The Snake Pit (1948):  Olivia’s Time to Shine

In 1948, director Anatole Litvak had a passion project.  He wanted to adapt Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit, a semi-autobiographical novel about a women in a state mental ward.

He wanted to realistically depict the mental institutions of the day, from the confusion and fear of its patients, to the overcrowded conditions, overworked doctors, exhausted nurses, and terrifying electro shock therapy treatments. 

Needless to say, this wasn’t an easy sell in Hollywood, whose instinct was to gild reality onscreen, not strip it down to the bones. 

But he convinced 20th Century Fox to finance his film, and took the scrip directly to Olivia de Havilland, one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood after her Academy Award-winning turn in To Each His Own (1946.)  She had rejected many recent offers, searching for another artistically fulfilling film.

The Snake Pit fit the bill.

Both Litvak and de Havilland poured their souls into the film.  They toured mental institutions, and Litvak hid microphones to capture the moans and sounds the patients made at night.1  De Havilland read psychiatry books, talked to patients, and practiced screaming so often the neighbors began to question just what was going on in her household.

Their work paid off.

Litvak and de Havilland on the set

De Havilland plays Virginia Cunningham, a newly married woman who has a nervous breakdown.  Left shaken and paranoid, her loving husband Robert has no choice but to commit her to the state mental institution.  In the film’s opening scene, Virginia is sitting on a bench, unsure of her whereabouts and hearing voices.  When she is finally ushered inside and realizes where she is, she convinces herself she’s there doing research to write a novel.

The film chronicles the ups and downs of Virginia’s recovery—her confusion punctuated by increasing moments of lucidity, learning the sometimes nonsensical bureaucratic rules, and the horror of electro shock therapy.

She moves from ward to ward as she recovers, taking steps forward before regressing.

It is a film underlaid by compassion—there are no villains here, only an overworked staff doing its best.  The hero is Dr. Kik, the psychiatrist who takes a special interest in Virginia’s case and is convinced her mind can heal.  When she takes a turn in the right direction, the other doctors are eager to release her, but Dr. Kik knows she is not ready.  He is proven right when the intense questioning of the panel of doctors sends her spiraling into a violent relapse.

But even these doctors are not evil—their hospital is so overcrowded they are turning away patients worse off than Virigina—and after all, Virginia has a loving husband and home waiting for her.

Dr. Kik is loathe to send her home, knowing she will be forever living a half-life when she has the potential for a full recovery.

The film’s title comes from the old practice where insane people were thrown into a pit of snakes, under the logic that something that would turn a sane person mad might jolt a mad person into sanity.

Metaphorically, this is exactly what happens to Virginia.  After her relapse, she is placed in the ward with the most hopeless cases—people who cannot speak, aren’t coherent, and have no sense of reality.  Being thrown into this snake pit of humanity gives Virginia a ray of hope—she isn’t a sick as these people, and she knows it.

For the first time, she—and we—understand that she will get well.

De Havilland said she was, “so deeply engrossed in this character that I was afraid I might suddenly do the things off screen, I did on.  I was exhausted.  I have never had any role that took so much out of me.”2

When the film was finished, Litvak and de Havilland knew they had done good work. 

“This picture is going to do so much good,” de Havilland said before its release.  “When I visited the institutions for the mentally ill, I felt a great surge of compassion for the people.  We are all victims of life, you see, and these people are the ones who have been hardest pressed.”3

She was right—the film was hailed by psychiatrists as a realistic, accurate, and compassionate portrayal, and some showed it to their own patients to give them hope that they, like Virginia Cunningham, could recover from their mental illness.4

She also knew she’d scored a second plum role: “Thank God that was me in it.”5

It was her in the role, bringing her own talents to the role.

It’s interesting to ponder what the major actresses of the day would’ve brought to the role of Virginia Cunningham.  Barbara Stanwyck would’ve played her so tough you wouldn’t dare feel sorry for her no matter what befell her.  Joan Crawford would’ve made her so vulnerable you would’ve pitied but not respected her.  Bette Davis’ Virginia would’ve been so jittery and paranoid her recovery would’ve been unthinkable.

All interesting interpretations I’d like to see in a parallel universe.  But none would have brought the quiet dignity and poise that Olivia de Havilland gave to Virginia Cunningham.  That same steel magnolia temperament that made her so perfect for Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind is used to great effect in The Snake Pit.

Virginia is always a lady, unfailingly polite and kind.  She hides her confusion from the doctors as best she can, not wanting their pity.  She befriends and protects Hester, a violent and mute patient no one else will go near.

She empties out a candy box her husband brings her and uses it as a pocketbook, as a way to hang onto her humanity in a place where so many lose it.  De Havilland never lets Virginia become a generic crazy person—she never lets you forget that Virginia has hopes, dreams, fears, and a life outside the bars. 

While her illness sometimes overcomes her, she is never defeated by it.

She is a patient, not a victim.

After de Havilland lost the Academy Award to sister Joan Fontaine in 1942, Life Magazine rather snottily—if accurately—wrote that “Olivia pines for laurels.”6

She got her flowers for The Snake Pit.

Time Magazine put her on the cover of their December 20, 1948 issue and ran a long article promoting the film and her work in it.

She was the unanimous choice in the first poll for the New York Film Critics Award for best actress of the year.

She was nominated for yet another Academy Award—her third best actress nomination and fourth nomination overall.

Up against a historically tough crowd, she, Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Stanwyck, and Irene Dunne all lost to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda.

But Oscar or not, Olivia de Havilland had only justified pride for her role in The Snake Pit, and the film is an absolute must-see for De Havilland fans.  There’s no doubt it would have been the uncontested best work of her career, if not for the film she made next.

Notes

  1. “Cinema.  Olivia de Havilland and The Snake Pit.”  Time Magazine, December 20, 1948. (Cover story)
  2. Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  3. “Cinema.  Olivia de Havilland and The Snake Pit.”  Time Magazine, December 20, 1948. (Cover story)
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Jensen, Oliver O.  “Sister Act.”  Life Magazine, May 4, 1942.
  7. Opening Hitchcock quote from Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

4 thoughts on “The Snake Pit (1948):  Olivia’s Time to Shine

  1. Pingback: The Heiress (1948):  Ascending to New Heights | Melanie Novak

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