Academic journal article CineAction

The Cobweb

Academic journal article CineAction

The Cobweb

Article excerpt

The Cobweb (1955) is based on William Gibson's novel about a psychiatric clinic (the Castlehouse Clinic for Nervous Disorders) in which the members of staff are almost as troubled as their patients. Its narrative revolves around the decision to replace the library drapes, and three rival sets of drapes emerge as contenders: the first, a plain, functional set ordered by Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), the clinic's accountant; the second a set that are to be made in-house and will use the drawings of one of the patients, Stevie Holte (John Kerr); the last, a more exclusive set ordered by Karen McIver (Gloria Grahame), wife of the clinic's director, in cahoots with Regina Mitchell-Smith, the president of the clinic's Board of Trustees. Onto the question of the drapes hang most if not all of the film's fraught character interrelationships: the psychological fragility of the patients, the crumbling marriage of Karen and Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark), the affair between Stewart and the clinic's new art teacher, Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall), the power struggle between McIver and his predecessor, Douglas Devanal (Charles Boyer) who still heads the clinic, but in name only. The latter part of The Cobweb becomes preoccupied with a police-led search for Stevie, who disappears from the clinic upon seeing Karen's drapes hanging in the library. He subsequently turns up outside McIver's house, after the McIvers have, most implausibly, reconciled. This forced happy ending reverses the conclusion of the novel, in which Stewart leaves Karen for Meg. Despite Karen's drapes briefly going up, the library windows remain unadorned.

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The Cobweb was not a critical or commercial success and the film is the result of a series of compromises. As its producer John Houseman noted, 'the truth is that, compared with other recent films (he and Minnelli had made the more highly regarded The Bad and The Beautiful two years earlier), this was not an entirely happy one--either in its making or in the way it was received'. (1) There were problems over casting--Houseman never agreed with the casting of Boyer as Dev, he had also wanted James Dean for the part of Stevie and, it was rumoured, none of the other main actors were MGM's first choices. (2) There followed problems over the script--Minnelli brought in Gibson to write some additional dialogue, but he was never entirely satisfied with it. Then there were arguments over editing as Houseman cut thirty minutes from Minnelli's intended two and a half hour completed film; the director was less than happy with these cuts, although later he became reconciled to them. (3) Although one reviewer, Lee Rogow in Saturday Review, found The Cobweb to be 'one of the most rewarding films I have recently seen come out of Hollywood', (4) press responses were not good and even Houseman thought there was 'something contrived about the plot ... The emotional turmoil aroused by the hanging of a set of new drapes in the main living-room of the institution was never entirely credible nor dramatically viable'. (5)

The central problem with The Cobweb is the drapes--Houseman considers the contrivances of the drapes plot to lack credibility, and several contemporary critics unfavourably cite the prominence given to them in the film. However, I have always found The Cobweb to work precisely because of its prioritisation of the drapes, and in this the film is exemplary of one aspect of Minnelli's style--the over-determined importance accorded not just production design but decor in particular. The emphasis on decor and design as generators of meaning is, notwithstanding Hollywood melodrama's pervasive tendency to explain emotional complexity through mise-en-scene, peculiar to Minnelli. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith writes in 'Minnelli and Melodrama', Minnelli's melodramas can be likened to conversion hysteria:

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  It is not just that the characters are often prone to hysteria, but
  that the film itself somatises its own unaccommodated excess, which
  this appears displaced or in the wrong place. … 
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