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The Cobweb.

The Cobweb (1955) is based on William Gibson's novel about a psychiatric clinic (the Castlehouse Clinic for Nervous Disorders) in which the members of staff are almost as troubled as their patients. Its narrative revolves around the decision to replace the library drapes, and three rival sets of drapes emerge as contenders: the first, a plain, functional set ordered by Miss Inch (Lillian Gish), the clinic's accountant; the second a set that are to be made in-house and will use the drawings of one of the patients, Stevie Holte (John Kerr); the last, a more exclusive set ordered by Karen McIver (Gloria Grahame), wife of the clinic's director, in cahoots with Regina Mitchell-Smith, the president of the clinic's Board of Trustees. Onto the question of the drapes hang most if not all of the film's fraught character interrelationships: the psychological fragility of the patients, the crumbling marriage of Karen and Stewart McIver (Richard Widmark), the affair between Stewart and the clinic's new art teacher, Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall), the power struggle between McIver and his predecessor, Douglas Devanal (Charles Boyer) who still heads the clinic, but in name only. The latter part of The Cobweb becomes preoccupied with a police-led search for Stevie, who disappears from the clinic upon seeing Karen's drapes hanging in the library. He subsequently turns up outside McIver's house, after the McIvers have, most implausibly, reconciled. This forced happy ending reverses the conclusion of the novel, in which Stewart leaves Karen for Meg. Despite Karen's drapes briefly going up, the library windows remain unadorned.


The Cobweb was not a critical or commercial success and the film is the result of a series of compromises. As its producer John Houseman noted, 'the truth is that, compared with other recent films (he and Minnelli had made the more highly regarded The Bad and The Beautiful two years earlier), this was not an entirely happy one--either in its making or in the way it was received'. (1) There were problems over casting--Houseman never agreed with the casting of Boyer as Dev, he had also wanted James Dean for the part of Stevie and, it was rumoured, none of the other main actors were MGM's first choices. (2) There followed problems over the script--Minnelli brought in Gibson to write some additional dialogue, but he was never entirely satisfied with it. Then there were arguments over editing as Houseman cut thirty minutes from Minnelli's intended two and a half hour completed film; the director was less than happy with these cuts, although later he became reconciled to them. (3) Although one reviewer, Lee Rogow in Saturday Review, found The Cobweb to be 'one of the most rewarding films I have recently seen come out of Hollywood', (4) press responses were not good and even Houseman thought there was 'something contrived about the plot ... The emotional turmoil aroused by the hanging of a set of new drapes in the main living-room of the institution was never entirely credible nor dramatically viable'. (5)

The central problem with The Cobweb is the drapes--Houseman considers the contrivances of the drapes plot to lack credibility, and several contemporary critics unfavourably cite the prominence given to them in the film. However, I have always found The Cobweb to work precisely because of its prioritisation of the drapes, and in this the film is exemplary of one aspect of Minnelli's style--the over-determined importance accorded not just production design but decor in particular. The emphasis on decor and design as generators of meaning is, notwithstanding Hollywood melodrama's pervasive tendency to explain emotional complexity through mise-en-scene, peculiar to Minnelli. As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith writes in 'Minnelli and Melodrama', Minnelli's melodramas can be likened to conversion hysteria:

 It is not just that the characters are often prone to hysteria, but
 that the film itself somatises its own unaccommodated excess, which
 this appears displaced or in the wrong place. (6)

In the case of The Cobweb, the characters' emotional and psychological troubles are transposed onto the drapes. This makes for a highly unconventional narrative, despite the formulaic 'The trouble begins' and 'The trouble was over' titles that top and tail the film. (7)

Minnelli's background was in design. Before going into movies he worked as a department store decorator, an assistant to a portrait photographer and a set and costume designer for Radio City Music Hall in New York, finally becoming a Broadway designer-director. (8) Mark Shivas has commented that Minnelli's 'concern with colour and decor have led people to dismiss him as a dilettante interested in peripheral decoration', going on to defend the director's method when arguing that 'for him the visual and dramatic aspects of a film are inseparable ... The decor springs ideally, from the subject of the film'. (9) It is precisely this mutuality between style and meaning that is characteristic of Minnelli's mise-en-scene. It is not just that Minnelli's 'sophistication belongs to the world of Vogue, Harpers and Vanity Fair' as James Naremore observes, he goes further, as noted by Barry Boys, by 'conceiving the mise-en-scene as action'. (10) Stephen Harvey offers a pithy, evocative analysis of The Cobweb in which he similarly argues that 'Minnelli of all directors believed that decor was the mirror of the soul'. (11) This is, in part, a response to censorship and the impositions of the production code (as Harvey goes on to comment, 'prevailing censorship taboos clamped a straightjacket on the novel's characters', (12) leading to the elimination of one patient's homosexuality as well as the McIvers' marital reconciliation). Of the narrative tribulations surrounding the library drapes, Harvey proves to be one of the few critics of the film to understand how they function as much more than a mere plot device, arguing that the motif 'becomes Minnelli's own form of on-the-lot occupational therapy'. (13)

