Saturday, May 7, 2011

1948 - The Snake Pit

Keep those votes coming in for the next year of review for Matt vs. the Academy. The poll remains in the right-hand sidebar for your voting pleasure.

Yesterday, my look at 1948's Best Picture nominees continued with a viewing of...

The Snake Pit
Anatole Litvak
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
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
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.

Although clearly a drama, The Snake Pit's conclusion is very much akin to a whodunit mystery. Using voice-over narration as we see flashbacks, the detective (in this case, Dr. Kik) exposes the culprit (in this case, the cause of Virginia's condition), summarising the solution to the crime. It's a realistically complex solution with many factors coming into play to cause her illness.

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.


  1. I watched The Snake Pit last year, so I'll pass on a re-watch. Hollywood in the 1940s took a hard, sober look at social maladies that while today may seem antiquated, were quite groundbreaking at the time. The Lost Weekend's story of alcoholism took top honors in 1945 and The Best Years of Our Lives dealt with physical disabilities. The Snake Pit showed how depression can affect seemingly healthy respectable people. While the subject matter may have been new, it was hard to escape the film style and tone of the time. So, The Snake Pit is steeped in elements of noir and melodrama. The behavior of the other patients are noticeably theatrical.

    I think this is one of Olivia de Havilland's finest performances. While occasionally overwrought, compared to Jane Wyman's sensitive, but one-note work in Johnny Belinda, she could have easily added a third Oscar to her resume.

    I find it interesting to view specific techniques in older movies and compare them to the present. As you pointed out, mental health and psychiatry have evolved significantly. I guess watching a sports movie from that era can be rather comical. Some of the ballerinas in The Red Shoes may seem on the chubby side, yet I don't think anyone today could surpass Fred and Ginger on the dance floor.

  2. The Snake Pit is a stunning film, very realistic in its depiction of the way state hospitals functioned in the '40s. Olivia de Havilland gave what many today would call an "amazing" performance--since that adjective is the favorite way to describe good acting by today's moviegoing public. And I agree that she easily could have won a third Oscar for her penetrating performance over Jane Wyman's rather placid performance in Johnny Belinda, good as it was. And indeed, Olivia did win the NY Film Critics award for The Snake Pit and the following year for The Heiress. A great actress.