The Snake Pit (1948) Poster


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An unusual movie for the times of 1948.
julianhwescott19 March 2001
"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.
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jotix10022 August 2005
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 is experiencing.

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.
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....a ground-breaking film....
boy-135 July 1999
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 tame 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 confused Virginia.

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.
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A difficult subject treated & acted brilliantly.
dougandwin2 July 2004
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.
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movie making at it's best
carol61frances7 February 2004
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.
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As groundbreaking as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
bkoganbing6 July 2005
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.
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Imperfect, but far ahead of its time
ecjones195124 August 2006
Warning: 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.
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blue-73 June 2004
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.
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Landmark Film
harry-7614 March 2003
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!
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Olivia De Havilland: actress extraordinaire!
dbdumonteil4 March 2007
Anatole Litvak 's interest in madness didn't begin with "the snake pit" In one of his thirties French movies,"Coeur de Lilas" ,one sequence depicted a person gone crazy and it was already impressive.

Some will say times have changed and the hospital which Litvak depicts is a thing of the past.Sure it is.But what could he have done?Just have a look at the scenes in an insane asylum in Mankiewicz ' s "Suddenly last Summer"(1959) or those in Georges Franju's "La Tete Contre les Murs"(1960)?A decade later ,mentally ill people were still regarded as monsters.That scene in "Suddenly..." where Elizabeth Taylor accidentally ends up with the raving mad women and which is not in the original Tennessee Williams' play was certainly influenced by "the snake pit" .Some will say the Freudian methods are childish and simplistic .They are for sure.But have a look at Gregory Peck's treatment in "Spellbound" (1945) or De Havilland's in "Dark Mirror" (1946).And I love all those movies I mention.60 years on.Think of it.People will not argue when they watch a school or a prison of long ago.That's why I do not understand the "It has not worn well" which too many critics (mostly European) use when they talk about Litvak's 1948 film.

One thing which has worn well is De Havilland's performance.After being Erroll Flynn's fiancée in (excellent) movies by Walsh or Curtiz ,she tackled much more ambitious parts after the war.She was never afraid to make herself ugly

or old ("the heiress" "hold back the dawn"),she and her peer Bette Davis were actresses ahead of their time ,not just pretty faces as too many contemporary actresses are today.It's no wonder if Davis named Meryl Streep "her successor" .

In "snake pit" De Havilland's acting should be studied by future actresses .She can express everything ,and the moments when she becomes a human wreck down in a "snake pit" (the snakes might be all those arms and hands)are the most impressive.
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I'll tell you where it's gonna end, Miss Somerville... When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.
Spikeopath12 September 2013
The Snake Pit is directed by Anatole Litvak and adapted to screenplay by Frank Partos, Millen Brand and Arthur Laurents from the novel written by Mary Jane Ward. It stars Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson and Beulah Bondi. Music is by Alfred Newman and cinematography by Leo Tover.

Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Stuart Cunningham, and film chronicles Virgina's time and treatment in the Juniper Hill Mental Institution.

"It was strange, here I was among all those people, and at the same time I felt as if I were looking at them from some place far away, the whole place seemed to me like a deep hole and the people down in it like strange animals, like... like snakes, and I've been thrown into it... yes... as though... as though I were in a snake pit..."

It's still today one of the most potent and important screen explorations of mental illness and its treatment. Backed by an astonishing performance by de Havilland, Litvak and an initially sceptical Darryl F. Zanuck (20th Century Fox supremo), led the way in bringing to the masses the subject and to treat it with stark realism. Quite often it's harrowing as entertainment, with Virgina's fractured mind laid bare under duress of treatments now seen as antiquated.

It's true enough to say that some of the story features simplistic motives and means, these come as a product of the time the picture was made. But with Litvak (Sorry, Wrong Number) and his principal crew members researching the subject thoroughly, the end result is an incredible blend of dramatic heartfelt suspense and rays of humanistic hope. As Virginia weaves her way through this maze of psychological discord, with flashbacks constantly adding layers to the character's make up, Litvak presents a fascinating portrait of asylum life and the people who resided there, both as patients and staff.

Some scenes are brilliantly crafted, either as visual expansions of the story or as shards of light in a dark world. One sequence sees Litvak track "dancing" silhouettes on a wall, and to then do a pull away shot upwards to reveal Virginia in the snake pit, the impact is stark in its magnificence. Another sequence takes place at a dance for the patients, where a rendition of Antonín Dvorák's "Goin' Home" turns into something quite beautiful, a unison of profound optimism that strikes the heart like the calm after a storm.