Minnelli comprehends and, in turn, represents narrative through design and colour; elements such as decor and, to a lesser extent, costume are used to create meaning and not merely to serve or embellish character and action. It is not just the three sets of drapes at the centre of The Cobweb that are important in this respect. Elsewhere, there are the curiously domestic drapes that hang in McIver's office as he conducts a therapy session (the only notable one in a film ostensibly 'about' a psychiatric clinic) with Stevie Holte. Stevie ends up on McIver's couch with McIver sitting behind him, framed by his window either side of which hang brown and white patterned drapes, a vase of white flowers next to him. The cosiness of this image complicates the doctor-patient dialogue, which treads cliched therapeutic ground and is weighed down with platitudes from the vocabulary of psychoanalysis. Stevie, for instance, sardonically inquires if McIver is going to unravel his Id and help him resolve his tortured Oedipal relationship with his father. Karen McIver bursts in on this session only to be reprimanded by her husband, her interruption serving to bring to light Stevie's Oedipal fixation on Karen, with whom he has just shared a car ride. McIver concludes the session by assuring Stevie 'I'm not your father ... I'm not going to run out on you'. If one pieces together various important strands of McIver's narrative--his unhappy marriage, his fantasy of somehow sharing a child with Meg Rinehart (later, as they discuss Stevie's designs for the drapes McIver tells Meg they could show Stevie 'we're different--good parents'), his virtual estrangement from his own family home--then the drapes in this therapy scene start to connote, through their overt domestication of the clinical environment, his own sense of loss for all this domestic contentment.

In The Cobweb, the drapes are the prime narrative motivator and it is through an understanding of the decor (and specifically the tripartite battle over the library drapes) that psychology and emotions are explained, not vice versa. This displacement might seem unhinged, as Harvey suggests when remarking that 'To those who don't share his (Minnelli's) credo, two insistent hours of interior-decoration-as-truth-serum is bound to seem a trifle imbalanced'. (14) A sequence of short scenes about forty minutes into the action is illustrative of this unconventional 'imbalance'. First, Miss Inch's drape material arrives, conflicting directly and immediately with the patients' buzzing anticipation, as they hear that Stevie's are to be used in the library. Next, while at dinner, Stevie, buoyed by this news and instantly less neurotic, invites a fellow patient Sue (Susan Strasberg) to the cinema 'to celebrate' (Sue, who is agoraphobic, here declines, but later in the film they manage their date). Then there follows a conversation about the drapes between Vicky Inch and Meg Rinehart, which concludes with Vicky exploding at Meg, whom she assumes to be in cahoots with Karen McIver (in fact, Meg knows nothing of the third set of drapes at this stage). The action then cuts to Karen having cocktails with Dev, whose support for her plan for the drapes she is genuinely enlisting. The first shot of this exchange is of Karen's chintz swatch on the table, although it is clear that the conversation has been about the state of Karen's marital troubles, and the conversation ends with Karen confiding 'I don't know what I need'. Lastly, there is the first of two scenes between Meg and Stewart to take place at Meg's flat. Again, the ostensible focus of their discussion is how good the designing of the drapes is for Stevie's self esteem, but the motive for their conversation is actually mutual attraction, the drapes are merely a convenient ruse.

As Nowell-Smith observed, many of Minnelli's melodramas and musicals tend towards a very specific interrelationship between hysteria and excess; repressed emotions 'which cannot be accommodated within the action' are transferred onto the mise-en-scene, in much the same way as, in conversion hysteria, a repressed idea returns 'converted into a bodily symptom'. (15) In this sequence of scenes, the 'repressed', as Nowell-Smith envisages it, barely surfaces; instead it becomes understood almost entirely through its symptomatic manifestation (the drapes), so effective is the transference of inner problem onto the contrived, frenetic discussions about drapes. The drapes in The Cobweb swiftly become the motif through which psychology, emotions and individual traumas are identified and elucidated. Now I will now turn to each set of drapes in turn.

