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The Cobweb

The Cobweb
Vincente Minnelli's flair for melodrama and some stylish performances make 1955's The Cobweb worth checking out. This one gives new meaning to the phrase "the inmates are running the asylum."

This hyperactive soap opera takes place within the walls of an exclusive psychiatric clinic where we learn that the clinic is getting ready to acquire new drapes and that apparently everyone in the clinic wants in on the project, even though the original idea was that it was to be a project for the patients.

The principal players in this soap include the acting head of the clinic, Dr. Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark), who is married to the very neurotic Karen (Gloria Grahame); the widowed art teacher Mrs. Rinehart (Lauren Bacall); a suicidal patient who loves to paint named Stevie (John Kerr); the greasy clinic administrator (Charles Boyer); the tightly wound clinic business manager, Miss Inch (Lillian Gish); and Sue (Susan Strasberg), a phobic young patient who is afraid to leave the grounds of the clinic.

Screenwriter John Paxton has crafted a classic melodrama on a pretty original canvas. In all my years of watching soap operas, on the big and small screen, I don't think I've ever seen a drama mounted around the concept of new drapes. It was clever hook to the classic soap opera elements that we look for in the genre and watch them quietly bubble to the surface. It's hard to believe that arguments over drapes actually lead the viewer to infidelity, divorce, death, secrets, corporate conflict...all the things that we melodrama lovers clamor for.

Minnelli has gathered a really interesting group of actors together to pull this story off and they all seem fully committed to the director's vision. The chemistry between Richard Widmark and Lauren Bacall burns a hole through the screen and Charles Boyer's greasy administrator does provide what might be unintended comic relief. Screen legend Lillian Gish is a solid as Miss Inch and there's a wonderful glorified cameo by Oscar Levant as one of the patients. Screen vet Mabel Albertson makes a cameo as does movie icon Fay Wray as Boyer's devoted wife. Towering above them all and making this movie worth the price of admission all by herself is the incomparable Gloria Grahame, who easily walks off with this movie as hot mess Karen McIver, Grahame pulls out all the stops here, presenting a character that is equal doses of fragility and ferociousness that that keeps this movie on sizzle. Even though it's a little longer than it needs to be, Grahame and Minnelli make it worth the ride.