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

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)
The Snake Pit (1948)

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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)

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.

Director Anatole Litvak and Olivia de Havilland on the set of The Snake Pit (1948)
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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)

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.

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)

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.

Olivia de Havilland on the cover of Time Magazine, Dec 20, 1948 edition

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.

The Snake Pit (1948) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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

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Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit (1948)

This Above All (1942): Forties on Forties

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine
This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine
This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

For a certain kind of movie buff, there is nothing more romantic and glamourous than what I like to call a “Forties on Forties” film.  These are films made in the 1940’s and set in the 1940’s.  The men dressed in suits and jackets they don’t take off even at the dinner table.  Women wore dresses, gloves, coats, and pearls.  Men and women both wore gorgeous hats they take off and put on a dozen times.

Breakfast served on trays with dozens of plates.  Coffee poured for every meal from a big silver pot into delicate cups.

Train travel in private compartments.  Smoking everywhere, with men lighting cigarettes already in their woman’s mouth.

Films about adults with adult problems.  Love, lust, life, death.

And always, whether in the foreground or background, looms World War II.  (Even in Mildred Pierce, a film that seemingly avoids the war completely, Monte appreciates Mildred’s bare legs by saying he is “happy nylons are out for the duration,” a reference to nylon rationing.)

Films made during the war, when the outcome was uncertain, and after the war, with the thrill of victory temporarily papering over the deep cynicism that would eventually seep onto the screen as film noir.

I am that kind of movie buff, and This Above All is that kind of film.

Joan Fontaine immediately followed up her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion by starring in this surprisingly tender war romance with Tyrone Power in which she plays a woman who falls in love with a British deserter. (Power would make only two more films after This Above All before interrupting his career by enlisting to himself fight in the very war portrayed in the film.)

There was a multi-studio bidding war for the rights to the bestselling novel of the same name by Eric Knight, and eventually Darryl Zanuck secured the highly anticipated film for Twentieth Century Fox.

British aristocrat Prudence Cathaway (Fontaine) announces to her shocked family that she has joined the Women’s Auxiliary Force, and as a private instead of an officer.  During a blackout, she meets Clive Briggs (Power), and they have an instant connection despite not being able to see one another in the dark. 

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

When they meet up the next day, their attraction grows despite their differences.  Prue is old money, patriotic, and friendly.  Clive is from the lower classes, brooding, and seemingly not telling Prue something.  She does not question him as much as she perhaps should about why he is not wearing a uniform.

Despite barely knowing one another, sparks fly and Prue agrees to accompany him on a holiday during her upcoming leave instead of visiting her family as planned. 

Zanuck had bitter fights with the production code office over the film’s original script.  He’d preemptively removed the novel’s illegitimate pregnancy in a bid for approval, but the code office howled over Prue “going away for a week, for immoral purposes.”  Zanuck and director Anatole Litvak were forced to insert scenes that clearly showed Prue and Clive sleeping in separate bedrooms, and Prue several times mentioning that while what they were doing was innocent, to an outsider it could be misconstrued.

Critics and audiences were disappointed by the watered-down romance, but Zanuck and Litvak’s hands were tied.

Clive is a haunted man.  Prue hears him screaming in his sleep (initially from the other room, of course) and he eventually breaks down and admits that he has overstayed his leave and will soon be classified as a deserter.  He despairs of his country; he does not want to fight to save a British class system that has oppressed him and kept families like Prue’s living off their generational wealth and the backs of the working class.  Already in love, Prue greets his tortured confession with tenderness instead of scorn. 

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

In fact, everyone in the film is sympathetic to Clive’s plight.  His friend and fellow soldier Monty insists that Clive return and not ruin his life.  His commanding officer gives him a second chance when he finally returns.

There are no recriminations, no judgements, no scorn of Clive as a weakling or a coward.  This was more surprising than any illicit affair could have been.

Patriotic Prue stands by him, and although Clive returns to his station, he does not have a dramatic change of heart.  He loves Prue and marries her, and he will help win this war so that he can eventually fight for the things he truly believes in.

“This above all,” Prue reads to him from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the final scene, where he’s been wounded and his survival is uncertain, “to thine own self be true.”

An adult problem with an adult ending.

And a hidden gem from the “Forties on Forties.”

This Above All (1942) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

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This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine
This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948): Zero For Four

#27 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Barbara Stanwyck holds a telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) opening banner

By 1948, Barbara Stanwyck had made fifty-six films.  She’d played gold diggers, murderers, adulteresses, and burlesque queens.  She’d made screwball comedies, melodramas, film noir, mysteries, and romances.

For her fifty-seventh film, she played something entirely new and completely unforgettable.

Sorry, Wrong Number was a film version of a hugely popular radio show.  It tells the story of Leona Stevenson, a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot on the telephone and over the course of the film discovers she is the intended victim.

Leona Stevenson—neurotic, weak, and waiting for rescue—was quite a departure from the go-get-’em dames Stanwyck normally played.

The plot is outrageous nearly to the point of lunacy, Leona Stevenson is a thoroughly unlikeable woman, and half the film is Leona in bed, talking frantically on the telephone as she pieces together the murder plot—and the possibility of her husband’s involvement—together.

It shouldn’t work.

And yet it does.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Leona was a vain, spoiled young woman who has grown into a shrewish wife.  She married a man beneath her, and has trapped him into a lifestyle he cannot afford without her father’s money.  When she doesn’t get her way, she throws fits that aggravate her weak heart. Yet Stanwyck has a way of infusing even this woman with a depth that makes the audience understand and root for her.

All the while, alarm bells are going off in the minds of the audience.  Is Leona really about to be murdered, or is this another of her neurotic episodes?  Does her husband have some hand in the plot?  Why?  Does she really have a weak heart?

Though the film was directed by Anatole Litvak, the story has a Hitchcockian feel.  The suspense is built masterfully through the flashbacks, booming music, and Leona’s fear that spills into paralyzing hysteria.

The ending—which I will not spoil here—will leave you breathless. The world is filled with kids who saw this movie on television and grew into adults forever afraid of a ringing phone.

Maybe that’s why we all started texting.

Stanwyck earned her fourth Oscar nomination for the role of Leona Stevenson.  Once again she competed in a field of legends with fellow nominees Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne, and Olivia de Havilland.  She ultimately lost to her friend Jane Wyman for her role playing a mute in Johnny Belinda

Stanwyck was forty-one years old with fifty-seven films under her belt.  Twenty years in the movies and by any measure she’d had a damn good run.  When she was starting out in the business, she’d told herself she would retire at forty.  That’s what many of her contemporaries did—Irene Dunne, Garbo, Norma Shearer all more or less hung it up at forty.  Her marriage to Robert Taylor was on the rocks, and might have been saved had she curbed her ambition.  She was going prematurely grey and didn’t want to dye her hair.  

She would never get another shot at the Best Actress Oscar.

But Barbara Stanwyck quit the movie business?  Not a chance.

Sure, she was twenty years into her career, but it turned out she had nearly forty more to go.

And several of her most iconic performances—on the big screen and the small—were in a future she couldn’t yet see.

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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Barbara Stanwyck holds a telephone in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)