Cast & Crew
Virginia Stuart Cunningham, a twenty-four-year-old patient at Juniper Hill State Hospital, suffers from extreme anxiety, confusion and delusion. Although she knows that she is married, Virginia insists she has no husband and fails to recognize her husband Robert when he visits. Concerned about Virginia's condition, Mark Kik, her progressive, kindly doctor, questions Robert about her past. Robert admits that Virginia spoke little about her family but recalls the first time they met: In Chicago, Robert, a publishing house clerk, encounters aspiring author Virginia when she comes to collect her rejected manuscript. Robert and Virginia take an immediate liking to each other and begin dating. During one date in May, however, Virginia becomes panicked and bolts from Robert without explanation. Robert accepts a job in New York, and six months later, he runs into Virginia at a concert. Virginia never explains why she disappeared, but Robert gladly reunites with her and begins to talk about marriage. At first Virginia ignores Robert's proposals, but then, after seeing an announcement for a May 12th racing event, she abruptly proposes to him. When Robert suggests they wait until the end of the month, Virginia accuses him of not truly loving her. A few days later, they are married, but their newlywed bliss soon ends when a sleep-deprived Virginia becomes paranoid and withdraws from Robert, crying out that she can never love anyone. Back in Kik's office, Robert concludes his story and gives the doctor permission to use electric shock treatment on Virginia. After the fourth treatment, Virginia starts to come out of her daze and is startled to learn that she has been at Juniper Hill for five months. Satisfied that he has made contact with her, Kik stops her shock treatments and begins psychoanalyzing her. During their first session, Kik asks Virginia about the significance of the date May 12th, but she has no apparent memory of it. Later, after a successful visit with Virginia, Robert concludes that she is well enough to live with him on his mother's farm. Worried that Virginia may be released from the over-crowded hospital before she is ready, Kik decides to use narcosynthesis to speed up her recovery. Under the drug's influence, Virginia recalls what happened on the evening of May 12th, when she ran away from Robert in Chicago: Aware that she has promised to attend a banquet with her hometown boyfriend Gordon, Virginia abandons Robert in a bar and dashes to her house outside the city. On the way to the banquet, Gordon, an older, controlling type who is unaware of Robert's existence, proposes to Virginia. Conflicted, Virginia complains she is ill and asks Gordon to take her home. As a storm rages, Gordon turns back, but his car soon collides with an oncoming truck. Gordon is killed, and Virginia is consumed with guilt. Back at Juniper Hill, Kik reassures the still drugged Virginia that she was not responsible for Gordon's death. Later, against Kik's advice, his superiors, Dr. Curtis and Dr. Jonathan Gifford, schedule a staff meeting to discuss Virginia's release. During the review, Virginia, distracted by the violent thunderstorm blowing outside, acts confused and paranoid and is unable to answer the doctors' simple questions. When the brutish Dr. Curtis begins wagging his finger in her face, demanding that she tell him her home address, Virginia suffers a complete breakdown. Virginia is sent down to Ward 12, where she receives intense hydrotherapy and learns that, during the interview, she bit Dr. Curtis' finger. Virginia's mental state improves slightly after a chastened Robert admits to her that he was the one who pushed for the review, not Kik. Later, Virginia pretends to be ill in order to speak with Kik, and her calm, rational demeanor convinces him that she is ready for Ward 1. While there, Virginia becomes attached to a rag doll made by another inmate. Using the doll as a bridge to Virginia's past, Kik prompts her to recall her early childhood: As a girl of six, Virginia angers her mother after she trades her big doll for her neighbor's small one and refuses to return it. Jealous of her beloved father's attentions to her pregnant mother, Virginia becomes incensed when he takes her mother's side and, in a fit of pique, breaks a soldier doll her father had won for her at a carnival. Soon after, her father falls gravely ill and dies. In the present, Virginia confides to Kik that she felt responsible for her father's demise, which caused her mother to withdraw even further from her. Later, Virginia suffers a major setback when she insults head nurse Miss Davis, who is jealous of Kik's interest in Virginia, and, fearing punishment, locks herself in a bathroom. When the vindictive Miss Davis tricks Virginia into coming out, Virginia becomes hysterical and is put in a straightjacket. Virginia is then sent down to Ward 33, the section for the most severely disturbed patients, but survives and even makes friends with Hester, a violent woman who refuses to speak. Despite conditions, Virginia improves and tells Kik that being in Ward 33, a place she likens to a snake pit, has made her realize that she is not as sick as the others. Kik then explains to her how she transferred feelings of guilt from her father to Gordon, who reminded her of her father in some ways, and then to Robert, who resembled her father in other ways. After Virginia agrees that "husbands and fathers can't be the same thing," Kik informs her at a hospital dance that he is recommending her for release. During her review, Virginia easily impresses the staff and is approved for discharge. Before leaving, Virginia says an encouraging farewell to Hester, who utters a few words in response. Virginia then confesses to Kik that she knows she has recovered because she is no longer in love with him. After Kik reassures her that she never was in love with him, Virginia boards a waiting bus with the devoted Robert.
