characters are what make this crazy drama worth the time, and they’re introduced and inhabited so comfortably you feel like you’ve tuned into a couple episodes of a prime time soap. Grahame’s fine performance is matched by Gish’s as Miss Inch, the fiery hard-working taskmaster who will hang up on you rather than continue any conversation that’s not going her way. She’s dedicated to the clinic and Devenal, and shattered to learn he isn’t in control. Devenal goes on a bender in a seedy motel where the clinic receptionist (Adele Jergens) sees him. Edna Devenal (Fay Wray) arrives at a key moment with a document that might oust McIver or drive away her husband.

Talented, overwrought ball of rage Stevie hates the world and himself and has a genius for “belittling the world.” He holds his father’s flaws and failures against everyone he meets, acts like nobody else ever felt pain or rejection. Producing the art that will be screen printed on the drapes steadies him and he warms to the calming Meg and helps the agoraphobic Sue (Susan Strasberg) make progress, but still demands too much and is too easily destroyed by the smallest setback, so when he goes missing after the drapery debacle there’s some real suspense about whether or not he did himself in.

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Meg lost her husband and son in a car crash, and Bacall does a nice job of making her convincingly sweet and caring with a hint of sadness. She’s come out the other side of grief and is “back among the living,” so she can dispense good advice to Stevie about life getting better the more you work at it, and she can discuss patients and clinic workings and drapery with Widmark. Meg, and her friends the fabric printer and his wife (Bert Freed and Eve McVeagh), are so normal and enthused about regular things like creativity, marriage, children, even something as simple as a nice meal, that they provide McIver (and the viewer) with a welcome escape from the insanity of the clinic, his colleagues and his marriage.

This post is part of the Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood; click here to see more posts. 

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28 thoughts on “The Cobweb (1955)”

  1. Drapes??!! What the heck, sounds crazy and petty enough to have really happened (lol).

    I tend to avoid stories about psychiatrists (but I really like Spellbound), possibly because my favorite quote about the particular science is: “psychoanalysis is a science conducted by lunatics for lunatics. They are generally concerned with proving that people are irresponsible; and they certainly succeed in proving that some people are.”

    1. Truth, practically everybody in this is irresponsible and the people who should be helping the mentally ill are far crazier. It’s very long, I read it was cut quite a bit and feels (to me) like it could’ve stood some more. It’s fun for the acting if you can avoid losing it after the 100th mention of the drapes lol. Thanks!

        1. This is so so true, I’ve used the “like old friends” excuse for tons of movies, and especially for the horror/genre friends like Roddy, Vincent etc. 🙂

  2. Somehow I missed all of Lauren Bacall’s movies about psychiatry except Young Man With a Horn. Gloria Grahame, Lillian Gish, Fay Wray, Susan Strasberg. I have to see this one. Thank you for telling us about it.

    1. It is, there are moments where you just marvel a the bad decisions and behaviour but with this cast you just have to be entertained.

  3. I remember seeing this film a long time ago and it sort of reminded me of The Caretakers with Robert Stack and Joan Crawford with the idea of a doctor trying experimental ways to cure patients and the staff not entirely approving.

    Tam

    1. That’s true, it’s been a long time since I saw that one. People always questioning the new methods and “experts” don’t always know best. Thanks

  4. Haven’t seen this in years but at the time I did I was much younger and tuned in for Widmark and was quickly disappointed as I wanted Widmark the action star. Nice cast though. 🙂

    1. His action in this is running around frantically trying to fix everybody else’s messes. Oh and tearing down those *#%$@@! Drapes. It is a super cast though.

  5. I tried watching this a few years ago, but I came into it about 20 minutes after it started and couldn’t really get interested in it. I see now, though, it’s best to watch from the start and just enjoy it for what it is.

    Did you turn the drapes into a drinking game?

    1. That’s a drinking game with high risk of alcohol poisoning 🙂 it is nutty how drapes-obsessed these grown and supposedly more “sane” characters are, compared to the patients. Good cast and campy treatment.

  6. Really enjoyed this post. I haven’t seen the film for a while so it was good to be reminded of its merits. I seem to remember it being a bit dramatic for my liking, but that it worked in the setting. Obvs getting Minnelli on board upped the star contingent, although my favourite moment was Oscar Levant singing “Mother” while being sedated 😉

    1. Thanks, the cast is great and actually the original casting was for Robert Taylor, Lana Turner and James Dean, which would have been something too. Just as lurid probably 🙂 I liked Levant in this too, he had some nice scenes.

  7. I will never in a million years watch a movie about psychiatrists and drapes, but I just have to ask – why is it called “The Cobweb”? Is there some kind of rich symbolism there?

    PS – Thank you for reviewing this movie, it has a cool title and I wouldn’t have wanted to rent it by accident (LOL) – no offense to the people who like dramas, but I thought “The Cobweb” would be Hammer Horror or something like that –

    1. That’s true, it does sound more Halloween than mental health, don’t know but I will say there’s a nice image where at the end a patient is covered with the drapes that were taken down.Thanks!

  8. I really like Gloria Grahame and Lillian Gish in this picture. Such a weird one, too. Maybe we should do a “Problematic Psychiatry Blogathon” one of these days. Thanks for writing about this one!

    1. Good idea, there are a bunch of movie off the top of my head that would fit. Like you say, a bit strange but worth it for this cast. Thanks!

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