The Cobweb (1955)
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Writers: John Paxton (screenplay) William Gibson (additional dialogue)
Marks the return of Lillian Gish to MGM after a 22-year absence.
With barely a pause, Lillian went to work in yet another picture, this time at her old studio, M-G-M. That her stock had risen is clear in the appearance of her name, occupying an entire screen, above the title of The Cobweb, albeit the last after the more important actors, Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, and Gloria Grahame. Vincente Minnelli directed this high-powered cast that included newcomers John Kerr and Susan Strasberg, in the story of doctors, staff, and patients in the Castle House Clinic for Nervous Disorders.
Described in the script as “a woman in her fifties, thin and fierce,” Lillian plays Victoria Inch’s ferocity to the hilt in a one-note performance whose overwrought mode is shared by a number of other actors, including Grahame and Widmark. The screen time allotted to the officious Miss Inch is limited, but Lillian makes a strong impression nonetheless with pursed lips, rapid-fire line deliveries, purposeful gait, and nearly unrelieved anger. This impatient, nasty spinster was exceptional for Lillian and might have given a new direction to her movie career. At last permitted to doff her angelic halo, this was her first unsympathetic role. It led, however, to no others, and in fact, three years passed before she was again engaged for the movies.
Lillian was, however, considered for a number of important roles in the 1950s. For Cary Grant’s French grandmother in An Affair to Remember, director Leo McCarey said he preferred someone with a strong foreign accent and then, unaccountably, chose an Englishwoman, Cathleen Nesbitt, who had to fake one. William Wyler discussed Lillian for the mother of Ben-Hur. Director Peter Glenville suggested a St. Teresa of Avila project, with Frank Sinatra as St. John of the Cross. Her new agent, Lucy Kroll, pitched her for the role of Rita Hayworth’s mother in Clifford Odets’s The Story on Page One, and later, as one of John Ford’s 7 Women, both of which were excellent opportunities that went to other actresses. (Charles Affron)
Producer and friend John Houseman (who always maintained that Hollywood never used Lillian’s talents correctly since the demise of the silent film era) put forth Lillian’s name for the role of Victoria Inch, an autocratic hospital administrator, in MGM’s The Cobweb, a dramatic film based on playwright William Gibson’s first and only novel (inspired by his wife’s long stay working with the Menninger Clinic staff). The studio acquired the rights for $54,000 after the book’s 1954 publication. Big plans were made to utilize color and the Cinemascope process for this non -musical. Directing this ambitious all-star film, whose cast would include (in addition to Lillian) Richard Widmark, Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, and Broadway newcomer John Kerr, was veteran Vincent Minnelli. Houseman’s previous suggestion to utilize Lillian in Miss Susie Slagle’s (produced at Paramount in 1945) resulted in a pleasant enough programmer, but it failed to eradicate Lillian’s Griffith/ice floe image and make her an American Mrs. Chips. Filming The Cobweb would begin in early December and would last for approximately seven weeks. Set on the grounds of The Castle, a private psychiatric hospital based on the Austin Riggs Center in the Berkshires, The Cobweb was a “Grand Hotel in a loony bin,” where the patients were encouraged to pursue their individual creative dispositions, and were of sounder minds than the doctors and other members of the administrative staff.
The film’s drama centered on two dallying head doctors (Richard Widmark and Lauren Bacall) and the problems of choosing suitable new drapes for the library. Indeed, the disturbed were looking after the disturbed.
The Cobweb, Lillian would tell Anita Loos, was her “comeback” to the studio where she had last worked in 1928 and, by mutual agreement, had terminated her contract at the end of the silent era. That she was returning, almost three decades later, represented a personal victory. She had triumphed over the then reigning executives who thought her box-office appeal could be increased if a studio arranged scandal could coincide with the releases of The Enemy and The Wind, which didn’t receive good reviews. Metro Goldwyn Mayer wasn’t the same studio in 1954 that it had been in 1928. True, it still occupied 167 acres in Culver City, and still had executive buildings, star bungalows, a private zoo, schoolhouse, hospital, and park, but the era had changed. After Lillian had gone, they had lost Garbo. Thalberg had died. And Louis B. Mayer, the last of the old guard, would soon be deemed useless, and phased out.
Lillian was over 60. Her return brought no fanfare (such as there had been when she had begun her first employment at the studio in King Vidor’s La Boheme in 1926). Hollywood had changed, and her Hollywood had especially changed. She wouldn’t have script approval. She wouldn’t have cast approval. She wouldn’t have director approval. In 1954 she was just another studio player, which she had been at the time she began working for Griffith at Biograph in 1912. Now she was an older studio player. Her career had come full circle.
She smiled at the new younger executives who would be sitting and watching her dailies. Would they know who she was? It was a new regime, but she would always be the professional. If neither studio would send any pre-release publicity to the newspapers, she would create her own. In this instance she would be the product. (Stuart Oderman)
The Cobweb (1955)
- Director: Vincente Minnelli
- Writers: John Paxton (screenplay) William Gibson (additional dialogue)
- Richard Widmark … Dr. Stewart ‘Mac’ McIver
- Lauren Bacall … Meg Faversen Rinehart
- Charles Boyer … Dr. Douglas N. Devanal
- Gloria Grahame … Karen McIver
- Lillian Gish … Victoria Inch
- John Kerr … Steven W. Holte
- Susan Strasberg … Sue Brett
- Oscar Levant … Mr. Capp
- Paul Stewart … Dr. Otto Wolff
- Jarma Lewis … Lois Y. Demuth
- Adele Jergens … Miss Cobb
- Edgar Stehli … Mr. Holcomb
- Sandy Descher … Rosemary McIver
- Bert Freed … Abe Irwin
- Mabel Albertson … Regina Mitchell-Smyth