The Subject Was Curtains; or, Going Ape With the Drape

I swear, if I ever see another curtain in a movie, I’ll scream.

There aren’t many films made about such a fabric-fraught subject, for which I look to the heavens and thank a merciful God; but The Cobweb more than makes up for such a cinematic lack.  Released by MGM in 1955, glossed up in Cinemascope, Eastman Color, and 4-Track Stereo, with an all-star cast (Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish, Oscar Levant), and directed by Vincente Minnelli, it was a High-Caliber Production, its trailer promising to reveal the “Forbidden World of Private Emotions” as its “bares the Secrets of a Psychiatric Couch” onscreen.

Yet the film’s one takeaway is how all its doctors, staff, and patients have nothing better to do than discuss, argue, bicker, confer, discourse, and thrash out the one overwhelming question that consumes them, night and day.  And that is:  Which set of curtains should hang in the institutional library?

Lemme take a deep breath here and give you a precis of the movie’s Great Drape Debate.  It seems the library of a pricey institute treating “nervous disorders” (dubbed, with not too subtle irony, the “Castle”), needs a new set of curtains.  Who’s to decide what drapes to drape?  Everyone, apparently.  And I mean, EVERY body in the story with a beating pulse.  Patients, doctors, nurses, office staff, board members, even spouses of all the above, are involved.  I’ve no doubt the milkman, mailman, dog walker, and the fellow in charge of valet parking would also have been consulted, had such characters appeared.  That still leaves about twenty-eight people weighing in noisily on what color, pattern, type, and price of fabric should or should not be tacked onto the library windows for all and sundry to gaze on.

Interested factions haggling over which hangings to hang include:  The patients, who think they should choose being they’re the ones baring their secrets on the couch (which at least doesn’t need a new slip cover); head clinician Widmark and occupational therapist Bacall, who, for therapeutic reasons, opt for the cheekily chic designs of their most obnoxious patient, morose young artist John Kerr; Widmark’s neglected wife Grahame, who, in what seems as a compensatory outlet for her frustrations, thinks a striking black-white-and-rose pattern will dress up those windows nicely; and the clinic’s former head doctor and resident roué, Dr. Boyer, whose own draping ideas seem based less on snazzing up the study and more on how Grahame herself can dress up a dress…

Meanwhile—what, you thought I was finished?—budget-conscious administrator Lillian Gish takes the curtain by the cord and orders, for the hanging, several bolts of cheap cotton that only an auditor could love; while, in other news, Widmark wanders away from his wife for Bacall, Bacall burns with bliss for Widmark, and Kerr throws a hissy fit whenever he doesn’t get his way (every ten minutes, I calculate).  Observing this cloth crisis from the bleachers is wisecracking patient and Greek Chorus Levant, who, playing a guy named Capp, caps this textile trauma by enacting some trauma of his own when reclining in a hydrotherapy bath (that this scene is not the picture’s nuttiest may give you a sense of what the rest of the movie is like):

Never did venetian blinds look so good.

The film is based on an entertaining potboiler by William Gibson (considered scandalous in its day), in which the Curtain Controversy becomes a metaphorical prism, refracting and splitting open the underlying obsessions and conflicts between doctors, administrators, and patients.  It’s a plot hook by which the novel examines the nervous disorders within the institute as a whole.  In a (huge) stretch, you might think of the curtains as akin to Moby-Dick’s White Whale, in which a singular fixation reveals a narrative network of meaning, symbol, and characterization.  Just…not on the same scale as in Melville’s masterpiece.  I suppose it’s because curtains are not in the same league as a berserk whale.

Except when MGM goes and makes a $2-million film out of the book.  Because if ever a movie went on a Cetacean rampage about a mere set of drapes, this movie is it.

Who dunnit?  Not Gibson, I think.  He’s credited in the film with only “additional dialogue” (John Paxton is credited with the screenplay).  Novelists are the Rodney Dangerfields of Hollywood, and I doubt if Gibson was responsible for blowing up his book to Ahabian levels of monomania.  I suspect for our author it was a case of adding a few lines, then taking the money ($40,000 per his obituary) and running very fast.  I hope Gibson spent his nice paycheck on some nice wall hangings.