Lora Lee Michel
Jacqueline De Wit
Harry Hays Morgan
Janna De Loos
Jean "babe" London
G. Pat Collins
Dr. Carl A. Binger
Dr. Alma Margaret Comer
William Arms Fisher
Dr. M. Ralph Kaufman
Arthur L. Kirbach
R. A. Klune
Charles Le Maire
Harry M. Leonard
Thomas T. Moulton
Dr. John N. Rosen
Dr. Ernst Simmel
Dr. Sidney Loseff Tamarin
Mary Jane Ward
Joseph C. Wright
Darryl F. Zanuck
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Essentials - The Snake Pit
When his new bride exhibits erratic behavior following a bout with depression, Robert Cunningham has no choice but to commit her to a mental institution. Despite the efforts of a kind and caring doctor, the young woman faces the horrors of being confined with other mental patients, some in much worse states than she, while also enduring shock therapy, drug treatment and hydrotherapy.
Producer-Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Frank Partos, Millen Brand
Based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler, Joseph C. Wright
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Virginia Stuart Cunningham), Mark Stevens (Robert Cunningham), Leo Genn (Dr. Mark Kik), Celeste Holm (Grace), Glenn Langan (Dr. Terry), Helen Craig (Miss Davis), Leif Erickson (Gordon), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Greer), Lee Patrick, Isabel Jewell (Asylum Inmates), Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Stuart), Ruth Donnelly (Ruth), Minna Gombell (Miss Hart), Ann Doran (Valerie), Betsy Blair (Hester), Virginia Brissac (Miss Seiffert), Queenie Smith (Lola), Mae Marsh (Tommy's Mother), Marie Blake, Minerva Urecal, Barbara Pepper (Patients), Jan Clayton (Singing Inmate), Celia Lovsky (Gertrude), Mary Treen (Nurse), Dorothy Neumann (Miss Neumann).
BW-108m. Closed Captioning.
Why THE SNAKE PIT is Essential
The Snake Pit was one of several social problem films to appear in Hollywood in response to the new taste for realism following World War II. 20th Century-Fox had previously dealt with anti-Semitism in Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and would tackle racism in Pinky (1949).
This was one of the first Hollywood films to deal seriously with the issue of mental illness and conditions in mental hospitals. Previous films had either treated the mentally ill as monsters (1932's The Old Dark House, 1946's Bedlam) or clowns (1944's Arsenic and Old Lace) or focused on the romantic lives of their doctors (1935's Private Worlds).
Olivia de Havilland's performance as Virginia Cunningham is frequently cited as her best. It also represented a significant break from the Hollywood glamour tradition, with the actress performing many scenes with little makeup and without the benefit of hairdressing.
The Snake Pit was 20th Century-Fox's highest grossing film of the year, totaling $4.1 million in grosses. It tied with I Was a Male War Bride and Joan of Arc as the year's third highest-grossing film.
by Frank Miller
The Essentials - The Snake Pit
Pop Culture 101 - The Snake Pit
As a result of The Snake Pit's depiction of conditions in mental hospitals, 26 states passed legislation calling for reforms in procedures at state hospitals treating the mentally ill.
De Havilland, Mark Stevens and Leo Genn appeared on a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film in 1950.
A 1952 screening at a Boston state hospital was reported to have a beneficial effect on the patients there. The depiction of de Havilland's recovery gave them hope that they, too, would someday be able to leave the hospital.
