The Snake Pit

Released:  1948

Cast:  Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm

Oscar Wins:  Best Sound, Recording (Thomas T. Moulton)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Director (Anatole Litvak), Best Writing, Screenplay (Frank Partos, Millen Brand), Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Alfred Newman)

SUMMARY:  Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) is a patient at Juniper Hill State Hospital, a mental institution where she is being treated for schizophrenia following a nervous breakdown.  Her condition is so severe that she does not recognize her husband Robert (Mark Stevens), remember people she sees repeatedly (like nurses and other patients), or even realize she is in a mental institution:  she also hears voices.  The hospital is organized into a series of wards that reflects a patient’s well-being:  the better the patient is, the lower the ward they are assigned to.  Patients in Ward 1 frequently get to go home.  After spending some time at the hospital without any change, Virginia’s assigned doctor, Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) — nicknamed that due to a difficult-to-pronounce last name — decides to try electroshock treatment with the consent of Robert.  At this time, Robert also tells Dr. Kik about his relationship with Virginia.  The pair originally met in Chicago, where Robert worked for a publisher and Virginia was a writer looking to be published.  Over the next few weeks the two had a series of intermittent dates, and finally made plans to go to the Boston Philharmonic concert.  However, that very day Virginia announced suddenly that she couldn’t go, and left — and then moved out of town.  Robert got a new job that sent him to New York, and when the Philharmonic came to town he went to the concert on a hunch.  Sure enough, Virginia showed up, and despite their abrupt breakup the relationship quickly resumed.  Robert wanted to marry Virginia, but she usually skirted the issue.  However, one evening she brought it up in a rather agitated manner, and at her insistence the two got married the next day.  Only a few days into their marriage Virginia began to act strangely again:  she complained that she couldn’t sleep, spent a lot of time staring out the window, and believed that it was November, rather than May.  Following this last incident, Robert has her admitted to the hospital.  Dr. Kik soon begins the  electroshock treatment, but initially Virginia shows no change.  After the fourth treatment she seems to make a breakthrough and become more lucid, so Dr. Kik stops the treatment and begins using psychotherapy (talking to discover the root of her issues)  This initial improvement encourages Robert, who applies for her release, but during the staff meeting to determine this, Virginia clearly demonstrates that she is not ready to go home, even biting one of the other doctors.

However, further therapy sessions do help to improve Virginia’s condition, and she begins to move down through the wards.  On one occasion Dr. Kik uses hypnosis on her, and is surprised to learn that before meeting Robert, Virginia was involved with a man named Gordon.  Despite a long and established relationship with him, Virginia became physically ill when Gordon proposed.  The two were in the car at the time, and after turning around to take her home the pair collided with a semi; Gordon was killed.  Virginia also references her father.  During later sessions, she reveals that as a child she was very close to her father, especially since she believed that her mother did not love her.  However, when her mother became pregnant again, Virginia came to believe that her father was “siding” with her mother, leading to her feeling betrayed and angry.  A short time later her father died, and Virginia was left with her mother and soon, an equally distant stepfather.  As these events are unfolding in therapy, Virginia begins to move down into lower wards, and is eventually placed in Ward 1.  Unfortunately, a conflict with an abusive nurse leads to her being sent all the way back to Ward 33, where she is surrounded by  some severely disturbed patients.  Strangely, this seems to help Virginia, who begins to believe that she really can get better.  She continues to progress, even “adopting” a mute, violent patient in the ward, until Robert again applies for her release.  In this staff meeting Virginia explains that she now knows the root of her issues, and what her stressors are, so that she can mitigate them.  The staff votes to release her, and Virginia and Robert happily head home together.

MY TAKE:  The first time I saw this movie I was shocked, because I couldn’t believe somebody made a movie about mental illness in 1948.  It’s still kind of stigmatized now, and in that era it was a very taboo subject — people who were mentally ill were put into institutions and didn’t usually ever leave.  I was still shocked when I watched the movie this time, because it’s still true:  mental illness is a very unusual subject for that era in film.  However, I think it’s pretty well done, and Olivia de Havilland is fantastic.  Seriously, I’m surprised she ever improved, because I think being around some of the people in there would be enough to make anybody go insane if they weren’t already.  At first I was hesitant and a little disappointed with the electroshock therapy, because it has a very bad reputation.  However, apparently there are some medical benefits to it, and Dr. Kik only used it until Virginia sort of regained some lucidity.  After that he used the form of therapy that is generally accepted now, though it was controversial at the time:  talking to the patient to discover events in their past that may have caused or exacerbated their condition.  I like that even after having an initial breakthrough, Virginia does not immediately become well, because that’s not realistic.  Actually, if she’s really schizophrenic, it’s not very realistic to believe that she can be “cured” at all.  However, in dealing with depression and anxiety myself, I know that knowing your stressors, and how to manage them, is a big part of improving your condition.  Unfortunately, it seemed like a lot of the patients in the hospital did not receive the kind and helpful treatment that Dr. Kik provided for Virginia (there were a lot of doctors working there — Dr. Kik did not treat all of them).  I think that a lot of this was due to the stigma of mental illness, among both the doctors and the nurses in the hospital, and the way the system was set up.  Thankfully, this actually had a good effect:  after this movie’s release, a number of states actually changed their laws regarding mental institutions.  De Havilland absolutely owns this movie as Virginia Cunningham.  To research the part she spent considerable time in mental institutions (something the director required of the entire cast), sat in on actual therapy sessions when allowed, and attended events organized by the hospital, including a dance like the one showed in the film.  Obviously the preparation payed off, as she’s completely believable as a woman with an unstable mental state.  Jane Wyman actually won the Best Actress Oscar that year, for Johnny Belinda:  I haven’t seen this movie, but it’s hard for me to believe that she was better than Olivia in this role.

RATING:  Very good.


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