Miss Inch's drapes

These drapes, though the first to be ordered, are also the first to be rejected and sent back. The precise moment at which Vicky Inch makes the phone call saying she needs to send the drapes back is in itself important, as her decision comes in the wake of a depressing conversation with Dev, whom she still thinks to be more than nominally in charge of the clinic. Dev, once a respected psychiatric figure has degenerated into a lecherous alcoholic and, since his arrival, Stewart McIver has been the clinic's director in all but name. Inch, who disapproves of the decision (made by McIver and the patients' committee) to allow Stevie to design the new drapes, goes in to see Dev in order to harangue him about the situation, and also to question McIver's belief in patient 'self-government'. She also asks Dev why she has never seen McIver's contract (which effectively outlines the transferral of managerial power from Dev to him). The setting for this awkward conversation between two old colleagues is Dev's stale, grey office, an office that, despite its one vibrant but jaundice-coloured chair, is marked with the pallor of resignation and defeat. Inch, a pinched old woman who herself bustles around in crisp, functional grey or beige, is merciless towards Dev, comparing him unfavourably to a previous inhabitant of his office whose portrait hangs opposite Dev's desk. As she leaves, Vicky, looking round the office, spits out her final insult: 'It's a sad sight ... seeing such a small man in it'. Vicky Inch's frugal green-blue cotton wrap drapes, in their ostentatious drabness, represent Vicky's last attempt to revive the old order that she now realises has effectively ended with Dev's demise. They lack the lustre, extravagance or creativeness of their rivals and in their very functionality proclaim Vicky's efforts to deny the inevitable forces of change being ushered in by McIver. She discards the drapes at the same moment as she discards Dev, acknowledging that her allegiance to him (as to the drapes and to tradition) has been misplaced. With the return of the rolls of cotton wrap, Vicky detects the disintegration of what she stood for, the entrenched conservatism represented by her continued admiration for her father (whose portrait hangs in her office) who fought the 'Indians' for the territory on which the clinic stands and her desire to preserve the status quo, represented by the studied old-fashionedness of her room and the dark wig she does not want to be seen without. These drapes would be lifeless, functional and cold.

The democratic drapes

The set of muslin drapes conceived of by Meg Rinehart and to be designed by Stevie Holte, are the decorative expression of McIver's belief in his patients' right to self-government and his consummate rejection of the hierarchical structure that predominated under Dev. However, these drapes--necessarily more fantastical than the others and, significantly, never seen completed--are not unambiguously liberating; they also convey (and to a large extent have caused) the chaos that besets the clinic for the majority of the film. Such ambivalence is signalled by the design itself: a series of caricatured sketches depicting the clinic and those who inhabit it. Although one could tentatively make the observation that, in the mid-1950s when the film was made, there was a certain penchant for such panelled, non-uniform interior fabrics, authenticity does not seem to be the point here. Instead, the eclectic, fragmentary design connotes two things: that designing and making the drapes can be creatively therapeutic and, conversely, that by releasing the repressed forces channelled into making them, that that same creativity can destabilise the working environment of the clinic. Although McIver's drive towards democratisation and 'self-government' is treated positively, the fight over the drapes and the new freedoms experienced by the patients also leads to disruption and chaos, exemplified by Stevie's disappearance at the end of the film and the raucous wake the patients hold in his honour. Early on, the patients were more sedate and obedient; the catalyst for their growing vociferousness is the idea for the democratically designed drapes.