Leo Tover's (The Day The Earth Stood Still) crisp black and white photography is perfectly in sync with the material, and Newman's (Wuthering Heights) magnificent score bounces around the institution like a spectral observer. With de Havilland doing her tour de force, it could be easy to forget the great work of Genn and Stevens, the former is a bastion of assured calmness as Dr. Mark Kik, the latter as Virgina's husband Robert underplays it to perfection and he gives us a character to root for wholesale.

It has to be viewed in the context of the era it was made, but its influence on future movies and awareness of mental health treatments in the real world should not be understated. A brilliant production that demands to be seen. 9/10
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Brilliant Olivia, Brilliant Film
Jem Odewahn2 May 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I still find it amazing that this film even got made in 1948. It was such a daring project by Fox, taking on the then-taboo (and it still now, unfortunately, is not a topic readily discussed) topic of mental illness, and the fact that it worked, and became a brilliant film, was in large part thanks to its star, Olivia de Havilland. She is amazing as the intelligent young woman, Virginia Cunningham, who finds herself in a mental asylum and doesn't know how she got there. This structure works particularly, as the film becomes a sort of jigsaw puzzle in which we slowly piece together the fragments of Virginia's life and the reasons that led her to have a nervous breakdown.

As I said earlier, de Havilland's performance is just...Wow. Look at her dilated pupils, listen to her sweet voice that could suddenly turn harsh with fear and uncertainty. She achieved an intensity in this film that few actresses could ever hope to match. I would rank this as one of the best female leading performances I have ever seen, right up there with Vivien Leigh's turn in "A Streetcar Named Desire". Bravo, Olivia! And let's not forget the rest of the cast. Leo Genn is just marvellous as Doctor Kik. He portrays a psychiatrist without the cliché of other contemporary Freudian-themed films (i.e he doesn't fall in love with his patient aka "Spellbound")- Kik is warm, but firm, caring yet never overstepping the professional boundaries, always there to speak to, but only at the institution. His scenes with de Havilland are the best in the film, as these actors played off each other so well and seemed to enjoy working together. Mark Stevens also does a fine job as de Havilland's caring husband. In a role that could have easily been forgettable, and overly sentimental, Stevens is just perfect, attractive yet solid as a rock, caring yet interesting. The roles of the patients in the asylum are meaty, scene-grabbing roles for any actress to play, and the likes of Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Celeste Holm and Betsy Blair pull them off with aplomb. Holm actually disappears from the film after a couple of scenes, presumably allowed to go home. She acts as a sort of mirror as to how de Havilland will eventually be in her treatment of the Betsy Blair character.

Litvak makes great use of the soundtrack in this film (the voice-over from de Havilland works especially well), and the shadows and camera pull-backs from the terrifying "snake pit" are very memorable, and acutely show Virginia's terror. If the film has a fault it is the flashbacks to Virginia's childhood. They are the only scenes which feel forced, simplistic and disjunct in a film that contains much flashing forward and backwards. Still, the success of the whole beats a couple of suspect scenes, and through it all we have Olivia de Havilland, brilliant in every way.
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A sympathetic and thoughtful glimpse into the experience of mental illness. Strongly endorses psychoanalytic ideas, and the centrality of the therapeutic alliance.
invisimemail22 November 2006
As a mental health worker, i appreciated the attention to detail that this film portrayed. this film depicts a woman's course from illness to wellness, and offers a Freudian perspective on the possible factors contributing to her decompensation, and her path to overcoming it. the powerful relationship between doctor and patient is emphasized, but the more subtle alliances (and battles) between peers and colleagues are touched on as well. even the struggle for resources, coming from the top down is depicted (a struggle which continues today, especially at state agencies). what i enjoyed most was that psychiatric patients are portrayed as ill (in both humorous and dismaying ways), but are not demonized.

the sensitive portrayal of Etc was also interesting (given it's current re-emergence as an incredibly useful therapy). while shown as therapeutically useful, it is shown as a technology which should be used cautiously and judiciously- a timely statement to have been made 58yrs ago!
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A Great Classic from 1948
whpratt120 January 2005
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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An Acheviement In Sociology
Jack Spencer28 August 2006
It seems when they make a film about a mental hospital, you can be sure it will be remarkable, and the lead performance will be Oscar Worthy. Yes I,m comparing the Snake Pit to One Flew Over The Cuckokos Nest again, but look at the similarities 26 years apart.

The average person spends very little time thinking about patients in mental hospitals, so a film like this, makes for fascinating viewing. And how can you lose with the Snake Pit? Miss De Havillad gives one of best performances in history. The patients themselves were harrowing. That must have taken some remarkable insight, to play the very sick ones. The treatment methods used such as cold baths, and electroshock, invite thought on the remarkable progress of psychotherapy. We are convinced men like Dr. Kik are responsible for this progress.

By and large this is one of the most important films of the 20th century. It is not only an achievement in cinema, but also in sociology.
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A far-ahead-of-it's-time gem!
bfjrnski18 February 2002
Despite it's rather misleading title "the Snake Pit" offers a rare look into the world of mental illness and it's treatment modalities.Of course the state hospital system is nearly obsolite in America today.But in 1948 it was a stark reality!This film offers a view from all angles:the confused and frightened patient,her concerned and loving husband,the dedicated and determined doctor,and the hospital system itself.With it's overcrowding population,the bars and locks,the straight-jackets and shock treatments,and even the moments of humor and humanity!This movie takes you on a journey in only 2 hours which seems like a mini-series. The central character is the young and terrified Virginia Cunningham Stuart.For reasons that are never fully revealed she has a "nervous breakdown" and becomes a patient at the local state hospital.She suffers from memory lapses,mood swings,suspicious delusions,and is very frightened!The wards in which she lives are often filled with old and chronically mentally ill women.Her concerned psychiatrist Dr."Kik" believes that Virginia can be reached and helped to face her troubles.This is accomplished via shock treatments and deep psychotherapy ( remember this was before psychotropic meds!) But the world of the state hospital and her husband's attempt to rescue her prove to be larger obstacles!But Virginia does manage to overcome those obstacles and eventually become "well" enough to return "home" ( remember this was long before half-way houses and day-treatment centers!) From the harrowing and unforgettable portrayals to the expert cinematography "the Snake Pit" remains a true gem for moviegoers of any era!!
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Harrowing Exploration of Mental Illness--De Havilland Brilliant
Neil Doyle22 March 2001
The Snake Pit will always be remembered for Olivia de Havilland's outstanding performance as the confused Virginia Cunningham of Mary Jane Ward's best-selling novel. The story depicts various stages of her illness, setbacks and all, as seen from her viewpoint.

Others in the cast register strongly--Mark Stevens as her loyal husband, Leo Genn as a compassionate doctor, Celeste Holm as her good friend (whose ultimate lapse into a straight-jacket was cut from the finished film) and Howard Freeman as an overzealous examiner. Other bits are wonderfully played--Glenn Langan, Betsy Blair, Beulah Bondi, Natalie Schaefer, Ruth Donnelly and Jacqueline DeWitt. And of course, Helen Craig as a jealous nurse in love with Dr. Kik (Leo Genn).

Under Anatole Litvak's superb direction, it emerges as the most intelligent study of insanity Hollywood has ever attempted. De Havilland received the N.Y. Film Critics Award as Best Actress but lost the Oscar to Jane Wyman of Johnny Belinda. If ever there was a year when the winner should have been a tie, it was 1948! Both actresses were superb.

Summing up: Great film is enhanced by Alfred Newman's starkly dramatic Oscar-nominated background score which adds dimension to an already engrossing story that was a brave step forward in film-making, especially during the 1940s.

Trivia note: The DVD includes some insightful, very interesting commentary by film historian and author, Aubrey Solomon. Surprisingly, though, he omits the fact that Celeste Holm's part was cut so that she only appears at the beginning of the film in a few scenes. Later on, her character (Grace) was supposed to have a relapse and a scene was cut showing her in a straight-jacket at a time when Virginia (de Havilland) was in much better shape. Reason given was that the audience had already been through enough regression with Olivia and needed no more reminders of setbacks.
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The song "Going Home" contained within
nationwideindemnity15 July 2005
I saw this movie for the first time this morning on AMC. What an outstanding movie. I'm somewhat embarrassed to confess that I have not seen or heard of this movie prior to this time. I can't wait to rent it and see it without editing or commercial interruptions.

I was so impressed that I had to find out more about the history behind the movie. In the process of doing so, I read the reviews and noticed quite a few comments about the poignant song in the movie and referred to as "Going Home".

As I was listening to the song, I knew I heard it somewhere before.

It's on the CD "Beyond Imagination" by "Opera Babes" under the title, "There's a Place". I bought this CD last year at Wal-Mart; hopefully, it's still available.
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virob11 January 2003
The beginning of this movie has Virginia Cunningham sitting on bench but her not knowing where she is. She soon finds out that she is in a mental hospital. She doesn't know why she's there. She doesn't even know her husband when he appears. The only allegiance she can form is with Dr.Kik,who she trusts. This is a time when mental patients were treated horribly. May 6th seems to be the underlying problem with her mental condition. Everyone she lost seems to revolve around this date, and on the out side, she gets completely paranoid when she knows this date is coming. Through Dr. Kik's compassion and shock treatments & psychotherapy, she gets to understand why she became ill. But,that's the beginning and end of the picture. What happens in the middle(all contained in the hospital) is a memorable performance given by Olvia DeHavilland, the treatment she gets, the other patients, the nurses,the darkness of the hospital all add up to, I think one of the best movies made.
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Olivia Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
wes-connors17 May 2013
In a beautiful and serene park setting, disheveled Olivia de Havilland (as Virginia Stuart) sits on a bench talking to herself. As it turns out, she is a 24-year-old mental patient. Believing she is in a prison, Ms. De Havilland does not recognize loving husband Mark Stevens (as Robert Cunningham). In a flashback, he begins to tell de Havilland's story. Later, she is able to elaborate events for kindly doctor Leo Genn (as Mark Kik). Unhappy events from de Havilland's childhood could provide a clue to the origin of her mental problems and put her on the road to recovery...

This film was considered shocking for revealing the despicable conditions mental patients suffered in institutions. There is a prison-like environment and the soundtrack music horrifically pounds while de Havilland receives electro-shock treatment. Other than that, the conditions are relatively good. De Havilland receives excellent care from "Doctor Kik" and the facility is spacious and well-maintained. The staff is commendable but for exacting nurse Helen Craig (as Miss Davis), who delivers exceptionally in one of the film's many small supporting roles. There are dozens of others...

If extras could still participate in "Academy Award" voting, Anatole Litvak's "The Snake Pit" might have won more than one of its six nominations. Still, de Havilland's remarkable work won her several of filmdom's most respected 1948 "Best Actress" honors, including the "New York Film Critics" and "National Board of Review" awards. Generally remembered for lighter, more secondary roles in the 1930s, de Havilland would follow-up with a most stunning performance in "The Heiress" (1949). Her acting in the 1940s made de Havilland one of the decade's finest dramatic actresses.

******** The Snake Pit (11/4/48) Anatole Litvak ~ Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Helen Craig
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Mental Illness
gavin694215 March 2013
Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) finds herself in a state insane asylum... and cannot remember how she got there. In flashback, her husband Robert relates their courtship, marriage, and her developing symptoms.

Stephen King says this film terrified him as a child, because he felt that he could go crazy at any moment (and worst of all, not even be aware that he was crazy). And, indeed, there is something terrifying about this film. While many films have taken place in mental hospital, I think very few really address how normal most mentally ill people are most of the time, or the fine balance between sane and insane.

I do not know much about Olivia de Havilland, but she really pulled all the stops here. If she is capable of this level of intensity, she probably should have been a bigger star than she was.
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Olivia enters the vortex
blanche-22 July 2006
Olivia DeHavilland gives another standout performance in "The Snake Pit," also starring Leo Genn, Mark Stevens, and Celeste Holm. In line with the interest in psychiatry after World War II, Darryl F. Zanuck, always at the forefront of social issues, produced this film, directed by Anatole Litvak.

DeHavilland plays a troubled, often disoriented woman with unexplained mood swings who winds up in a state mental hospital with no memory of her new husband (Mark Stevens). She becomes a patient of Dr. Kik (Genn) who patiently works with her to try and get to the core of her problem, and to do so, employs several rounds of electroshock therapy. Together they uncover suppressed memories.

One thing that's noticeable about the films of the golden age is their mastery of the art of the build-up, while today, screenwriters get to the point in the first 10 minutes of the film. "The Snake Pit" is very modern in this way, starting on a high note and working backwards into what brought this woman into the hospital. Given the story, it's very effective. It also keeps you guessing because the conditions at the mental institution, as well as the behavior of some of the staff and the patients makes one suspect something sinister is going on - kind of a "Shock Treatment" scenario. It takes a while to realize that Dr. Kik is on the level, a concerned and committed doctor.

The film is beautifully done, and who can forget the overhead "snake pit" shot toward the end of the film. The song "Going Home" sung by one of the patients at a dance is one of the best moments, as are the harrowing scenes of the electroshock therapy and the bath with the covering over it that DeHavilland is put into - the feeling of being trapped and having no control is pervasive throughout the film. With the advancement in medications today, one aches for the characters, trapped in illnesses often not understood or treatable.

Olivia DeHavilland is sympathetic and heart-wrenching as Virginia, a woman panicked by behavior she can't recall or can't control. When backed up against the wall, her voice changes and becomes harsh; she almost seems like a split personality. One believes every second of her torment. Leo Genn strikes the exact right note as Dr. Kik, a perfect combination of gentleness, concern, and professionalism. His scene at the dance and his final scene with DeHavilland are very touching and especially the last moments bring me to tears. Mark Stevens gives a sensitive performance as Virginia's handsome and loving husband who is loyal to her throughout her ordeal.

There has been much progress in mental disease and removal of much of the stigma. "The Snake Pit" reminds one of a more primitive time. Wonderful performances, direction, and a good story make this a true classic.
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Extraordinary performance by Olivia de Havilland…intelligently directed by Anatole Litvak…
Peter Andres21 November 2006
Being the first Hollywood film to deal with the difficult subject matter of the treatments of mental illnesses, THE SNAKE PIT is a milestone—both in cinematic and in medical history. In fact, the film was so influential that it caused a change in the administration of such hospitals in 26 different American states. Gone is the sugarcoated, glamorized treatment of mental illnesses in previous films like RANDOM HARVEST (1942) and SPELLBOUND (1945)—here we see the nightmarish, disturbing experiences of such a place as told by Olivia de Havilland, starring as a guilt-ridden mental patient.

Olivia de Havilland offers a superb performance here, proving that she is undoubtedly one of the greatest cinematic actresses of all time. Her Oscar-nominated portrayal of patient Virginia Cunningham (nee Stuart) is one of the most poignant and sympathetic performances I've ever seen—her gradual transition from insane to ultimately sane is completely believable here. As in THE HEIRESS (1949), Olivia sacrifices her beauty from such films like CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935) and DODGE CITY (1940) to give way to haggard, drawn eyes to reflect the anguish and unhappiness that Virginia has experienced throughout the months. I can't praise her performance highly enough, so I can't find any more words to comment on her performance. But I should leave room for the other performers—including Leo Genn as a gentle doctor and Mark Stevens as Virginia's patient, loving husband—who are also excellent in their roles.

As with the other masterpiece ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975), this is not exactly an easy film for some to watch—but the film is so intelligently and sensitively directed by Anatole Litvak that it's really a fascinating film. The black-and-white cinematography, by Leo Tover (who also did THE HEIRESS), is astonishing. The editing, by Dorothy Spencer, is also first-rate and imaginative. Litvak was a master in these two departments—watch SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948) and you'll see what I mean.

My complaints are minor: as much as I love Alfred Newman's other works as a film composer, I felt that his music score here was not as effective as I hoped it would be—just too melodramatic for my tastes. I felt the same when Miklos Rozsa, another favorite of mine, decided to use melodramatic music for another groundbreaking 1940s film, THE LOST WEEKEND (1945). For me, it just doesn't work to combine theatrical music in a realistic film. My second and last complaint is Virginia's childhood flashback sequence—it would've worked better if it were only a monologue, in my opinion, so that we could get an even better taste of Ms. de Havilland's incomparable acting skills.

One minor thing that really appealed to me was the use of classical music throughout the film—in the opening flashback scenes we hear the overture to Wagner's "Tanhausser" and an excerpt of Brahms' Symphony No. 1. Chopin's "Minute Waltz" makes an appearance here, too. Near the end of the film we experience a poignant rendition of the second movement of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, here sung as "Going Home." Seeing the emotion on Virginia's face, as well as on the faces of the other inmates, in that scene is unforgettable.

All in all, this is a groundbreaking cinematic testament of a difficult subject matter and how someone experienced and ultimately survived through such a thing.
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More than meets the eye
icblue0222 July 2006
Warning: Spoilers
After a two year hiatus from films, embroiled in a court battle against Warner Brothers that would aid in the dismantling of the studio system in Hollywood, Olivia de Havilland returned to the big screen with a vengeance. Her first major success was TO EACH HIS OWN, which earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress of 1946. She would later earn another Best Actress Oscar for THE HEIRESS (1949). In between those two wins came another victory, on screen if not with the Academy.

Much has been said on this site about the basic plot line of THE SNAKE PIT (1948). Other users have already provided several synopses, so I will assume that anyone reading this will know the basic plot points: a woman is in a state mental hospital, and she isn't quite sure why she is there. Really, that's just the jumping off point for this film.

As many other users have already mentioned, Olivia de Havilland is brilliant in the role of Virginia Stuart Cunningham, a woman grappling to come to terms with her situation in the proverbial "snake pit" of the state hospital system in 1940s America. The role of Virginia could have become a farce in the hands of a less-skilled performer, but de Havilland's sensitivity and intelligence aided her tremendously in this rendering. For instance, there are some scenes where Virginia's mood and emotions change several times in a matter of seconds. There are a couple of instances where these mood swings can come off as a little overdone, but in a role that could have easily become a stereotypical presentation of a mentally unstable woman, de Havilland's performance works. Her gift for creating a likable, sympathetic character (coupled with well-written, largely internalized dialogue) make de Havilland's performance more successful than not.

Cinematically, the true achievement of this film is that nothing is wasted in it. Every line and every scene has a purpose and is executed to near perfection. Each supporting character (the cast is rather large, with actors playing the parts of patients in the overcrowded hospital wards) has a very clear identity that is made known to the viewer. It is quite possible to walk away from this film wanting to know more about the lives and stories of the other women in the facility: What exactly happened to Miss Somerville? Why does the dancing girl dance around? What is the background of the woman who is rattling off legal jargon and trying to clear her name? While most films of this subject matter would glaze over the "extras," this one takes the time to make you feel like they are more than, well, snakes in some bottomless pit. They are there, and in a sense, they have as much purpose in telling the bigger story than the major characters in the film.

This film, as well as Mary Jane Ward's bestselling novel on which it is based, sets out to expose the public to the behind-the-scenes aspects of state mental facilities and treatment at the time. While production codes and censors would not allow all of the truths of the system to be exposed, what could be shown was shocking, especially by 1948 standards. This film was able to affect change within the system, and it helped start a dialogue about those who were being lost in the system.

On the very basic level, this is a compelling psychological drama. It has a main character with whom the viewer can sympathize / empathize, and there are other riveting characters who can elicit laughter and tears from the viewer. On a whole different level, however, this film is a true classic. It is well-done cinematically and has proved to be influential in the social arena. When a film can have a social conscience and still be so personal, it's really hard to go wrong.
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Disturbing look at psychotherapy and shattered lives awaiting a cure
Warning: Spoilers
Anatole Litvak's "The Snake Pit" charts the atypical view of psychoanalysis prevalent in most classic films – a.k.a - everything is linked to one's childhood trauma, repression and guilt. That shortcoming aside, "The Snake Pit" is a stark, often disturbing, melodrama about life inside a mental asylum. It charts the dementia of Virginia (Olivia de Havilland), a woman suffering from an emerging psychosis. De Havilland certainly delivers a stellar and shockingly dramatic performance in this apocalyptic vision of insanity under horrendous conditions. Leo Genn plays the sympathetic psychiatrist to whom Virginia's mental health is entrusted. Although it is through his care and patience that Virginia's psychosis is finally laid to rest, the film remains a sobering and critical view of the inner mental anguish that, more often than not, is incurable and debilitating.

THE TRANSFER: Troublesome. The gray scale is presented at a well balanced level. Blacks are generally solid. But age related artifacts are sometimes glaringly present. Film grain, as well as edge enhancement and pixelization are present for an image quality that is rarely smooth and only moderately easy on the eyes. The audio has been cleaned up and is nicely presented.

EXTRAS: Fox Studio Line is about as skimpy on extras as is the rest of their output of classic films on DVD. One wonders why the distinction is made between "Studio" titles and just regular releases. Here we get a sparse audio commentary, some stills and theatrical trailers. Big deal!

Bottom Line: I recommend this film for its performances. The DVD is not up to reference quality or anywhere near what it should be looking like.
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