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Yesterday, my look at 1948's Best Picture nominees continued with a viewing of...
The Snake Pit
Frank Partos and Millen Brand
(based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward)
Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi
1 win, for Best Sound
As The Snake Pit begins, Virginia Stuart (de Havilland) is confused and anxious, seemingly unaware that she is living in a mental institution. She barely recognises her own husband Robert (Stevens) when he visits and only vaguely remembers the events of the past few months. With the help of Dr. Kik (Genn), she is treated with a variety of psychiatric therapies, including shock treatment, hydrotherapy and hypnosis. Her condition fluctuates as she moves from ward to ward, coping with brusque nurses, impatient doctors and the rambling behaviour of her fellow inmates. All the while, Dr. Kik continues to get to the bottom of her psychosis, uncovering psychological traumas in her past.
By today's standards, The Snake Pit is rather melodramatic, which is an unfortunate distraction from what is apparently a relatively accurate portrayal of the state of mental health practices in the United States at the time. The depiction of the asylum's horrific overcrowdedness comes as a result of reportedly intense research by director Anatole Litvak. One wonders, however, whether the wards within were so disparately appointed as they are here. The Snake Pit's sanatorium is positively labyrinthine; there's a fancy one-patient-per-room ward, a cluttered room-full-of-beds ward, and the messy pack-'em-in-like-sardines ward of the title.
Despite a semblance of reality in regards to the ways mental institutions were operated, the more specific details of individual patients' conditions is a little dubious. Several of Virginia's fellow inmates are bloated stereotypes of crazy people. Mind you, from my experience of the New York City subway system, I am perhaps being too critical. Also, while the treatments depicted in the film are probably authentic for the time, there are some inconsistencies in Virginia's recovery. Using my questionable knowledge as a psychiatrist's son, the patient initially presents with schizophrenic symptoms - paranoia and hallucinatory voices - yet her eventual recovery is more indicative of post traumatic stress disorder. While psychotherapy is indeed important in the management of schizophrenia, it seems unlikely that the delusions would dissipate without medication. But I'm nitpicking. The doctors in question are entirely unaware of the ill effects of smoking, perpetually offering patients cigarettes, so it is obviously unfair to expect them to consider as yet undiscovered psychiatric treatments.
Sporting an almost constant look of fearful confusion, Olivia de Havilland (pictured) is certainly animated. Despite her histrionics, the performance remains effective. Leo Genn (last seen here in Quo Vadis) is wonderfully natural as the kindly doctor. Also worth a mention, Helen Craig delivers a delectable performance as the disdainful nurse, paving the way for Nurse Ratched.