The Snake Pit (1948) Poster


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  • 24-year-old Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) suffers a 'nervous breakdown' and is institutionalized at Juniper Hill State Hospital where she is a 'special patient' of Dr Mark 'Kik' Van Kenoelaerik (Leo Genn). The movie details Virginia's fight from mental illness back to sanity.

  • The movie is based on The Snake Pit (1946), a novel by American writer Mary Jane Ward, who based the story on her own experiences as a patient at Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York. The book was adapted for the movie by American screenwriters Millen Brand, Frank Partos, and Arthur Laurents.

  • Toward the end of the movie, Virginia explains the meaning of the title when she tells Dr Kik that long ago they used to lower insane people into pits full of snakes, perhaps thinking that something which might drive a normal person insane might actually shock an insane person back into sanity. Mental hospitals were sometimes referred to as 'snake pits' because they were often seen as chaotic places marked by squalor and inhumane or indifferent care for the patients. At one point during her hospitalization, Virginia has the feeling of being thrown into a snake pit and wondering whether she was as sick as the other patients.

  • It's a slow version of 'Valse Minuet' (the 'Minute Waltz' in D Flat Major, Op. 64 No. 1) by Polish composer Frédéric Chopin [1810 - 1849].

  • As barbaric as it may seem, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) does work, particularly in cases of severe depression. ECT works by stimulating the brain, releasing the same types of neurotransmitters that are released when a patient takes antidepressant medication. ECT is still used nowadays, usually on patients who don't respond to medication or who need immediate treatment. However, patients are now anesthetized and given drugs that prevent them from undergoing convulsions. ECT is a far less barbaric and frightening procedure than it was in the 1940s and 50s.

  • Dr Kik was attempting to use psychoanalysis rather than conventional (1940s) treatment for her mental illness. For example, he employed ECT just long enough to bring her out of her deep state of depression so that he could 'make contact' with her, then helped her to verbalize her thoughts in an attempt to bring unconscious material to a conscious level so as to create insights that might help her resolve her psychological problems.

  • The female patients and the male patients are marched separately into the dance hall and made to sit on opposite sides of the room while the announcer explains the dancing with any one person more than three times, no jitterbugging, and no cheek-to-cheek stuff. Virginia is asked to dance by one old gent but makes it clear after the first dance that she would rather sit with her nonspeaking friend Hester (Betsy Blair). They are joined by Dr Kik, but the old gent asks Virginia to dance again. She tells him that she has already promised the dance to someone else and winds up dancing with Dr Kik. After making small talk like normal people do, Dr Kik informs Virginia that she's going to Staff again. The patients are then all encouraged to join in singing a poignant song about "I Am Going Home." Virginia wonders, "Am I going home?" The next day, the Staff meeting goes well. The doctors ask Virginia only one question about whether she is now aware of the origin of her illness. Virginia replies, I'd have to be a doctor to put it into the right words, but I'm sure it wasn't because of any one thing. It was a lot of things, and it started when I was a child. I don't know yet everything that caused it, but I do know that I'll be able to see life and myself differently than before I came here. As Virginia prepares to leave the hospital, the other patients say their goodbyes. Virginia says a special goodbye to Hester, who speaks for the first time, saying, "Goodbye Virginia." Dr Kik says his goodbye and reminds Virginia that he'll be there if ever she wants to talk with him. Virginia tells him that there's another reason why she knows that she's getting better. "I'm not in love with you anymore", she reveals. "You never really were", he replies. In the final scene, Virginia meets Robert (Mark Stevens) at the door. He puts her wedding ring back on her finger, and they board the Juniper Hill State Hospital bus for the trip home.

  • Two other movies set in the mid-20th century, when mental hospitals were still considered 'snake pits' and when psychoanalysis, as opposed to ECT and psychosurgery, was just emerging as a viable treatment, include Shutter Island (2010) (2010) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) (1975).


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