No, I must point to MGM for this.  And to the director.  In his autobiography Minnelli admits he had “fallen so in love with some of the [film’s] sequences” that, in spite of its then-two-and-half hour running time, he balked at cutting it.  However, the producer, John Houseman, thought the film both commercially and artistically too long and demanded a “more manageable size.”  In his own book, Houseman recalled that, after he edited the film, Minnelli “made a violent, lachrymose scene in the projection room” and accused Houseman of treachery.  When Houseman offered Minnelli the chance to recut it, the latter refused.  It may be no wonder Houseman recalled his time making the film as “not an entirely happy one”; although the end result, Minnelli concluded, was “a respectable effort.”

Reading beneath the bland prose, I sense the film may have become something of Minnelli’s own White Whale, channeling his own fixations and obsessions.  The film’s lavish, widescreen design alone is stupefying—there’s so much drapery on display that it grabs your attention more than do the characters.  And no one could mix color, shape, and composition onscreen as gorgeously as did Minnelli.  A scene in Widmark’s kitchen held me agog with its baby-pink dining nook, the seating curved like an embracing arm around a circular table; so taken was I with it that I ignored the scene itself, between the doctor and his son.  Minnelli and crew may not have been sound on curtains, but when it comes to kitchens they could take a whack at designing mine anytime.

The overall effect of the film’s curtain compulsion is that it dominates not only its set design but its story and character development.  I found myself transfixed in almost every scene by the curtains hanging in them.  What did these other drapes in these other rooms say about these people?  Note the (vaguely plaid, very tacky) curtains in the hotel where over-the-hill playboy Boyer has set up a midnight rendezvous with his bosomy blonde secretary.  Surely those tatty textiles say as much about his character as any number of such trysts?  And what of those drab drapes in Widmark’s office—no doubt accounting for his glum attitude towards his patients (and maybe for Widmark’s equally glum performance)—or those in Bacall’s apartment, accessorizing her own trysts with Widmark; do they not predict, more accurately than any narrative foreshadowing, the dribbling out of their affair?

It wasn’t just literal jalousies that sparked such thoughts, either.  Have other viewers noticed those baggy coverings drooping from Gish’s small frame in all her scenes, as if she herself were clad in a set of old, unpressed curtains?  All you need to know about her character hangs right from her own shoulders.  They only lack a curtain rod to make it explicit.

I admit, it didn’t take long for everything in the film to start coming up curtains…

I don’t wish to sound (entirely) snarky.  Minnelli could use his widescreen interiors with psychological acuity.  He doesn’t rely on close-ups in this film; his shots have depth and motion; and he uses space within the frame expressively.  His backgrounds will show discreet character touches, such as Levant dozing during a patient committee meeting.  Or he can inject something odd, unexplained, but fascinating:  In a scene of Grahame conversing with Boyer in a public lobby, a passing blonde glares at the two.  Who is this woman, I thought, why is she scowling?  Is she a meant as a warning or comment on the growing intimacy between the pair?  She’s never explained, but her presence tantalizes, a short, self-contained drama all its own.  With no drapes needed.  Surely an instance of when Less is More.

The Cobweb, unsurprisingly, flopped on release, barely making back its production costs.  It’s pretty much a camp-cult item today, no doubt due to its flamboyance, its excesses and manias, matching those in the plot (“Buy Venetian blinds and have done with it,” suggested one preview card after an initial screening).  Houseman felt the story’s central turmoil (in both novel and film) “was never entirely credible nor dramatically viable,” and he has a point.  The drape debate does seem tacked on, as it were; you don’t sense it needs to be there.  Some other hothouse issue might have equally served as a stand-in for the White Whale.  Oscar himself, in a fraught moment, lists several: “The futility, the emptiness, the hydrogen bomb,” he moans from the depths of his tranquilizing bath.  So true, I murmured in assent, so true—life’s a bitch and then you die.

Just make sure you get some nice curtains to hang at the funeral.

Bonus Clip: Leave it to Monty Python to have the final word on Curtains:


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