In the '90s, The Snake Pit began to draw fire from feminist film critics who felt that it conflated Virginia's recovery from mental illness with her willingness to return to her role as wife. This was part of a larger critique of Freudian psychoanalysis that, critics charged, equated mental health with adherence to the dominant culture's gender norms.
by Frank Miller
Pop Culture 101 - The Snake Pit
Trivia - The Snake Pit - Trivia & Fun Facts About THE SNAKE PIT
Leo Genn's character, Dr. Kik, was named for the nickname by which Mary Jane Ward's doctor, Dr. Gerard Chrzanowski, asked his patients to address him.
While Leif Erickson was playing the man whose sudden death was contributed to leading lady de Havilland's mental problems and eventual institutionalization, his ex-wife, actress Frances Farmer, was going through her own nightmare while confined to a state mental hospital in Washington State.
Jan Clayton, who sings the folk song "Goin' Home" at the hospital party near the film's end, had recently created the role of Julie Jordan in the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical Carousel on Broadway.
The actress playing Virginia's mothers in flashbacks is Natalie Schafer, better known to viewers as Lovey Howell on the popular TV series Gilligan's Island.
In her memoirs, Ginger Rogers wrote that she had turned down The Snake Pit and de Havilland's Oscar®-winning role in To Each His Own. "Perhaps," she said, "Olivia should thank me for such poor judgment."
During the filming of The Snake Pit, de Havilland was harassed by three different stalkers. The worst, an artist from Chicago who had sent her pictures inscribed with strange symbols, eventually came to Los Angeles in hopes of meeting her. When he was arrested, police psychologists learned that he thought himself St. Paul.
by Frank Miller
Famous Quotes from THE SNAKE PIT (1948)
"It's hard to keep on being civil when they ask you such annoying questions." -- Olivia de Havilland, as Virginia Cunningham, responding in voiceover to the voices she hears in her head
"I'm worried about you Virginia. I wasn't going to tell you this, but I'm going to One. Maybe I'll be leaving from there. Before long I'll be on my own, wondering where the next meal's coming from." -- Celeste Holm, as Grace, the patient who tries to help de Havilland, as Virginia Cunningham, when she first arrives at the hospital
"Oh, I see it's a zoo...a tour. I don't like a zoo, do you? I don't like the smell, and I'm sorry for the animals locked up in cages." -- De Havilland, as Virginia, mistaking the mental hospital
"People are friendly in New York...or maybe just fresh. I've never seen her before and she calls me Virginia. What am I supposed to say? 'Hi, kiddo?" -- De Havilland, responding to a nurse's greeting
"Maybe you'll think it's strange to ask you this, but somehow people never remember my face. Do you know who I am, Mrs. Cunningham?"
"You do? Tell me."
"Don't you know?
"If you don't mind, would you tell me just the same?"
"The warden of what?"
"Of this prison."
"Is there any reason why you should be in prison?"
"Why, yes, of course. I'm writing a novel about prisons, and I've come here to study conditions and take notes. About one day's worth, thank you, and I'm going to leave now." -- Leo Genn, as Dr. Kik, recognizing de Havilland's disorientation
"You know, I'll be really sorry to leave those poor girls." -- de Havilland, believing her own fantasy
"My head hurts. There's something the matter with my head."
"Come on, darling, let me help you."
"Who are you? Why do you torture me? Why do you lie to me?" -- de Havilland, failing to recognize Mark Stevens, as Jerry Cunningham, in a flashback to her initial breakdown
"Now then, Virginia...that's your name isn't it?"
"If you know, why do you ask me?" -- Howard Freeman, as Dr. Curtis, examining de Havilland at her sanity hearing
"My husband, Mr. Greer, is very wealthy. I have more jewels than I can possibly wear. You, of course, are a charity patient?"
"Oh, no. It so happens that my husband, Mr. Cunningham, is very wealthy. My diamonds simply weigh me down."
"I have the Hope Diamond."
"I have the Hopeless Emerald! It carries the Cunningham Curse. You've probably read about it."
"Mr. Greer, my husband, considered buying it, but it has a flaw. You see, you can't put an imperfect stone on the most beautiful hands in the world." -- Beulah Bondi, as Mrs. Greer, trading fantasies with de Havilland.
