A controversy over the style of drapes for a mansion's library would not seem to be the fodder for a sizzling screen drama but it is the catalyst for the events that unwind in The Cobweb, a 1955 soap opera that involves the talents of some very impressive actors and filmmakers. The film was directed by Vincente Minnelli and produced by John Houseman, based on the bestselling novel by William Gibson. The cast features an impressive array of seasoned veterans as well as up-and-comers. Among them: Richard Widmark, Lauren, Bacall, Charles Boyer, Gloria Grahame, Lillian Gish, Oscar Levant, Susan Strasberg and John Kerr. The action all takes place in a psychiatric institute called "The Castle". It's actually a mansion house and the patients are seemingly there voluntarily. They are an assortment of eclectic types ranging from elderly eccentrics to young people with severe problems interacting with others. The nominal head of the institute is Dr. Devenal (Charles Boyer), an erudite, once-respected professional who long ago ceded actual power to his second-in-command, Dr. Stewart MacIver (Richard Widmark), who has implemented very progressive and controversial theories about patient treatment that involve giving those afflicted with psychiatric disorders a voice in the policies and events pertaining to the institute. He's routinely criticized for going too far in trying to build patient self-esteem but MacIver is convinced that such programs are the only way to ensure that those in his care can become self-sustaining members of society. The Castle is hardly the kind of loony bin depicted in most Hollywood films of the era. In fact, it looks more like an upscale bed and breakfast. Everyone is nattily dressed, exceedingly polite and indulges in social activities. MacIver is the one who seems closest to a complete breakdown. His marriage to his sultry young wife Karen (Gloria Grahame) is on the skids. She accuses him of being a workaholic who puts his career before the needs of his wife and young son (Tommy Rettig). On a more personal level, she makes it clear that she is sexually frustrated, as MacIver has moved into a separate bedroom, telling Karen that she is a self-obsessed party girl. There is truth in both accusations. The chain smoking MacIver does seem to be married to his job. Predictably, things get more complicated when MacIver has an affair with a co-worker at the institute (Lauren Bacall) and Karen's ill-conceived flirtations with the perpetually horny Dr. Devenal backfire and cause distress for both of them. The fragile tranquility among the patients also becomes strained when a controversy erupts over MacIver's plan to allow them to design and create new draperies for the library. This inspires the most problematic inmate, a young man named Steve Holte (John Kerr) who is traditionally anti-social but who comes alive by using his creative talents for the project. However, the institute's busy-body secretary, Victoria Inch (Lillian Gish) has already ordered expensive draperies from a company and she objects to using the patients' creations. This sets in motion a series of dramatic circumstances that has major consequences for all the main characters.
The premise of the screenplay reads like something out of a Monty Python sketch and critics at the time of the film's release pointed out the absurdity of having draperies serve as the catalyst for such dark goings-on. The film was considered a major disappointment and has largely been forgotten. However, looking at the movie today, one is impressed with the sheer amount of talent involved in the production. It should also be pointed out that saying the movie is about curtains is as inaccurate as saying The Titanic is a movie about icebergs. In fact, The Cobweb is a reasonably compelling drama that sustains interest despite an "everything but the kitchen" sink formula for introducing crisis after crisis for the main characters and a tacked on happy ending that deviated from the book. Widmark is a commanding screen presence and Gloria Grahame excels as his sex-starved wife. Grahame completely overshadows the presence of Lauren Bacall, who underplays to the point of invisibility. There is also a scene-stealing performance by Lillian Gish as an insecure administrator with no life outside of her office duties and who is immediately threatened by any incursion into her spheres of influence. Charles Boyer is an odd but inspired choice as the institute's director, a man who has sold out in terms of his professional ethics simply to enjoy a cozy life and a fat pay check. John Kerr and Susan Strasberg also impress as anti-social young people who predictably become attracted to each other.
The Cobweb is a potboiler, pure and simple. While it's not a "lost classic" by any means, it seems the film does deserve to be re-evaluated for its many merits.
The movie is available on DVD through the Warner Archive and is region-free. The transfer is very good and includes the original theatrical trailer.
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