Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Versatile master


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Vincente Minnelli (1903-86) is best remembered for directing landmark musicals, including Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958). The last two won Best Picture Oscars, and he earned the Best Director award for Gigi. He was, however, equally adept at melodramas: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Some Came Running (1958); and comedies: Father of the Bride (1951). Two of his lesser-known but fascinating films are available on DVD from Warner Archives.

The Cobweb (1955) is set in a posh mental clinic in a small town. Its new director, Dr. Stewart McGiver (Richard Widmark), advocates liberal approaches to treatment, including letting patients have a say in their care. His method differs from that of Dr. Douglas Devanal (Charles Boyer), who's distracted from work by women and drink. The hospital's controller, Miss Vicky Inch (Lillian Gish), is obsessed with keeping expenses low. McGiver's sexy wife, Karen (Gloria Grahame), resents his neglecting her and their children. Widowed occupational therapist Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) masks her loneliness through work.

The patients include Stevie (John Kerr), an unstable father-hating youth with a self-proclaimed "Oedipus Complex"; an agoraphobic teenager, Sue (Susan Strasberg); and a mother-fixated middle-aged man, Mr. Capp (Oscar Levant).

Unexpectedly, a clash over new library drapes becomes a huge power struggle, with Karen, Miss Inch, Stevie, and Meg at odds. It's a catalyst that exposes deep fissures. At times, the behavior of the staff is difficult to distinguish from that of their charges. The complex characters don't always behave well, yet are sympathetic.

Minnelli brings out the best in the talented cast. Grahame is outstanding as the frustrated wife who briefly consoles herself with Dr. Devanal. In one memorable scene, she asks her husband if he knows what their daughter said in school about who she wanted to become. "A patient!" she snaps. Widmark is effective as a failing husband and father who hopes to redeem himself. Boyer has a few hammy moments, but is generally fine as a man facing professional failure. Bacall looks terrific and is very appealing. Her scenes with Widmark are touching. Gish is tough, vitriolic, but in the end, compassionate. Kerr, fresh from his Broadway triumph as the "sensitive" prep-school boy believed to be gay in Tea and Sympathy , is sometimes over-the-top, but conveys his anguish well. Stevie's relationship with Dr. McGiver has a homoerotic undertone. Strasberg, daughter of Actors Studio guru Lee and his wife Paula, is good, as is Levant.

Minnelli's fluid camera and great color sense add to the melodrama. The vivid hues reflect exploding passions. He moves the story swiftly, with conflicts escalating throughout. The ending, though optimistic, isn't pat. Life won't be easy for any of them. The script, by John Paxton and William Gibson, from the latter's novel, is heavy with Freudian symbolism and pop psychology, but Minnelli's skillful helming masks those weaknesses.

The Reluctant Debutante (1958), set in London, is a high comedy filled with manic behavior that differs dramatically from The Cobweb. Lord Jimmy Broadbent (Rex Harrison) and his second wife Sheila (the glorious Kay Kendall) await the arrival of Jane, his American-reared daughter from his first marriage (Sandra Dee). It's "the Season," the summer months when upper-class English girls make their society "debuts" and attend formal dances hoping to attract suitable young men. Marriage is the goal. Sheila's waspish distant cousin Mabel (Angela Lansbury) has entered her plain daughter Clarissa (Diane Clare) in the marital sweepstakes. Impulsively, Sheila decides she must do the same for Jane.

To Mabel's annoyance, Jane attracts far more attention than does Clarissa. She's delighted, therefore, when the only young man Jane is drawn to is an "inappropriate" American drummer, David (John Saxon), whose band plays at the parties. Sheila is equally concerned about David's background. Complications, including mistaken identities, ensue.

Minnelli moves the action quickly, keeping things frothy and giddy. Kendall, in real life married to Harrison, was unique: simultaneously beautiful, sexy, statuesque, elegant, and a matchless comedienne equally adept at high and low humor. She dazzles, walking off with the movie. (She died in 1959, age 33, from leukemia.) Lansbury is barely a step behind, rattling off sharp dialogue at breakneck speed. Her cooing Schadenfreude over Sheila's worries about Jane is delicious. She gleefully adds to her cousin's anxieties. Harrison, a deft comic actor, is very funny: tired, harassed, trying to be a good father. Saxon (one of notorious gay Hollywood agent Henry Willson's discoveries) is handsome, charming, and appealing. Dee, only 16, is competent as the practical Jane.

Hollywood veteran Jules J. Epstein and William Douglas-Home wrote the screenplay, adapted from the latter's play. It's a witty send-up of English aristocratic rituals. The ending is charming, if implausible. Joseph Ruttenberg's color cinematography is lush, undoubtedly influenced by Minnelli's masterful camera technique. Pierre Balmain designed the spectacular, soignee costumes worn by Kendall and Lansbury. Helen Rose created Dee's ensembles. The score includes several Cole Porter tunes.

Although Minnelli never formally came out and married four times, most famously to Judy Garland, his homosexuality was no secret. He was the consummate classic studio-era director, in part because management could feign ignorance about his sexual orientation. He worked steadily through the mid-60s, but the results showed a marked decline that paralleled that of the system in which he had thrived. He regained a bit of magic guiding Barbra Streisand in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). Sadly, his final film, A Matter of Time (1976), starring daughter Liza Minnelli, Ingrid Bergman, and Boyer, was badly edited, opened to terrible reviews, and quickly disappeared from theatres. All the more reason to welcome the availability of The Cobweb and The Reluctant Debutante.

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