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"The Snake Pit" is based on a true story written by Mary Jane Ward in the hopes it would bring to the attention of the people, the horrors that a person faced in a mental institution at the time, pre-1948. The character, Virginia, was based on Miss Ward's own experience in a mental hospital. Even though the film was nominated for various Oscars, it only won for the musical score. I think that was probably because at the time mental illness was considered taboo. Olivia deHavilland acted the character of Virginia brilliantly as did everyone else in the film and Betsy Blair in her portrayal of Hester looked like she was completely and totally beyond help. Just look at her eyes. You will see what I mean. To this very day, I think it is the most haunting and most accurate of all films that have been released on the treatment of emotional disorders. I think all characters were portrayed as Mary Jane Ward wanted them to be portrayed, as I studied her book and watched the film while in high school in the early 1960's. Great book and a great film not afraid to show the abuse by certain medical personnel.
Considered brutal and scary in the day of its initial release, "The Snake
Pit" was a ground-breaking film with its look into the horrors of a mental
institution. Giving the film its vibrancy and life is the elegant Olivia De
Havilland. This fine actress goes to town in this fascinating portrait of a
young woman, Virginia Stuart, who, soon after marriage to the handsome
Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens) , descends into a world of paranoia and
insanity. He takes her to an institution, but conditions there are foreign
to Virginia. This Hollywoodization of life in a mental hospital, though
compared to reality, still packs a punch. We follow this delusional woman
as she tries to come to grips with where she is, falls in love with her
kind-hearted doctor, Mark Kirk (Leo Genn), befriends other patients, and
tries to hide out in the hospital. Celeste Holm has a minor, but welcome
role as Grace, a fellow patient who takes a liking to and protects the
What a score for the lovely De Havilland! She really gets to show her stuff in this emotional role, and got an Oscar-nomination for her efforts. And kudos to director Anatole Litvak for a wonderful, but hard-to-take visit into a woman's not-all-there mind and her institutionalized world.
The Snake Pit opened to deservedly rave reviews about the subject
matter and Olivia DeHavilland's performance. She lost that year in the
Oscar Sweepstakes to Jane Wyman's Johnny Belinda. That performance by
Wyman was also groundbreaking and probably that and the fact that
DeHavilland had won the year before for To Each His Own prevented her
from copping the big prize that year. She did get the New York Film
Critic's Award for The Snake Pit though.
Seeing her in the Snake Pit and the accolades she got must have been of great satisfaction to Olivia DeHavilland because of the fights she had to get roles other than a crinoline heroine.
In 1948 seeing stuff like electroshock was a real dose of reality to the movie going public. Today it's not used as much, back then it was new and considered a panacea for all that ails you.
I'm surprised that more reviewers haven't compared The Snake Pit to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Both were ground breaking films for their time and Jack Nicholson got his first Oscar for that. I guess the crazy act is always noticed by the Academy.
Leo Genn as Doctor "Kick" had one of the great speaking voices in the world. Besides DeHavilland, he's the best one in this. I can never tire of listening to him.
56 years later this film will still grab you and hold your attention.
Hollywood in the forties was not exactly ready to deal with subjects
such as the one depicted in "The Snake Pit". It must have taken a lot
of courage to get this project started since it dealt with a serious
problem of mental illness, something not mentioned in good company, let
alone in a film that took the viewer into the despair the protagonist
Anatole Litvak, the director, got a tremendous performance from its star Olivia de Havilland. If there was anyone to portrait Virginia Stuart Cunningham, Ms. de Havilland was the right choice for it. The actress is the main reason for watching the movie, even after all these years.
The director was responsible for the realistic way in which this drama plays on screen. The scenes in the asylum are heart wrenching, especially the electro shock treatments Virginia undergoes. At the end, the kind Dr. Kik discovers a deeply rooted problem in Virginia's mind that was the cause for what she was experiencing.
Leo Genn is the other notable presence in the film playing Dr. Kik. He makes the best out of his role and plays well against the sickly woman he has taken an interest in helping. Mark Stevens is seen as Virginia's husband, the man that stood by his wife all the time. In smaller roles we see Lee Patrick, Natalie Schafer, Leif Erickson and Celeste Holm, and Betsy Blair.
"The Snake Pit" is a document about mental illness treated with frankness by Anatole Litvak and his team.
With their June 2004 release of THE SNAKE PIT on DVD, 20th Century Fox
has added another winner to the "Studio Classics" series. Number 19 (20 if
you count F. W. Murnau's SUNRISE)proves to be another example of the strong,
dramatic material that Fox often put out under the helm of Darryl F. Zanuck
during the 1940s. GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT, ALL ABOUT EVEN, HOW GREEN WAS MY
VALLEY, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT and THE GRAPES OF WRATH are six examples of Fox
quality drama that have previously received the "Studio Classic" treatment.
THE SNAKE PIT (1948) tells the story of a young woman suffering from a nervous breakdown, her confinement in a mental institution of the day, and her struggle for recovery through the efforts of a caring doctor (Leo Genn) and loving husband (Mark Stevens). Olivia de Havilland as the mentally ill woman, gives one of the finest performances of her career. If she hadn't received the Academy Award two years previously (1946)for TO EACH HIS OWN, she most likely would have taken the 1948 Best Actress Oscar over Jane Wyman fine performance as JOHNNY BELINDA. I would say that THE SNAKE PIT along with her performance in William Wyler's (1949) film, THE HEIRESS (for which she won a second Oscar), represent the two finest performances of her entire career. Anatole Livak's strong direction brings to life an outstanding screenplay. The film was certainly worthy of the six Academy Award nominations that it received, including one for Best Picture. If you enjoy strong drama with outstanding performances, then you will want to include THE SNAKE PIT in your DVD collection.
