In Romance on the High Seas, Franklin Pangborn gets sixth billing after the stars and earns it. He gets two little scenes, a couple of good lines, and makes one remember him with pleasure. It’s that talent that enabled him to make a career throughout the whole classic period out of what basically amount to bit parts; and, at a time when those things very clearly delineated a certain kind of standing in the industry, usually get very good billing for them. The film also has Eric Blore who doesn’t get much chance to shine; S.Z. Sakall who’s a complete ham but very effective with it: he gets laughs out of facial gestures and intonations when there aren’t any to be had in the lines themselves. There’s also Oscar Levant, in a large and tiresome role, doing the same schtick that I adored seeing him do when I was a child in An American in Paris but that now seems very tiresome. But ah Pangborn! His intonations and facial gestures not only succeed in getting the laughs but evoke a whole structure of understanding and feeling, then underground, but still very much with us and now everywhere visible.
His role is little more than the two very short clips I’ve excerpted below:
One of those all-star multi-strand melodramas so typical of the 1950s (Not as a Stranger, The Best of Everything, This Earth is Mine). But this one directed by Vincente Minnelli, and perhaps only he could get away with structuring all of the drama around the hanging of drapes: Mrs. McIver (Gloria Grahame) wants some chic ones from Chicago; Miss Inch (Lillian Gish) wants some practical ones, at a discount; and Doctor McIver (Richard Widmark) and Miss Rinehart (Lauren Bacall) have a project to get the patients at the psychiatric institute (Jon Kerr, Susan Strasberg, Oscar Levant etc) to design their own. Charles Boyer is Dr. Devanal, the former head, now usually too soused to do much except letch around between institute and motel room , spicing up the intrigue and thickening the plot as the drapes go up and down.
The standout performances are Grahame’s, all seething sexual frustration as the girl who every guy but her husband is hot for, and Gish who does something much deeper and complex with her performance of Miss Inch, the administrator desperate to be needed and hiding it all an aggression born out of a lifetime’s neglect.
The worst performance, and its worth mentioning because she spoiled so many 50s movies, is Bacall’s. She’s a sour, haughty and humourless presence here as in so many movies of this period (Written on the Wind) and later (Murder on the Orient Express). Here she looks great, which hasn’t always been the case when photographed in colour. But even her glossy tawny looks can’t hide a performance that is all attitude without emotion and seems composed entirely of poses.
In interviews, Bacall’s talked about how in this movie Minnelli cared only for drapes and the only thing he contributed to her performance was to move her knee from one side to the other. What she doesn’t mention is that that’s probably the best anyone could have done for her (See her performance in How to Marry a Millionnaire — at least *here* she’s photographed beautifully and looks terrific). Minnelli knew about drapes and about moving the camera and arranging people within the cinemascope frame in ways that are still tremendously exciting to watch. What Bacall accuses Minnelli of is in fact what she herself is guilty of: great surface with nothing evident underneath.
Readers interested in questions of the representation of gays and lesbians in cinema might find it interesting to know that the character played by Oscar Levant, Mr. Capp, was a homosexual fixated on his mother in William Gibson’s original novel. The Hays Office prevented the character from being so characterised in the film. Perhaps because of that, Minelli visually coded the character of Mrs. Delmuth as lesbian in what for the 1950s passed as the strongest and most clichéd terms possible: with the short hair, the men’s shirts and in jodhpurs, wearing riding boots, and later on in the film, at the woodwork shop, working at her lathe. The title of Mrs. a cover and alibi for the visual representation where dress nonetheless trumps address. I at first and tellingly thought the part of Mrs Delmuth was played by Mercedes MaCambridge, one of the most vibrant and exciting signifiers of lesbianism in 50s cinema, but I see that the role is actually played by Jarma Lewis. The confusion is, as I hope you can see below, understandable.
James Dean was originally cast as the troubled young artist but studio politics prevented the casting. John Kerr, who would subsequently be cast as the homosexual youth in Tea and Sympathy, is dull in spite of all the histrionics his character is given to perform, rather a feat.
If the film is a visual treat, the sounds are no less of an achievement: According to Laurence E. MacDonald in The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History, the score for The Cobweb is ‘basically atonal’ and is considered to be ‘the first Hollywood film score to contain a twelve-tone row. The main-title music features two elements that return throughout the score: agitated figures for strings and glissandos on the kettledrums. These elements account for much of the imapct of this score, which is understandably a difficult listening exercise for viewers’ (p. 157′)