2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
The Cobweb November 9, 2018
so enmeshed in their interpersonal romances and dramas, patients would have to either have to offer a loud "ahem" or, more troublingly, die, to receive attention.
Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb, a Cinemascope melodrama from 1955, works off the same basic conceit: Although it takes place in a psychiatric institution, the behind-the-scenes drama is more rampant than medical practice. The similarities, though, end there. The aforementioned MADtv sketch works because it so cuttingly mocks Grey’s Anatomy’s ensemble’s breathy self-absorption. The Cobweb, by contrast, doesn’t mesh — it’s too sedate and inflated to be as cutting or mocking as it could be.
And those latter characteristics should be here. The storyline, after all, builds off a seemingly innocuous decision: replacing the institution’s library's drapes, which proves itself an incendiary development. The patients cannot bear change; a conflict between the hospital’s staff members, who all have their own ideas as to what the new drapes should look like, is instigated. It’s a symbol, see: the attachment to these apparently meaningless window swathes are just emblems of these peoples’ obsessions and anxieties.
Minnelli, using a script by John Paxton, the screenwriter best known for his work on 1947’s Crossfire, never elucidates whether the movie is trying to be a profound psychological drama or a light satire. That is, a ridiculing of how even the most one-dimensional changes in one’s life are enough to generate disorder.
The movie’s unclarity is accelerated by its farrago of unengaging subplots. The move to switch out the drapes comes with the arrival of a new director, Dr. Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark), who, controversially, wants to enact a sort of self-governance among the institution’s patients. This irks the hospital’s former leader, Dr. Douglas Devenal (Charles Boyer), who still promenades the grounds. It also provokes the vinegary Victoria (Lillian Gish), a staff member who wants things to stay the way they always have and who ordered the drapes in the first place.
Stewart’s arrival attracts more trouble. His bored, materialistic wife, Karen (Gloria Grahame, the movie’s lone bright spot), busies herself by flirting with patients (John Kerr) and ordering more garish drapes behind everyone’s backs. She’s also having drinks with Douglas on the side, a relationship which coincides with a developing attraction between Stewart and his only level-headed employee, a therapist named Meg (Lauren Bacall).
None of this matters. This beautiful-looking, expensively cast, ever-dull movie is so narratively plodding that one wonders why Minnelli ever thought taking a break from the buoyant fare on which he built his name was a wise move. “The trouble began,” reads a title card before the opening credits start rolling. The preface is supposed to insinuate, early on, that we’re about to walk into the central institution just as Victoria’s repellant drapes have been bought. But this prelude, by the end of the movie, seems an intimation that the trouble began when MGM decided to greenlight this well-made, thoroughly uninvolving would-be soaper. C
ne of my favorite skits on the otherwise outmoded comedy show MADtv (1995-2009) was a Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present) satire. As it went for the majority of the most inspired sketches featured on the former program, the skit was loopy and gently absurd — topped off by a guest appearance by a counterfeit Dr. Gregory House. The running joke of the nearly five-minute parody was that the personnel making up the Seattle-based hospital were