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COBWEB, THE(director: Vincente Minnelli; screenwriters: John Paxton /based on the novel by William Gibson; cinematographer: George Folsey; editor: Harold F. Kress; music: Leonard Rosenman; cast: Richard Widmark (Dr. Stewart McIver), Gloria Grahame (Karen McIver), Lauren Bacall (Mrs. Meg Faversen Rinehart), Charles Boyer (Dr. Douglas N. Devanal, Director Castlehouse Clinic), Lillian Gish (Victoria Inch), Susan Strasberg (Sue Brett, Clinic Patient), Oscar Levant (Mr. Capp, Clinic Patient), John Kerr (Steven W. Holte, Clinic Patient), Fay Wray (Edna Devanal), Jarma Lewis (Lois V. Demuth, Clinic Patient), Mabel Albertson (Regina Mitchell-Smyth, Clinic Chairman of The Board), Sandy Descher (Rosemary McIver), Tommy Rettig (Mark McIver), Paul Stewart (Dr. Otto Wolff), Adele Jergens (Miss Cobb, Denanal’s Secretary), Olive Carey (Mrs. O’Brien, Head Nurse), Oliver Blake (Curly, Gardener), Marjorie Bennett (Sadie); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Houseman; MGM; 1955)
“The highlight of the film was Oscar Levant singing “Mother” while being sedated.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Vincent Minnelli directs this talkative and ludicrous soaper as if he were choreographing a musical but forgot to put in the music. It’s set in an upscale psychiatric clinic called Castlehouse whose patients suffer from severe nervous disorders, such as the phobic Sue Brett (Susan Strasberg), the wisecracking mother-complex ailing Mr. Capp (Oscar Levant), and the father-complex pained Stevie Holte (John Kerr). Richard Widmark is Dr. Stewart McIver, the smug and confident new head of the clinic, who was hired by the absentee board of trustees based in Chicago to straighten things out for the once prestigious clinic. The board is chaired by the prim matron Regina Mitchell-Smyth. Dr. Douglas N. Devanal (Charles Boyer) was the former head shrink for the past quarter of a century, but his once prominent career has gone downhill because he’s become a womanizer and a secret alcoholic and as a result neglects his patients and his duties at the clinic. Devanal ‘s now fearful of his arrogant hotshot replacement, but has no choice but to take the deal. To avoid embarrassing Devanal further, the contract was not made public as Devanal stays on and keeps his posh office and his pride. Even Devanal’s loyal secretary Miss Cobb (Jergens), with whom he is having an affair, doesn’t know that he has actually been removed as head. Nor does the longtime imperious staffer and his confidante Victoria Inch (Lilian Gish-the famed silent screen star). Inch is even more loony than the patients. In fact, all of the staff seem insufferable, while the patients at least seem to have a chance to get better.

Personal conflicts rear up early on as McIver’s neglected pretty homemaker wife Karen (Gloria Grahame), who is bored just watching over the nuclear family consisting of their model young boy and girl wants to get in on some of the clinic action. Hubby spends all his time caring for the wealthy loonies, so much so that he has no time for his own family. When Karen gives the suicidal artistically motivated young Stevie a ride back to the clinic, she drops in on the library and finds the drapes too ugly for her taste. In the spirit of helping out, even if all she’s required to do is give her maid Sadie the orders for dinner and mix a martini whenever her busy hubby shows his face at home, she decides to order new drapes and calls Regina who is only too willing to help. The problem is that Inch already has decided to order inexpensive but drab drapes from a local fabric salesman and becomes furious when she learns Karen has gone over her head. The other problem is McIver is rearranging clinic policy and agrees to have the patients self-govern themselves. They choose to have their Stevie design the patterns for the new drapes.

The fireworks begin when Inch refuses to budge, Stevie can’t handle being rejected again, and the jealous wifey won’t drop the matter and out of spite goes full-speed ahead to get her fancy Chippendale rose-colored drapes hung before the others. All the remaining melodramatics, believe it or not, revolve around who gets to pick the pattern for the clinic’s new draperies.

McIver’s maternal ‘other woman’ is the understanding Mrs. Meg Faversen Rinehart (Lauren Bacall). This is a vacuous part that under-utilizes the services of the talented star actress. Bacall lost her child and the hubby she dearly loved in an auto accident and has taken on work chores at the clinic as self-therapy. Bacall offers a shoulder for the workaholic to bear whatever warmth McIver’s capable of, and while there’s no hanky-panky it sure appears that way to the shrink’s sulky wife. Karen turns to the snakelike Devanel for comfort, while Inch tries to figure out whose really in charge of the loonies so that she can get on their good side.

When Stevie thinks his drapes are rejected, he attempts suicide. McIver orates his mistakes at an emergency board meeting with the same sincerity President Clinton owned up to the country about his errant ways, and the film concludes as Widmark juggles to win back his patients, his wife, his self-respect, and the reputation of the clinic. That he does so and in the most superficial of ways, shouldn’t surprise anyone. The only thing that surprised me was that this talented cast was wasted in such a gossamer-like story. The film’s title is explained away by Widmark, as he remarks that “out of human needs and passions a cobweb was formed.” The highlight of the film was Oscar Levant singing “Mother” while being sedated.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”