The making of these drapes (an idiosyncratic form of occupational therapy) signals the demotion of traditional psychotherapy--a demise that arguably had already been presaged by The Cobweb's very first sequence, in which Karen McIver offers Stevie a lift to the clinic. In this scene, Karen (perceived, quite wrongly, by the majority of critics to be little more than a vacuous caricature, superficial and sexually frustrated) gets a lot further with Stevie than her husband does subsequently in his conventional therapy session. Karen and Stevie form a subversive bond, their ostensibly inconsequential chat about flowers, colour and the Fauves painters serving to lay out the reasons for the importance of forward thinking and the democratic drapes. Upon entering her car, Stevie spies the vast bunch of red gladioli on the back seat and asks Karen if they are for a funeral. He leans back, breaks off one flower tip and muses about the artist Derain who, on his deathbed, said 'some red, show me some red. Before dying I want to see some red and some green'. Derain died in the sterile white environs of a room in a clinic. Although the prevailing tones of Stevie's residence are not sterile white, the parallel with Derain is unmistakable: the need for colour represents the need for art and outlets for creativity over and above medicine and talking through one's problems. Karen--who is intuitive where her husband is cerebral--understands this. As they reach the clinic and Stevie is about to get out, the two share a final thought; as Stevie quips 'You can't tell the patients from the doctors', Karen jokes 'Oh I can--the patients get better'. McIver envisages that he is consigning to history the outmoded hierarchical order by introducing the ethos of self-government, thereby officially blurring the distinction between doctor and patient. In fact, McIver, who fails to mask his residual conservatism under his smooth politically correct exterior, is prepared for nothing of the sort.

These drapes are the ultimate expression of the values set out in the exchange between Karen and Stevie: they are vibrantly colourful, energetic, unconventional and critical of the establishment. They would also, had we ever seen them in their entirety, make a chaotic, jarring set of curtains. Of the drawings Stevie produces, one prominently displayed image is of the exterior of the clinic (as if an expressive children's illustration, it shows the clinic as a make-believe palace), another is a cartoon sketch of McIver. This latter study is particularly significant in the light of Stevie's conversation with Karen for, in this intense blue picture, which depicts the doctor in the foreground and Sue behind him, it is the therapist--left floating amidst a blank background and so detached from the familiar reality of his surroundings--who is under scrutiny. This sketch of McIver, picturing him as it does staring directly out at us, further denotes the role of the drapes as a means of countering the patients' instinctive introspection. Stevie at one point remarks to Meg Rinehart that he rarely thinks of other people (except in relation to himself, hence his interest in Karen); being approached to design the drapes helps suppress this solipsistic tendency and draws all the patients out of themselves. The intensity of McIver's direct outward gaze negates the inherent introspective function of drapes to shut things out, to shield one from the outside world. Further, these drapes prove the catalyst for renewed social interaction between the patients.

This is why the effect, half way through The Cobweb, of the news that Dev (in his last desperate pretence that he still wields some power) has intervened in the drapes issue and instructed the board of trustees to use Karen's rather than the patients' designs, has such a temporarily catastrophic effect. Upon hearing this news, Stevie bursts into the art room and pulls down his drawings. Caught between Meg and McIver (the coupling in relation to Stevie is significant as earlier McIver had, with pride, said to Meg that they could function as 'good parents' to Stevie by showing him 'we're different'), Stevie is persuaded to talk to McIver, who at the end of their impromptu session, is seen dictating a counter memo to Dev's, reinstating the patients' drapes. The dialogue between McIver and Stevie happens against another grey backdrop: the walls are a dull grey and offwhite, there are a couple of touches of turgid brown; against this McIver and Stevie sit, the former dressed (as always) in black, grey and white and the latter in grey top and pale slacks. If decor can convey anything, the fact that McIver and Stevie are literally in danger of melting into the background re-articulates the notion that the colourful, anti-conformist drapes would liberate the individual.

Nowhere is the psychological effect of Stevie's drapes more evident than in a scene that transpires not long after they have been reinstated. One evening, Mclver, who is on his way home, passes the clinic's art workshop and hears laughter. The temptation for Stewart is Meg, with whom, unhappy in his marriage to Karen, he is rapidly falling in love. He joins what turns out to be a screen-printing party; Meg is there, alongside a colleague preparing screen-prints for the drapes and his heavily pregnant wife. Stewart (like Cary in the comparable party scene at Mick and Alita's in All that Heaven Allows) looks, if not entirely out of place, then out of tune in his formal monochrome clothes and tie. Apart from Stewart who spends most of the scene sitting down and only half involved, the characters move animatedly around the room, their gestures are big, their voices loud and expressive; they drink wine and eat spaghetti--informal Italian food signifying here (as it always does) a love of life and the ability to have fun.