"Going home, going home, I am going home." -- Jan Clayton, as Singing Inmate, at a party for the ward
"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...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 for myself differently than before I came here." -- De Havilland at her second hearing, explaining her illness
"I feel so crowded already I don't know where it's going to end."
"I'll tell you where it's going to end, Miss Somerville. When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up." -- Jacqueline deWit as Miss Somerville, in need of comfort on learning that de Havilland is leaving
"Oh, Hester, you've talked. I knew you would. You're going to get well now. I know you will." -- Betsy Blair, as Hester, speaking for the first time when de Havilland leaves
"If ever you feel you want to talk to me, you know where to find me. Goodbye, and good luck."
"Remember at the dance, I was going to tell another reason for knowing I was getting well?...It's that I'm not in love with you any more."
"You never really were, Virginia." -- Genn, as Dr. Kik, saying goodbye to de Havilland
"Say, folks! The bus is leaving, or don't you care?"
"Don't we care? Come on, Jerry, we're going home." -- Attendant, shipping de Havilland and Stevens, as Jerry Cunningham, off for good
Trivia - The Snake Pit - Trivia & Fun Facts About THE SNAKE PIT
The Big Idea - The Snake Pit
At the urging of Random House head Bennett Cerf, producer-director Anatole Litvak read the book in galleys. He immediately sent a copy to Ingrid Bergman, who turned down the project. He then went to Olivia de Havilland, who was Ward's first choice for the leading role. When she agreed to star in a film version, he bought the rights for $75,000 with plans to film it independently. After being turned down by every other studio, he took the project to his friend Darryl F. Zanuck, whose studio, 20th Century-Fox, rarely picked up independent films. Although not sure of the film's bankability, Zanuck's interest in socially relevant subjects (which dated back to his days as production head for Warner Bros. in the early '30s) inspired him to take a chance on the project. He bought the rights from Litvak for $175,000 and hired him to direct and produce, the latter in partnership with the studio's Robert Bassler. When the book came out, it was a huge best seller, eventually selling more than one million copies.
Although Litvak already had a commitment from de Havilland, Zanuck also considered her sister, Joan Fontaine, and Fox contract star Gene Tierney for the role. Ironically, Tierney would later suffer her own breakdown.
Zanuck considered Joseph Cotten and Richard Conte for the psychiatrist's role. He eventually cast Leo Genn, a British actor who had played Katina Paxinou's lover in Mourning Becomes Electra (1947).
De Havilland personally requested Fox contract player Mark Stevens to play her husband. Stevens had co-starred with Fontaine in From This Day Forward (1946).
To write the screenplay for The Snake Pit, Zanuck paired experienced Hollywood writer Frank Partos with Millen Brand, a novelist and poet whose 1937 novel The Outward Room had focused on an escaped mental patient.
As research, Litvak, Bassler and the screenwriters visited several East Coast mental institutions and consulted with three prominent New York psychiatrists, who helped them construct Virginia's case history. The names of the hospitals and doctors were kept confidential at the time. They approached Dr. Gerard Chrzanowski, the psychiatrist who had cared for Ward and served as a model for Dr. Kik in the novel, about consulting on the film, but he declined.
Litvak also ordered the actors, key crew members and even some of the extras to visit local mental institutions. De Havilland visited several hospitals and consulted with several psychiatrists to gain a deeper understanding of her character's condition. At Camarillo State Hospital in California she met a young woman with a condition similar to her character's. She would later say, "I met a young woman who was very much like Virginia, about the same age and physical description, as well as being a schizophrenic with guilt problems. She had developed, like Virginia, a warm rapport with her doctor, but what struck me most of all was the fact that she was rather likable and appealing. It hadn't occurred to me before that a mental patient could be appealing, and it was that that gave me the key to the performance."
In adapting Ward's novel, the screenwriters changed the nature of both Virginia's condition and her cure. In the book, Virginia's mental illness is brought on after years of marriage by the economic failure of her husband, a leftist writer, and by the strain of trying to maintain her own writing career while also serving as wife and mother. For the film, they turned her problems into a father fixation intensified when her first fiancé, a controlling male, dies in a car crash. They also cut out any scenes with Virginia's child and placed her breakdown much earlier in the marriage. In addition, where the book had been told entirely from the heroine's point of view, Litvak shot the film more objectively, avoiding cinematic techniques that would have presented the story through her eyes. Virginia's point of view was represented primarily on the soundtrack, which featured her interior monologue and the voices in her head, and a few shots capturing her fantasies. Finally, where Ward had depicted Virginia's recovery largely through her own struggles, the screenplay attributed her recovery almost entirely to her doctor's use of Freudian psychoanalysis to get to the roots of her mental illness.
