Cobweb, The (1955): Inside Minnelli’s Asylum Melodrama

After spending most of 1954 on Brigadoon and The Green Mansions, which never materialized, Vincente Minnelli was ready to focus on something more substantial, a film called The Cobweb. Like The Bad and the Beautiful, The Cobweb set out to reveal the inside workings of a sheltered, enclosed society, and, like the former, it centers on people whose professional careers compensate for emotional problems, specifically lonely, frustrated domestic lives.


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Eager to work with him again, producer John Houseman had no trouble persuading Minnelli to rejoin forces. Since their last collaboration, The Bad and The Beautiful, Minnelli had directed two musicals for Freed, and the Lucille Ball farce, Long, Long Trail.

The film was based on the novel by William Gibson (using pseudonym William Mass), who got first-hand knowledge of the private mental hospital during his wife’s work as staff member of the Menninger Clinic. The adaptation was done by John Paxton, whose scripts for Crossfire and The Wild One showed sensitivity to explosive, socially relevant melodramas.

Minnelli felt that it was imperative to establish a definite city name as the films locale, rather than leaving the locale nondescript, and MGM opted for Riverwood, Nebraska. The casting director got a kick, when in the name of authenticity, Minnelli had asked him for “Patients Needed Types.”  He provided a long list that included a dignified thin old man; a skinny young girl who’s starving herself to death and is fed intravenously; a baby-faced girl, the bizarre mind type; a very fat, cheerful young man; a fat and morose man who’s always dressed in robe and accompanied by a nurse; a Don Juan type; and a blonde football the Princeton physical type.

Gibson supported all the changes recommended by Minnelli and the screenwriters. All along Minnelli held that the films impact would depend on the intense directness with which the audience could identify with the characters. In the book, the doctor’s wife suffers from frigidity, aggravated by menopause. A decision was therefore made to subject the chief character of the doctor to the tensions of a more normal marriage.

The Cobweb became a personal film for Minnelli in more senses than one. The psychiatric setting held a perverse fascination for Minnelli, after years of nursing Judy Garland through various institutions, including Menninger. Judy had also spent time at that clinic.

The bizarre plot, and some of the characters, touched a chord, playing to his idiosyncrasies. The films central conflict was close to Minnelli’s heart. The hostility between the clinic’s patients and the warring staff erupts over a seemingly trivial aesthetic matter, the choice of new drapes for the lounge. But for an aesthete like Minnelli, the issue was not trivial at all; it was essential. For him, decor reflected not only personal aesthetics but also deeper values and moral issues.

The production had to be delayed due to the detailed adaptation and casting problems entailed. Paxton was forced to eliminate the homosexuality of one inmate, and had to turn the central romance between an art therapist and her married boss into a guilt-ridden affair that ends with the husband returning home to his wife.

To achieve greater accuracy, Minnelli brought Gibson out to rework the dialogue, and to supervise the construction of the sets. In the end, despite great many efforts, Minnelli was dissatisfied with the shooting scriptand the final cut.

Another problem was caused by the casting, which resulted in the first big rift between Minnelli and producer Houseman. Initially, the film was to star Robert Taylor, as the chief doctor, Lana Turner, as his neglected wife, and Grace Kelly, as the woman between them. By late fall, however, when the script was finally ready, Taylor and Turner were working on other pictures.

Relieved due to his lack of respect for Robert Taylor, Minnelli was glad to settle on Richard Widmark, though he had reservations whether Widmark could segue from his villainous roles in film noir, such as his stunning debut in Kiss Before Death, into more mainstream melodrama. Minnelli hoped that pairing Widmark with Gloria Grahame, whom he befriended during the making of The Bad and the Beautiful, would bring a softer side. He was wrong, and Widmark was never convincing.

Houseman hoped to get James Dean right after East of Eden for the key role of Stevie, the troubled teenager. But Dean balked at the low fee, and John Kerr was signed, based on his appearance in the successful Broadway production of Tea and Sympathy. Minnelli would later cast Kerr in his movie version of that play. Then, a month before shooting began, Grace Kelly, exhausted form making four consecutive films, changed her mind, and Minnelli had to choose a quick replacement for her, Lauren Bacall, an actress with a strong physical presence but decidedly limited talent.

Minnelli cast his friend Oscar Levant, notorious for his real (and imagined) neuroses, as the mother-fixated Mr. Capp, who in the book was homosexual. Minnelli wished to keep the gay character intact, but it was a lost battle. A similar situation had prevailed several years back in Edward Dmytryks Crossfire, in which the victim was changed from the books homosexual soldier to a Jewish one.

It would take another decade for Hollywood to depict homosexuals on screen, in movies like Suddenly, Last Summer, and Reflections in a Golden Eye. However, Minnelli, like Cukor and other gay director, would never have the opportunity to do it himself.

Houseman persuaded Lillian Gish to make her first screen appearance in years, as the asylum’s reactionary administrator, Miss Inch. Minnelli clashed with Houseman again, when he proposed Chrales Boyer as Richard Widmark’s antagonist, a psychiatrist in decline due to excessive drinking and womanizing. Houseman thought that Boyers Gallic charm, and heavy accent to match, would add an unnecessary note to the already overburdened script, but he grudgingly conceded when Minnelli simply refused to consider anyone else.

As soon as casting was over, both Minnelli and Houseman realized that their main challenge in elevating the films stature was how to overcome the potential lackluster box-office appeal of their chosen ensemble, which didnt include a single name actor or certified star. Times were changing, and due to severe competition from TV, stars were becoming much more important in positioning films in the marketplace. Hitchcock, a contemporary of Minnelli, absorbed the new reality right away and all of his 1950s movies were cast with major stars of the caliber of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Kim Novak.

Minnelli began a seven-week shoot in early December 1954. For this, his first, exciting dramatic feature in CinemaScope, he relied on the vet cameraman George Folsey, whose work on Meet Me in St. Louis he continued to admire. Folseys bravura style, with his noted edgy tracking shots, was so striking that Minnelli would use it again for the boar hunt sequence in his 1960 melodrama, Home From the Hills.

Throughout, Minnelli was apprehensive about a sprawling saga that had too many incidents and subplots. Among other things, it resulted in a film burdened with the excessive running time of two and a half hours. This time around, Minnelli’s penchant for long takes and atmospheric detail was not appreciated, and he found himself in serious conflict with his producer. Anticipating studio pressures, Houseman demanded severe cuts. When Minnelli refused to cooperate, Houseman asked editor Harold F. Kress to do the job. Dismayed by Housemans violation of trust, upon seeing the final cut, Minnelli accused his producer of willful interference that undermined his authority.

As expected, Schary sided with Houseman’s cut. MGM previewed The Cobweb at the Encino Theatre on April 19, 1955 to mixed results. Though most of the comments were positive, occasionally, there were nasty remarks like, “Why dont you buy Venetian blinds and have the conflict done with it.” Times were changing, and viewers in 1956 were not necessarily more sophisticated but certainly more demanding for the money they were spending at the movies, since TV provided good yet free-of-charge entertainment.

In the end, Minnelli couldn’t bring to The Cobweb the same vigor or pizzazz that had sparked The Bad and the Beautiful four years earlier.

Even so, despite lack of a unified vision and forceful style, The Cobweb was a highly personal film. Minnelli interweaved all the themes of his previous works, specifically the artist as an outsider, careers as compensation for personal disappointment, the struggle between maintaining individualism (at the price of loneliness) and the need to conform and integrate into a larger community. The film’s underlining motif was social and emotional isolation, which marked each of the teams members.

Ultimately, the picture’s domestic scenes are more harrowing than the climax at the clinic. The Cobweb was the first Minnelli melodrama to reflect his ever-growing cynicism about family life in the otherwise ideologically advertised affluent 1950s.

Indeed. all of his future domestic melodramas, Tea and Sympathy, Some Came Running, and Home from the Hill, would center on presumably respectable and happy couples who actually loathe each other and are miserably unfulfilled. It was an issue he could easily relate to based on his troubled marriage to Judy Garland, which was blissful only in the first two of six years.

Happy Ending: Imposed by Production Code

Minnelli’s bleak take on the story was so persuasive that the Production Code imposed a reconciliation and happy ending. A scrawled legend in yellow announces: “The trouble was over” across Karen’s chintz drapes, now an improvised bed for the prodigal inmate. But the film builds up for a catharsis that never occurs. The mixture of psychosexual angst and textile whimsies was right up Minnellis alley, as a filmmaker and as a person, who had worked as a decorator and experienced firsthand mental illness at his home with Judy.

The Cobweb benefited from a tremendous publicity campaign. Metros advertising came up with: “After blasting the nation with its Blackboard Jungle bombshell, MGM follows up with a smashing, all-star production, The Cobweb, a forbidden subject that will be the talk of America. For the first time, the screen dares to reveal the secrets of the psychiatrist’s couch in that strange mansion on the hill they called “The Castle.”

Minnelli identified with the storys young patient, Stevie, and his quip: You can’t tell the patients from the doctors.” A decade later, when Kirk Douglas told Minnellii about his plan to adapt One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest to the screen and play the lead role (eventually played by Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-winning turn), Minnelli was quick to point out that The Cobweb was the first film to show the fine line between sanity and madness, and that at times there really are no differences between the inmates and therapists, since both characters are troubled.

Minnelli was disappointed that MGM had scheduled a premiere at Loews’ rather than the more prestigious Radio City Music Hall. Reading the reviews made matters worse, as the major film critics were divided in their response.

Variety chided MGM for making a movie that became too tasteful and too restrained considering its harrowing subject matter.  Other reviewers dismissed the movie as being trivial.

The public reaction was not much more encouraging.  The Cobweb’s domestic rentals of $1.5 million didn’t recoup the film’s large budget, and, to Minnelli’s dismay, MGM declared it a commercial failure.

In the end, after spending over a year in re-production, shooting, and editing, neither the artistic nor the commercial results had justified the arduous production process and tumultuous arguments behind-the-scenes.