The drapes they are making up, however, are a utopian fantasy: a great idea, but more important as an idea than as a tangible reality. Sweeping across the huge expanse of tall bay window they are supposedly to adorn, far from liberating the patients' collective psyche, they would reflect back at the patients their latent insanity. It is arguably for this reason that Stevie--whose escape from the clinic and thoughts of suicide are prompted by finding Karen's drapes up in the library--is finally calmed at the end of The Cobweb not by being reunited with his own drapes but by finding himself swaddled in Karen's. Clearly, the film's saccharine ending was the result of Production Code restrictions. Although Minnelli himself refers to this only in relation to the need to impose the 'dishonest' reconciliation between Stewart and Karen Mclver, (16) he also makes this 'dishonest' ending make sense of the therapeutic power of the drapes.

Karen's drapes

Whilst the aesthetically chaotic drapes Stevie has designed would have positive therapeutic value, Karen's formal chintz drapes are strikingly more homogenous in their design. Made up using 'Chippendale Rose on Antique Satin', a stodgy but glamorous black floral design on a background of ivory, Karen's drapes are the most plausible for interior design purposes--but of course, their plausibility is far less significant than what they represent. As I have said, critics have been unkind to Karen. Rogow comments that, as Karen, Gloria Grahame 'projects all the spite and soul-smallness of the wife without suggesting her needs and fears', and Gavin Lambert can find in her character no more than narcissism and sexual discontent. (17) Grahame (whose role was reputedly going at first to be played by Lana Turner) (18) is held responsible in part for her character's superficiality, Houseman telling an amusing anecdote that explains her mannered performance. He recounts how Grahame, who had starred in and won an Oscar for Houseman and Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful, arrived on the first day of shooting on The Cobweb having had a stitch in her upper lip to 'give her the sexy, bee-stung look she wanted'. Houseman maintained that this 'latest spasm of surgical masochism ... impeded her speech and gave her an unpleasantly frozen expression'. (19) I am rather fond of Karen, and I think Grahame's hysterical performance, precipitously close as it is to insanity, is a rich embellishment. Karen's problem is that her husband Stewart no longer loves her or finds her attractive (in this, her emotional crisis is on a par with those of many of the patients). She uses the showy drapes she has selected as the ineffectual means of trying to communicate with Stewart--a pointless gesture, as both Stewart's attitude to his wife and his disinterest in design and clothes demonstrate that he is not the person to understand such a displaced dialogue.


As with both Vicky Inch's and Stevie Holte's drapes, Karen McIver's are an extension of herself. Two things tell us this early on: her predilection for ostentatious flowers and the compatibility of her own sartorial style with the fabric's chintzy sheen. These two factors converge during the first sequence in the McIvers' miserable home. Upstairs in the marital bedroom Karen bemoans the fact that her husband devotes more time to his patients than he does to his family, the lack of sexual intent being highlighted ironically through the studious disregard for the potential for sex as Stewart sits on sensuous, silken dusty pink bedspread changing his shirt while Karen sits behind him. Into this loaded exchange, Karen introduces the swatch of chintz, throwing it towards Stewart so it comes to rest on his thigh, a symbol, I've always thought, for where Karen's hand would like to be. As he becomes preoccupied with talking about the effect Karen had on Stevie when they met earlier in the day (another sexual problem between them), Karen, who tries and fails several times in the film to talk to her husband about the drapes, gives up in her attempt to introduce the subject here. Stewart goes downstairs and joins their son who is playing chess in the dining room, a room stiflingly adorned with so many displays of cut flowers that it does indeed resemble the funeral parlour Stevie joked the gladioli were for when riding with Karen at the beginning of the film. The gladioli themselves are in a vase at the bottom of the stairs. Karen, who has also been changing clothes, comes down in an ivory evening gown and wrap, whose texture and shade of satin recall the chintz swatch. After a lame attempt by Stewart at reconciliation--the fune-real gladioli lurking behind them--Karen flounces out of the door, looking as elegant and sensuous as the 'Chippendale Rose', her silken dress skimming her curves.