Before filming started on The Snake Pit, playwright Arthur Laurents (Home of the Brave) did a final polish on the screenplay. When his request for credit for "additional dialogue" was turned down, he appealed to the Writer's Guild, but they decided his contribution had not been large enough. Nonetheless, Litvak credited his work in an interview with the New York Times.
by Frank Miller
The Films of Olivia de Havilland by Tony Thomas
The Big Idea - The Snake Pit
Behind the Camera - The Snake Pit
Although publicity and some later accounts claim The Snake Pit was shot almost entirely at Camarillo State Hospital in California, there were only a few location scenes shot there. Most of the interiors were shot on the 20th Century-Fox lot.
For the flashbacks to de Havilland's life before institutionalization, she wore clothes two sizes too large. Litvak also had her dark eyebrows blotted with powder to de-glamorize her look.
For filming of the sequences in the mental hospital, Dr. Sidney Loseef Tamarin and Dr. Alma Margaret Comer worked on set as technical consultants.
Although Fox's ads for The Snake Pit linked it to Gentleman's Agreement (1947) as a pioneering social problem film, posters also tried to created a romantic angle with the line "Married and in Love...with a Man She Didn't Know or Want!"
Ads during the film's initial run warned parents that the film might not be suitable for children. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther seconded that opinion and in one column suggested the film only be shown in smaller theatres. Fox did not follow his advice.
The Snake Pit was held back from distribution in England for a year because the British Board of Film Censors forbade films dealing with insanity. Initially, efforts to soften that stand were fought by nursing organizations, who feared the film would discourage young women from going into that profession. Finally, Fox cut the most extreme scenes of de Havilland's treatment to get past the censors. They also included a written prologue explaining that all of the cast were actors and that the film did not reflect conditions in British mental hospitals. The Snake Pit then won rave reviews in England and broke box office records.
by Frank Miller
Behind the Camera - The Snake Pit
The Snake Pit
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
The Snake Pit
Critics' Corner - The Snake Pit
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther placed The Snake Pit at number ten on his yearly ten best list. It placed seventh on the National Board of Review's ten best list. The film also received awards from The Committee of American Psychologists and the California Citizens Committee on Mental Hygiene.
Frank Patros and Millen Brand won two awards from the Writer's Guild, Best-Written American Drama and the Robert Meltzer Award for the best film dealing with social issues.
Olivia de Havilland's performance garnered Best Actress awards at the Venice Film Festival and from the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review. She was also nominated for the Oscar® in a very tight race for Best Actress, ultimately losing to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda (1948).
The Snake Pit also received five other Oscar® nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Score and Best Sound. It only won in the latter category. It was considered a front runner for Best Picture in a close race with Johnny Belinda, but in a major upset, lost to Hamlet (1948), the first foreign film to win the Best Picture Oscar®
THE CRITICS' CORNER - THE SNAKE PIT (1948)
"A picture so compelling, dramatically exciting and frankly courageous as to defy comparison. Nothing like it has ever been done before in films." -- Hollywood Reporter
"It is the most courageous subject ever attempted on the screen."
- Louella Parsons, Hearst Syndicate
"Most striking aspect of this picture is the forcefulness with which it makes us feel the dark confusion, distress and anguished yearnings of a person who is mentally ill. And this it does from a literal, straightforward and quietly objective point of view...by catching the drama in the behavior of one thus torn. Without pointing or pounding at any details, it shows the myriad idiosyncrasies of 'the sick' and draws them into a pattern which should expand and enlighten our lucid minds....The Snake Pit, while frankly quite disturbing and not recommended for the weak, is a mature emotional drama on a rare and pregnant theme."
- Bosley Crowther, The New YorkTimes
"Miss de Havilland gives one of those wonderfully unglamorized and true performances generally associated with one of the more distinguished foreign actresses."
- Saturday Review
"Still among the most famous of the mental-hospital films, but its power seems to have lessened in the wake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Frances (1982)."
- Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic
"A film of superficial veracity that requires a bigger man than [Anatole] Litvak; a good film with bad things in it."
- Herman F. Weinberg, The Movies that Changed Us: Reflections on the Screen
"Overrated at the time as a piece of mature and realistic cinema with a strong social conscience, this now works best as lurid melodrama. De Havilland pulls out the stops as the woman committed to a mental hospital....The plea for better treatment might now seem rather muddled, given the film's advocacy of shock treatment; and the documentary-style footage inside the asylum merges poorly with the strong narrative. But it's entertaining enough in a hysterical sort of way, even if it never matches up to the excesses of Fuller's later Shock Corridor (1963)."
- The TimeOut Film Guide
"Gripping film set in mental institution lacks original shock value but still packs a good punch, with de Havilland superb."
- Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
by Frank Miller
Critics' Corner - The Snake Pit
The character of the gentle psychiatrist was based on the real-life career of Dr. Gerard Chrzanowski, who told his patients to call him simply "Dr. Kik." Dr. Chrzanowski died in November, 2000 at age 87.
Snippets from Antonín Dvorák's From the New World symphony, Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C Minor and Kenneth Casey and Maceo Pinkard's "Sweet Georgia Brown" are heard in the film. Contemporary sources, including items from the Twentieth Century-Fox publicity department, add the following information about the production: The novel The Snake Pit was inspired, in part, by author Mary Jane Ward's own eight-and-a-half month stay in New York's Rockland State mental hospital, following a nervous breakdown. In May 1945, Bennett Cerf, head of Random House, which published Ward's book, gave director Anatole Litvak a copy of the novel's galleys to read. Impressed, Litvak, who was a colonel in the U.S. Army at the time, sent the galleys to actress Olivia de Havilland (whose name is written "deHavilland" in the screen credits), and she immediately agreed to play the lead character "Virginia." Litvak paid Ward $75,000 for the film rights to the novel, in installments, and began taking it to various studio heads, all of whom deemed the subject matter too risky. In the summer of 1946, Litvak showed the property to Twentieth Century-Fox production chief Darryl F. Zanuck, an old friend, who then bought the rights from Litvak for $175,000 and hired him to direct and co-produce with Robert Bassler.
For the screenplay, screenwriters Frank Partos and Millen Brand changed significant aspects of the novel's main character. In Ward's novel, for example, Virginia suffers from an undefined neurosis and receives unspecified treatment, while in the screenplay, she is described as a schizophrenic with an Oedipal complex who undergoes a range of treatments. To assure the picture's authenticity, Partos and Brand, as well as Litvak and Bassler, visited mental institutions in the East. Three prominent New York psychiatrists, whose identities, along with those of several other doctors, were kept secret during production, were consulted. These doctors were later identified in a New York Times article as Dr. Carl A. Binger, an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Cornell University; Dr. M. Ralph Kaufman, chief psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital; and Dr. Sidney Loseef Tamarin, supervising psychiatrist at a New York mental institution. Correspondence found in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library indicates that Dr. Thomas Rennie also advised on the scriptwriting, but his contribution to the completed film has not been confirmed. A July 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item added that Tamarin and Dr. Alma Margaret Comer came to Hollywood to assist with "mental hospital sequences" during filming. According to the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, the studio approached Dr. Gerard Chrzanowski, the psychiatrist who took care of Ward and was the basis of the character "Dr. Kik," about advising on the film, but he declined to participate.
Although some sources state that de Havilland was Zanuck's first choice to play Virginia, Hollywood Reporter news items from late 1946 announced both Gene Tierney and Joan Fontaine, de Havilland's sister, as possible stars. Modern sources state that Ingrid Bergman was Litvak's first choice, but that she turned down the role. Studio legal files indicate that Joseph Cotten and Richard Conte were considered for the part of "Dr. Kik." Litvak reportedly instructed the film's principal actors and crew to visit mental institutions prior to production. For her part, de Havilland conducted research at Camarillo State Hospital in California. In a modern interview, de Havilland described her experience at the hospital: "I met a young woman who was very much like Virginia...a schizophrenic with guilt problems. She had developed...a warm rapport with her doctor, but what struck me most of all was the fact that she was rather likable and appealing...it was that that gave me the key to the performance."
