Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Cobweb (1955) Vincente Minnelli

This is a Minnelli melodrama that takes place in a mental institution with story lines that surround the employees more so than the patients. The movie is interesting for the appearances of some notable stars, well ok, maybe not even for that. But I do like Oscar Levant as a wise-cracking patient (“is that genesis or synthesis?...ah, incompleteness.”, or the scene when he’s relaxing in the tub singing M-O-T-H-E-R, "she was always quick with a knife to the back”). Gloria Grahame plays a voluptuous, ignored wife with a great chip on her shoulder, Susan Strasberg is a patient who’s afraid to leave the grounds, and John Kerr (of later South Pacific fame) plays an artistic, sensitive patient. Charles Boyer is entertaining as a womanizing, institution psychiatrist who hits on everyone including his secretary, the always stunning Adele Jergens.

Lillian Gish is a recalcitrant, not-very-nice hospital administrator.
Lauren Bacall is a calming force on everyone she meets and although she’s suffered a massive personal loss, she carries on as though she misplaced a dollar bill. Richard Widmark goes through the motions as the head of the mental institution ("He can't keep the patients up all night - he's not Scheherazade"), struggling with Boyer and Gish, as well as with his wife. He fondly remembers a time when he would get home from work at 5:30 am and his wife would have a pot of coffee ready for him - ah, the good old days. But how could he not be tempted by the serene Bacall when he has a crazy shrew at home? Look for Tommy Rettig (5000 Fingers of Dr. T, River of No Return) in a small role as Widmark’s cute, young son. And don’t miss Mabel Albertson (you’ll know her face from many 1960s & 1970s TV sitcoms) as the Head of the Board of Directors. Fay Wray makes an appearance near the end as the long-suffering wife of Charles Boyer.

It’s a struggle between the old and the young, traditional ways and more progressive ideas, work vs. family life, and oh yes, the drapes. It’s all about the drapes and what they symbolize. But my favorite parts of this film, other than the drapes, are when Oscar Levant is on the screen. He spent a bit of time in mental institutions and famously quoted: “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

Everything is neatly Minnellian-wrapped up in the end. If you want to know how, I’m afraid you’ll have to watch. And for you musical movie fans, you’ll know what movie Kerr and Strasberg were watching when you see them exiting the theater.

“Out of our needs and passions, we’ve spun a human cobweb”.

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