Karen's close identification with her drapes (the one time we see her in bed, she is under ivory satin sheets, similar to her dress and thence to the chintz) and the urgency with which she enlists the help of Regina and, ill-advisedly, the lecherous Dev to help her make them up, conveys the extent of her transference of her own emotional needs onto this interior design project. This is no doubt why critics perceived Karen to be superficial, as the manufacturing of the drapes take immediate priority over everything else, including her maternal responsibilities towards her children who are neglected by both parents throughout. To only see Karen's superficiality, however, is to misunderstand her intention, which is, from beginning to end, to salvage her marriage. This is expressed poignantly during one of their many telephone conversations as Karen says to Stewart that she wants to 'talk about us'. For this, Karen, leaning on the back of the family's grey sofa, looks uncharacteristically subdued in simple black daywear (in fact, as her reconciliation with Stewart draws nearer, Karen's costumes increasingly signal her conformity). Suddenly, Karen looks like Stewart. Maybe the intention behind this shift is to show that the Mclvers are compatible after all and to plant the seed for their eventual reconciliation, although Karen surrounded by a grey interior also likens her to the patients she thinks Stewart cares too much about. Her demureness strikes a false note and because of this, Karen's appearance here signals defeat (as a wife and a sexual being), a quality underlined only a couple of scenes later when she, in the same outfit, goes into her husband's study and discovers, by looking through the staff numbers' list, that Stewart is spending the evening with Meg Rinehart. (Once more, the distance between husband and wife is suggested by Karen having to use the phone to reach Stewart, here calling Meg's home number).

It is at this moment that Karen, in a final lunging bid to be noticed by Stewart, drags the chintz drapes out of her closet at home in order to put them up, late one evening, in the clinic's library. The 'Chippendale Rose' drapes have not only become her alter ego but also her wifely burden, a part of herself that she represses (her drapes spend most of their time secreted in a closet) and whose suppression weighs her down. Our attention is drawn to the weight of the drapes on two occasions--when they are delivered and Karen drags them into her hall closet (this should be a moment of triumph, as the scene follows on from Dev dictating his letter telling the Board that Karen's should be the drapes that are used, but Karen hides them away because she has realised that they are not going to help her get Stewart back) and when they are dragged back out of the closet just after Karen has discovered Stewart is with Meg. As her hidden alter ego they are now brought into the open, pulled angrily, purposefully from closet to car, before coming to rest in the library, where Karen unceremoniously rips down the old drapes and defiantly hangs up her own. As Karen adorns the expanse of window with an expanse of decorative chintz, she proclaims both her own presence (excessive, even crass, display often connotes in cinema a woman's attempt to stamp her personality on a scene that otherwise threatens to engulf her) and the total displacement onto the drapes of her feelings of need, loss and desperation. As previously noted, upon seeing the drapes, Stevie vanishes; then Stewart--who was the last to understand the full complexity of the drapes situation--finds that the chintz drapes are up and promptly pulls them down. Stewart's sexual rejection of Karen here is unmistakeable. The last portion of The Cobweb is taken up by the search for Stevie, during which time the chintz drapes make their mournful way back to the McIvers' house. As Stewart and Karen get back together, they return home to find Stevie, bedraggled and weak, outside their door. Stevie tells them 'I came back' (which one could gloss as 'I've come home') and they help him inside. Karen makes Stevie lie down on the sofa--which is covered with the rejected chintz drapes, but at this point he can only see the lining--and tries to feed him some warm milk; he seems to be sleeping so Karen swaddles him in the drapes, this time with the pattern clearly visible. As Stevie stirs, he spies the pattern that had previously caused him such trauma and quips 'I seem to keep running into these things'. The film's final title 'The trouble was over ...' comes up over the chintz. What is the tone of this ending? Of course one cannot help but see it as tacked on and entirely incapable of offering a plausible conclusion to the discontent that precedes it. However, it is neatly in keeping with the film's attention to the details of mise-en-scene that Stevie's cure is effected by drapes and not by analysis.

