THE SNAKE PIT —-one of the biggest hits of 1948, this semi-autobiographical drama about a woman incarcerated in a mental hospital features one of Olivia de Havilland’s best performances, has telling moments from some of the supporting cast, and a fine score from Alfred Newman. It can also take credit, along with the best-seller that inspired it, for actually effecting some change. *
‘Virginia’ (de Havilland) is in some strange place with a lot of other women. Realizing it’s a mental hospital, she doesn’t know why she’s there or how it happened, not even recognizing her visiting husband (Mark Stevens, flatlined). Conditions are overcrowded, techniques of treatment are extreme. ‘Dr. Kik’ (Leo Genn, soothing) tries to help, ‘Nurse Davis’ (Helen Craig, intimidating) is abusive. Virginia’s body is locked up and her mind is adrift in a sea of lost souls.
Scenarists Frank Partos and Millen Brand (with an uncredited Arthur Laurents) adapted Mary Jane Ward’s novel, based on her own eight-month journey in an asylum. Anatole Litvak directed, insisting on much preparation for the cast, extensively visiting hospitals, engaging with patients, de Havilland uneasily observing the electro-shock treatments then in vogue.
The dialogue-heavy script feels outdated and simplistic now, insofar as the diagnosis angle. It’s seemingly okay with electro-shock therapy! It doesn’t make it look like anything less than traumatic, yet still a viable tool. The flashback scenes set outside confinement are pat, rushed and unconvincing. Bland-as-flour Stevens is a dead loss as the husband. Flat line-readings don’t help, and he’s hampered as well by his character’s mile-away miss of pretty obvious early warning signs of instability even before the married breakdown is glossed over. Genn’s shrink (based on Dr. Gerard Chrzanowski) continually smokes a pipe: it feels like a gimmick, almost as if it’s to signify his thoughtful intellect.
The portrayal of conditions and treatment was unfortunately all too accurate. The movie has its classic signature sequence with de Havilland in a room jam-packed with far-gone patients shambling back and forth. The camera pulls up, further and further above them, revealing the anguished mob to resemble a writhing mass in a pit, ala the title. Alfred Newman’s stark score pitches in further unnerve.
32 here, sans makeup, looking frazzled and fearful, de Havilland pulls out all stops and goes at it with all she’s got, holding the film together for its 108 minutes: she’s in nearly every scene, and it’s safe to say audiences of the day had never seen her like this. Those who only picture her sweet side from Gone With The Wind or her stints with Errol Flynn will be blown away. She hit a triple off emotional distress, preceding this with The Dark Mirror, following with The Heiress.
Interestingly, her sister Joan Fontaine also had a stellar role that same year, playing another emotionally battered character, in Letter From An Unknown Woman. Given their famous feud, it would have added to the spice if Fontaine had been Oscar-nominated (deservedly) like her sister. Olivia lost to yet another victimized heroine, Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda. Wyman’s good, de Havilland should have won. Along with her nod, the movie was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (further twisting the knife to the uncredited Arthur Laurents) and Music Score. It won for Best Sound, and came in 6th place among the year’s releases, earning $10,800,000.
With Celeste Holm, Beulah Bondi (great as ever), Leif Erickson (unlikeable as ever), Glenn Langan, Lee Patrick, Howard Freeman, Natalie Schafer (‘Mrs.Howell’ being unpleasant), Ruth Donnelly, Frank Conroy, Lori Lee Michel, Ann Doran and Betsy Blair (touching as ‘Hester’).
* The film’s critical and public success, following that of the book, resulted in 13 states to change their laws concerning treatment of the mentally ill. Author Mary Jane Ward, whose nervous breakdown formed the framework for her 1946 book and this film, suffered repeatedly from inner torments throughout her life, and was institutionalized three more times. Speaking of behavior from the “sane”, scenarists Partos and Brand cheated Arthur Laurents out of screenplay credit: they forged copies of his work, claiming it as their own.