Firstly I must say that I still find it hard to believe that Olivia de Havilland did not win the Academy Award for her performance in this film. It was a tour-de-force achievement by her in what was an extremely demanding and difficult role. As Virginia Cunningham, she had to go through many stages of depression, temporary loss of sanity, learning of her horrible environment, and gradual recovery - and each of these phases was performed with sheer brilliance and has been underrated by the critics in many cases. The supporting cast of Mark Stevens, Celeste Holm and Leo Genn were excellent but certainly were over-shadowed by the star. The scene where all the patients were at the dance, and an inmate sang "Going Home" was extremely poignant. For this film to be made at that time was a triumph for Darryl F. Zanuck.
I was in my early teens when I saw this movie and it has left an impression on me ever since. It was probably one of the best movies ever made on mental health, then or today. The actors were all great in their parts and believable. I just wish that it was possible to track down the song Going Home in the movie. This must one of the best kept secrets in the movie industry. Ever time I think of family and home I think of that song and it pulls on my heart. Everyone should see this movie because it helps understand the plight of the mentally ill.
Groundbreaking 1948 production on mental illness and its treatment in state
institutions, "The Snake Pit" maintains interest today.
Thanks to the lively direction of Anatole Litvak, good scripting, and the enormous talent of Olivia deHavilland as Virginia, this film makes an impressive statement.
Mark Stevens is always a dependable leading man, and Leo Genn a welcome addition to any dramatic scenario.
While the success of state-run institutions of the past were a decidedly mixed bag, today's situation is no improvement. It certainly pays to take charge of one's self, life a healthy lifestyle, and laugh a lot!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Year by year, the stigma of mental illness in the U.S. is easing, but
it is still with us nearly sixty years after the release of "The Snake
Pit." That a major Hollywood studio was willing to address such a
frightening and misunderstood issue in 1948 in a sensitive and
reasonably intelligent way is remarkable.
Although the film is imperfect, I think it is a fairly accurate portrayal of treatments, conditions in state mental facilities and attitudes towards mental illness in the late 1940s. What makes "The Snake Pit" work as well as it does is the truly extraordinary work of Olivia de Havilland as Virginia, and Leo Genn as the benevolent, determined Dr. Kik. Their characters have to work with what mental patients and their doctors had at the time, which was precious little. Virginia is fortunate enough to have a husband, played sensitively by Mark Stevens, who sees no shame in seeking treatment for his wife. This seems unusual for a man of that time, but he obviously loves her and he is patience personified.
Apart from months and months of confinement to a state-run hospital, Virginia's course of treatment consists of electric shock treatments (now known as electro-convulsive therapy -- this software will not allow me to call it by its initials as is standard practice in the mental health community) and "truth" serum to aid her in recovering past memories. This was a routine course of therapy for the mentally ill at the time. The two cancelled each other out, however; the primary side effect of shock treatment is loss of short term memory, and truth serum is more a product of wishful thinking than an effective therapeutic method.
Dr. Kik reduces the number of shock treatments he has scheduled for Virginia, yet one particularly sadistic nurse attempts to prep her for another, presumably to make Virginia even duller and more listless than she has already become. Making patients compliant by force and induced trauma to the brain was the extent of professional psychiatric care for decades. Psychotrophic drugs (which are true miracles) and talk therapy, which when used in tandem have given millions back their lives, were years away. Actually, by the standards of the time, the facility and staff of the hospital to which Virginia is confined are fairly humane.
The ultimate diagnosis of Virginia's illness is a classic Freudian guilt complex, arising out of events beyond her control. Armed with this facile explanation and with no further therapy available after leaving the hospital except to return should her symptoms reoccur, Virginia is reunited with her husband and sent on her way. But not before assuming the role of wounded healer in a couple of touching scenes with a catatonic patient played by Betsy Blair, that ring quite true. The penultimate scene of "The Snake Pit" takes place at a dance for the patients. It's awkward and uncomfortable to watch until a patient (Jan Clayton) takes the stage and begins singing "Going Home," a lovely spiritual the theme of which Dvorak incorporated in his "New World" symphony. Her voice trembles until she begins to listen to the words she's singing. As the entire gymnasium full of people begins to sing with her, the room begins to swell with a haunting optimism. It is a little-known but profound and inspiring movie moment.
Over the years I have seen this film many times and many times it reminds me of the old film, "Bedlam", starring Boris Karloff. However, Olivia De Havilland,(Virginia Stuart),"The Heiress",'49, gave such a great performance, I thought she should have won the Academy Award for this picture, instead, she won the award for "The Heiress". Virginia Stuart was a very confused and mixed up woman who had childhood experiences which caused her great mental blocks towards living a normal life as a wife and mother. Olivia De Havilland put her very heart and soul into this film and her acting made you feel very depressed for the horrible treatment she received from the professional staff, as well as, the lunatics where she was placed. Leo Genn, (Doctor Mark Kick),"Moby Dick",'56 gave a great supporting role to Virginia along with her husband, Mark Stevens,(Robert Cunningham),"Street With No Name",'48. This is truly a great film, however, our mental hospitals have improved greatly since 1948!
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