Friday, September 16, 2011

The curtain is a macguffin

After you're finished watching Seven Cities of Gold, switch over to TCM and wait for a little bit. At 12:30 PM you can watch the fun disaster The Cobweb. The movie can be summed up in one sentence: Doctors and patients at a mental hospital spend two hours arguing over new curtains for the library. But there's so much more to this movie.

The thing is, the draperies themselves are really secondary to the plot, or more accurately the intermeshing sub-plots. The fight over the curtains is really just a convenient rod on which to hang all of the characters' other problems. And God knows that the doctors here have just as many problems as the patients. First up is Dr. McIver (Richard Widmark), the new managing director of the institute. He's one of those "modern" 1950s doctors who has ideas that doctors of the past would consider unorthodox. One of those is that the patients should engage in a little art therapy by designing the aforementioned new curtains for the library. This is natuarlly opposed by the previous director, Dr. Devanal (Charles Boyer). Devenal reminds us of Leo G. Carroll's character in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, who doesn't like that his job is about to be taken by the man Gregory Peck is impersonating.

That's not the only problem, of course. Dr. McIver is in a loveless marriage to Mrs. McIver (Gloria Grahame) who thinks that the good doctor is neglecting her in favor of his job. On top of that, she's good-looking to the point that when she goes by the hospital, the male patients notice her. In order to try to get her husband to notice her, she, on hearing about the need for new curtains, arranges to purchase expensive curtain material from back east, not realizing how much having the patients design the curtains means to her husband. That's not the only problem between husband and wife. There's also the new lady doctor, Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall). She's a widow, having lost her husband and child in a car accident. But she's ready to start loving again. And she sees Dr. McIver having marital problems, and thinks that trying to form an emotional bond with him might be a good thing.

Add to all that one other person wanting a say in the new curtains: Victoria Inch, a parsimonious accountant played by Lillian Gish. She doesn't care much about the new drapes, as long as they're cheap. A mental institution isn't a cheap place to run, and this one needs every penny it can get. So why spend extra on curtains? Who cares about the patients' feelings on the curtains, anyway? On top of this, Victoria has ears, and figures out all that's going on among the various staff members.

There's a good movie somewhere in The Cobweb, but the movie that actually got made isn't quite it. There's so much focus on the curtains that everybody seems over the top, to the point that you wonder whether the patients are the ones who are in need of psychiatric help. But the movie is saved from being terrible by being so over the top. It's the sort of movie you can laugh at how much of a mess it is.

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