Twentieth Century-Fox borrowed cinematographer Leo Tover from Paramount for the production. The "adult" sequences were completed first, then after a month-long hiatus, the childhood sequences were shot. Litvak ordered that no hairdressers be present on the film set and that the actresses not wear brassieres or girdles. According to a New York Times article, costumer Bonnie Cashin's design for de Havilland's and Celeste Holm's costumes was a composite of patient outfits observed during a tour of West Coast institutions. Studio legal records indicate that recordings of patients were made at the Camarillo hospital for use either on the soundtrack or as a "technical quide," but were later destroyed due to fears of lawsuits. Although a Hollywood Reporter news item announced Frieda Stoll as a cast member, her appearance in the final film is doubtful. According to a December 1948 Hollywood Reporter article, "several scenes which indicated the gradual recovery of Virginia were edited out in the cutting room."
Just after the picture's New York premiere, Litvak, in a New York Times interview, applauded writer Arthur Laurents' uncredited contribution to the screenplay. Although Litvak stated that screenwriting novice Laurents "put in six weeks polishing the screen play" but did not receive credit because he forgot to initial his draft, Sheridan Gibney, President of the Screen Writers Guild in Hollywood, insisted that Laurents' claim of significant authorship was invalid. As part of his arbitration with the Screen Writers Guild, Laurents requested an "additional dialogue" screen credit, but was denied. Despite the Guild's ruling, the Screen Achievements Bulletin listed Laurents as a "contributor to screenplay construction."
Often described as the first film to deal seriously with mental illness and mental institutions, The Snake Pit received much praise upon its release. The Hollywood Reporter reviewer wrote: "A picture so compelling, dramatically exciting and frankly courageous as to defy comparison. Nothing like it has ever been done before in films." Bosley Crowther of the New York Times noted at the end of his review: "The Snake Pit, while frankly quite disturbing and not recommended for the weak, is a mature emotional drama on a rare and pregnant theme." For the New York run, theater ads warned parents not to bring children because of the picture's grim subject matter, and in a mid-November 1948 article, Crowther strongly advised that the picture be shown in "theatres of limited capacities catering to an adult clientele." Despite the admonitions, the two-million dollar film broke box-office records in many cities and became Twentieth Century-Fox's highest grossing picture of the year.
The film was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Actress and Best Music (Scoring Dramatic or Comedy Picture). It won an Oscar for Best Sound Recording (Thomas T. Moulton, Sound Director). In addition to her Oscar nomination, de Havilland received many accolades for her performance, including the New York Critics Award for Best Acting of 1948, the Foreign Language Press Film Critics' award for best actress of the year, and a Venice Film Festival Award. The Foreign Language Press Film Critics association also voted The Snake Pit as the Best Picture of 1948. For his work, Litvak received a quarterly Screen Directors Guild award for directorial achievement, and Partos, Brand and Ward were lauded with awards from the Screen Writers Guild. The Committee of American Psychologists praised the picture for "awakening the public to the deplorable conditions existing in public institutions for the mentally ill" and gave it an award for "outstanding contribution by the entertainment industry to the field of mental health." In addition, the California Citizens Committee for Mental Hygiene gave The Snake Pit a scroll, honoring it for awakening "millions to a greater knowledge and appreciation of the causes of mental illness." The December 20, 1948 issue of Time magazine featured de Havilland on its cover, as well as an extensive article about the film's production.
Because of censorship edicts that prohibited the making or showing of films dealing with insanity, British distributors initially were unable to release the The Snake Pit in England. According to an April 1950 Motion Picture Herald article, nursing organizations applied particular pressure on the British Board of Film Censors, complaining that "young girls seeing the film might be deterred from entering the nursing profession." After five months of wrangling, Twentieth Century-Fox agreed to allow British officials to delete certain scenes from the picture, and the film opened in London in mid-May 1949. Approximately 1,000 feet of film, mostly from the more extreme hospital scenes, was cut, according to news items. The picture broke box-office records in London, and won much critical praise there. According to a September 1952 Daily Variety news item, the film was screened for patients at a Boston state hospital and was well-received by the "inmates...who felt that because the heroine was cured and left the institution that they, too, might be cured." De Havilland, Mark Stevens and Leo Genn reprised their roles on a April 10, 1950 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast.