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The Snake Pit
Remind Me
The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit

In the late 1940s, 20th Century Fox produced several dramas dealing with social issues, including Pinky (1949), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and The Snake Pit (1948). The post-World-War-II era saw a spike in this type of drama, dubbed the "problem picture" in promotion and publicity, in which an urgent social issue such as racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, juvenile delinquency, or alcoholism was dramatized in a high-profile production with major stars. Generally, the basis for the script was a novel of some renown. The problem picture was Hollywood's attempt to deal with serious subject matter, something many moguls and producers claimed they strived to do at their studios. This subgenre garnered prestige for studio heads and producers, though they preferred not to court controversy in the process.

The Snake Pit was adapted from a best-selling novel by Mary Jane Ward, who had been confined to a state mental hospital for over eight months. The novel was not intended as an autobiography, but Ward's experiences at a state mental institution did form the basis for the events in the novel while many of the characters were composites of the doctors and patients she had met during her confinement. The book landed in director Anatole Litvak's lap when his friend, publisher Bennett Cerf of Random House, sent him a set of galleys during the editorial process. Litvak, an independent director, purchased the rights in 1946 and had the story turned into a script. He persuaded Olivia de Havilland to take on the role of protagonist Virginia Cunningham, a young wife suffering from a nervous breakdown and resultant memory loss. He began shopping the project to the major studios, which were not particularly enthusiastic about the grim subject matter.

Despite a few initial reservations, studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox finally agreed to finance, produce, and distribute The Snake Pit . In the late 1940s, the treatment of mental patients at state facilities had become the topic of the moment when Albert Deutsch published The Shame of the States, a re-evaluation of the tragedy of insanity and an exposé of the dire conditions at many state hospitals. Deutsch's findings were then syndicated in a series of newspaper articles. The topicality of mental illness probably appealed to Zanuck, who, as a producer at Warner Bros. during the 1930s, liked to mine the pages of the newspapers for subject matter for his films.

While the film was in production, Ward's book was published to much acclaim. Professionals in the mental health field praised the book for exposing the conditions in state hospitals, heaping more attention on the need for reform. The Snake Pit was selected for the book-of-the-month club, translated into several languages, excerpted in Harpers Bizarre magazine, and condensed in Reader's Digest. Everyone associated with the production of the film--from Zanuck to Litvak (who was directing and coproducing) to writers Millen Brand and Frank Partos to star Olivia de Havilland--realized that The Snake Pit was a very prestigious production and that the key to the film's success would be authenticity.

To ensure their goal of authenticity, writers Brand and Partos and director Litvak observed a variety of mental patients. The writers then asked several prominent psychoanalysts to draw up a Freudian interpretation of the protagonist, her symptoms, and her course of treatment as though she were one of their patients. De Havilland visited state mental hospitals on both coasts and then consulted about a dozen psychiatrists to help her understand the external signs and symptoms of her character's mental illness. Even the extras in the famous snake pit scene were required to observe institutionalized psychotics. Zanuck wanted the promotion and publicity to emphasize that The Snake Pit was "the first authentic film study of a mental case and a mental hospital," so articles, interviews, and promotional materials recounted the meticulous research done by the cast and creative team.

Prior to The Snake Pit, insanity in the movies was most often treated as a plot device. It was generally romanticized as a byproduct of tragic love or made the butt of jokes in comedies. Young women driven insane by passion or by unrequited love were often ethereally beautiful as in I Walked with a Zombie (1943); old ladies who were touched in the head could be sweetly eccentric as in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). The Snake Pit's claims of authenticity must be judged within that context and not in comparison to real-life case studies. The film's strengths are its outward representations of insanity and its visualization of the main character's nervous breakdown, in addition to the depictions of the typical treatments available at state hospitals in the post-WWII era, including cold-water therapy and shock treatment. However, the film's efforts to interpret the process of psychoanalysis are oversimplified and any explanation for the reasons behind the main character's breakdown is too pat.

The story revolves around Virginia Cunningham, a talented young writer who is committed to the Juniper Hill State Hospital by her husband Robert (Mark Stevens). Through psychoanalysis and other available treatments, Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), one of the psychiatrists at Juniper Hill, attempts to uncover the incidents in Virginia's past that led to her breakdown. Working against him are the conditions at Juniper Hill, including an insensitive nursing staff, overcrowding, psychiatrists who are more interested in procedure than treatment, and facilities designed like zoos or prisons.

The narrative unfolds primarily from Virginia's point of view. Viewers learn the specifics of her case and condition as she does and hear her inner thoughts as she struggles to remember certain events from her life. This not only allows the audience to understand her frustrations, fears, and triumphs but to empathize with her when she suffers a setback. In one of the most nerve-wracking scenes, Virginia has committed a minor infraction in front of the spiteful head nurse. She withers in the face of her expected punishment, and because the audience has so closely adopted her perspective, the tension is unbearable for both Virginia and the viewers.

The Snake Pit became famous for exposing the disturbing conditions at state mental hospitals, and these conditions are all the more abhorrent because they are revealed through Virginia's eyes. Though her psychiatrist, Dr. Kik, is a devoted and ethical doctor, he nonetheless suggests electric shock therapy for Virginia because there are too many patients and too little time for longer-term treatments. As Virginia waits in a long line for her shock treatments, she hears the sounds of pitiful moaning coming from the therapy room, which frightens her and the remaining patients. When it's her turn, the procedure is depicted step by step, and because the audience sees the dials and equipment through Virginia's eyes, shock therapy seems a cruel and terrifying experience, especially when a gag is forced in her mouth by three nurses. Likewise, the overcrowding and dehumanizing conditions are understood by the viewers through Virginia's experiences when she is placed in the ward with the hard-core cases. She witnesses patients singing aloud to no one, shudders at the broken-hearted weeping of others, and watches a few sad souls wander through the ward muttering about long-lost children. In this scene, the viewer realizes that the practice of placing less troubled patients among the insane is not helpful to any of them, but the shortcomings of state hospitals make it standard practice.

As Virginia Cunningham, who falls in and out of the fog of mental illness, Olivia de Havilland gave one of the best performances of her career. When Virginia feels threatened, she quickly changes from sweet politeness to stern indignation, a shift in temperament that de Havilland conveys through her voice. De Havilland's naturally dulcet tones are perfect to suggest Virginia's ordinarily well-mannered personality, but when her mental illness brings out her paranoia or confusion, de Havilland switches gears, speaking quickly and sharply. In these scenes, Virginia's expression quickly changes from a sweet public face to confusion to anger and then back again, showcasing de Havilland's acting talent as she deftly shifts back and forth between the extremes of the character's personality within a few seconds. As a first-tier movie star famous for her sophisticated glamour, de Havilland was generally well costumed and beautifully coifed in her roles. However, to suggest the "reality" of a state mental hospital, the glamour was removed from de Havilland's appearance while Virginia was institutionalized in Juniper Hill. When not forced to don an institutional smock or dress, she wears a bland suit two sizes too large, while her hair hangs limply on her shoulders. De Havilland's dark eyebrows were blotted with powder to make her face less distinct and her eyes less prominent.

De Havilland is ably supported by a talented cast of actresses who play the various patients committed to Juniper Hill. In an early screen appearance, Celeste Holm portrays a kindly patient farther along in her treatment who tries to help Virginia adjust to the day-to-day regimentation of institutional life. Later, Virginia returns this kindness by befriending an unfortunate woman who attempts to strangle anyone who touches her. Betsy Blair offers a touching performance as this dangerous, damaged young woman who slowly responds to Virginia's friendship. But, it is the actresses who play the older inmates or visitors who provide realism and texture to the institution scenes. Several actresses whose names were better known in prior decades add depth and heart to their brief scenes, including Ruth Donnelly, Beulah Bondi, Ann Doran, and Isabel Jewell. Though only on screen for a couple of moments, Mae Marsh--one of D.W. Griffith's favorites--is heartbreaking as the mother of a patient.

The Snake Pit was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Music, and Sound. It won only for sound, but de Havilland was awarded the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress. The film was one of the top five grossing films of 1949. While contemporary film scholars sometimes criticize problem pictures for dressing up a social issue with high production values and glamorous stars without really making much of an impact, The Snake Pit can claim more than awards and box office gold. The novel and film were responsible for getting legislation passed in 26 states to upgrade the conditions of state mental institutions and provide better treatment for the patients.

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck, Anatole Litvak, and Robert Bassler for 20th Century Fox
Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Millen Brand and Frank Partos based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Art Director: Lyle Wheeler and Joseph C. Wright
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Virginia Cunningham), Leo Genn (Dr. Kik), Mark Stevens (Robert Cunningham), Celeste Holm (Grace), Helen Craig (Nurse Davis), Leif Erickson (Gordon), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Greer), Betsy Blair (Hester), Ruth Donnelly (Ruth), Ann Doran (Valerie), Isabel Jewell (Inmate in Ward 33), Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Stuart), Mae Marsh (Tommy's mother).
BW-108m. Closed Captioning.

by Susan Doll