Stewart Mclver

By means of a conclusion I want finally to turn to the character of Stewart McIver, who is implicated in the drapes shenanigans but who, until the drapes battle is in full flow, has failed to understand what is going on with them. As Franco Moretti discerned, (20) there is a moment in the melodramatic narrative when the audience or reader is moved to cry; this moment is when a character, who hitherto has remained crucially ignorant about something that both audience and other characters know, reaches that same point of knowledge but only when it is too late. If 'Agnition is a "moving" device when it comes too late', (21) then it logically follows that, if it comes just in time, it has the opposite effect--of resolving a potentially tragic situation through reconciliation rather than through tears. The Cobweb is resolved through Stewart's belated involvement in the drapes situation. Until the moment when he comes face to face with Karen's swathes of chintz and angrily yanks them down off their rails, he has remained curiously detached from the business of ordering, designing and fighting over the drapes. Stewart's detachment from the complexities surrounding the drapes proves to be symptomatic of his lack of understanding about emotions and femininity, the two forces that dictate The Cobweb's plot machinations, and this ignorance finds a significant parallel in his clumsiness when it comes to romantic and familial relations. It is only after he has become immersed in the drapes problem that Stewart starts to disentangle and make amends for the multitude of things he has hitherto got wrong: he decides not to leave Karen for Meg, he admits, at the board meeting, his responsibility for Stevie's disappearance and he finally acknowledges to his son (his daughter has by this point, to all intents and purposes, vanished from the film) that for a doctor 'sometimes it's easier to take care of his patients than someone of his own'. Whilst other characters have made marked emotional and psychological progress through the film as a result of their intertwined involvement in the drapes narratives, Stewart has, until now, remained relatively stationary. Nowhere is this more evident than in his parting from Meg, set against the backdrop of the increasingly desperate search for Stevie. This exchange is complicated and ambiguous. Meg admits to having enjoyed 'playing family again' with Stewart and Stevie (her son and husband died in a car wreck) but then to 'not quite' wanting Stewart enough to prize him away from his family. Then Stewart asks her 'What should I do, Meg?' After all this (Meg's immediate soul-searching, Stevie's presumed suicide, Karen's growing hysteria) Stewart, the film's one image of hegemonic masculinity has learnt nothing, and still needs to be guided through difficult emotional terrain. Meg--manifestly the most mature character in the film--signals her disgust at such weakness when she replies 'What do you think I am?' as she recoils from Stewart and retreats to her car. Stewart ends up where he wants to be, reunited with his family and looking after Stevie. However, just as the closing title 'The trouble was over ...' that snakes across the screen fails to mask the problems that, through the course of the film, unravelled, so Stewart's reintegration into the family unit fails to repress our realisation that he has learnt little about himself, his family or the inhabitants of the clinic. Knowledge and personal development have been, throughout The Cobweb, caught up with the 'trouble' over the drapes. Stewart never fully understood this, and the film's final image--of the 'Chippendale Rose' dominating the screen--encapsulates both this and Minnelli's method.

1 John Houseman Front and Center, New York: Simon and Schuster 1979, 457-8.

2 See Stephen Harvey Directed by Vincente Minnelli, New York: Harper and Row, 1989, 217-8. In addition to Dean in the part of Stevie, MGM at first wanted Robert Taylor and Lana Turner as the Mclvers and Grace Kelly for the part of Meg Rinehart.

3 See Vincente Minnelli I Remember it Well (written with Hector Arce), New York: Doubleday, 1974, 284-5.

4 Lee Rosow 'Calling Mr McIver', Saturday Review, 16.7.1995. This review is quoted by both Houseman and Minnelli in the above.

5 Houseman, 458.

6 Geoffrey Nowell-Smith 'Minnelli and Melodrama' in Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film (ed. Christine Gledhill), London: British Film Institute, 1987, 74.

7 The last sentence of Gibson's book is far more ambiguous and reads: 'The trouble was over, the trouble was begun'.

8 See James Naremore The Films of Vincente Minnelli, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993, 2.

9 Mark Shivas 'Minnelli's Method', Movie, 1, June 1962, 17.

10 Naremore, 3; Barry Boys 'The Courtship of Eddie's Father', Movie 10, June 1963, 30.

11 Harvey, 217.

12 Ibid, 217.

13 Ibid 220.

14 Ibid 220.

15 Nowell-Smith, 73.

16 Vincente Minnelli (with Hector Arle) I Remember it Well, New York: Doubleday, 1974, 284.

17 (this is the review quoted both by producer John Houseman and Vincente Minnelli in their respective autobiographies for its positive conclusion that The Cobweb 'is one of the most rewarding films I have recently seen come out of Hollywood'). Gavin Lambert 'The Cobweb', Sight and Sound, 25:4, Spring 1956.

18 See Harvey, 217.

19 John Houseman National Film Theatre notes for 'A Tribute to Vincente Minnelli', Friday 5 Feb, 1956. The extract quoted is taken from Houseman's autobiographical volume Front and Center, but is not included in the UK version.

20 And Steve Neale expanded upon in 'Melodrama and Tears', Screen, 27:6, Nov-Dec 1986, 6-22.

21 Franco Moretti 'Kindergarten', Signs Taken For Wonders, London: Verso, 1983, 160.

Stella Bruzzi is Professor of Film Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies and New Documentary: A Critical Introduction. She is currently completing a book about the representation of fatherhood in postwar Hollywood, to be published in 2005.
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Author:Bruzzi, Stella
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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