CRAZYFILMGUY is getting old. Later in 2014, I will hit the big 50 years old. Half way to 100. In my youth, summer time meant summer blockbuster films. I recall many a summer paying $5 (later $7, $9, and now what is it - $10?) to sit in an air conditioned movie theater and watch RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or POLTERGEIST or INDEPENDENCE DAY. So what popcorn spectacular film have I planned to review for July 2014? None other than THE SNAKE PIT (1948), a most un-blockbuster film starring one of my cinematic crushes Olivia de Havilland about that most popular summer topic -- mental illness. My seventeen year old past self is shaking his head at the thought of his now 49 year old self watching an adult film with no light sabers or bull whips.
I fell in love with Olivia de Havilland the moment she took her head dress off in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) and her gorgeous brown hair cascaded down. She had round, full cheek bones and a lovely smile. I think every film I've ever seen Olivia de Havilland in (CAPTAIN BLOOD, GONE WITH THE WIND, DODGE CITY) has been a period film. THE SNAKE PIT will be my first modern Olivia de Havilland film.
THE SNAKE PIT sounds like the title of a good Val Lewton horror film but it's one of the first films of its kind to deal with the treatment of mental illness, a taboo subject in the late 40's. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 % of Americans 18 years and older suffer from some kind of mental disorder. Directed by Anatole Litvak with a screenplay by Frank Partos and Millen Brand (and uncredited Arthur Laurents) based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Mary Jane Ward (and her real life struggle with mental illness), THE SNAKE PIT paved the way for other films about mental illness including ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975) and A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001). Litvak directed some war documentaries during World War II and THE SNAKE PIT at times has an authentic, realistic documentary feel.
We meet Virginia Stuart Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) sitting with her friend Grace (Celeste Holm) on a bench as THE SNAKE PIT begins. Only Virginia does not recognize her friend Grace. Virginia is a patient at the Juniper Hills State Hospital. She is under the care of Dr. Mark Kik (Leo Genn). Virginia's husband Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens) has committed Virginia to the mental hospital when Virginia began exhibiting anxiety, confusion, bewilderment, and memory loss after their recent marriage.
An early flashback shows how Virginia and Robert first met in Chicago where Virginia was trying to get her manuscript published and Robert worked for the publisher. Her book is rejected but they continue to meet for coffee and find they have similar taste in music. But Virginia disappears after breaking off a date. Robert moves to New York and six months later, he runs into Virginia at the New York Philharmonic. Their courtship resumes and they eventually get married but Virginia's behavior begins to deteriorate and she has a mental breakdown.
Dr. Kik tries electric shock treatment and hydrotherapy on Virginia, hoping to stir both past and present memories. Virginia responds favorably to the treatment. Virginia reveals a past boyfriend named Gordon (Leif Erickson) who died in a car accident. Virginia blames herself for Gordon's death. The hospital's review board including Dr. Curtis (Howard Freeman) and Dr. Jonathan Gifford (Frank Conroy) are eager to discharge Virginia due to overcrowding and more female patients arriving every day but Kik wants more time to fully cure Virginia. Virginia's review goes horribly wrong and she has a setback, prompting Virginia to be placed in one of the worst mental wards of the hospital.
Kik won't give up on her. Virginia works her way from Ward 12 back to Ward 1 (the best). When Virginia barters for a doll with another patient, the doll conjures up memories from her childhood and her relationship with her father Mr. Stuart (Damian O'Flynn) who she idolized but blames herself for his death and her mother Mrs. Stuart (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Natalie Schafer) who didn't shower Virginia with love. Kik finally pushes Virginia to unlock her father/husband issues and help her to reunite with her husband Robert and return to society as a functioning person.
As provocative as THE SNAKE PIT'S story is, the film at its core resembles a mystery but without a murder. The mystery is what is the cause of Virginia's mental breakdown. Director Litvak uncovers the mystery slowly, revealing clues bit by bit. Litvak doesn't treat the mental hospital like a horror show although Virginia's review during a storm is a tad theatrical, representing her mental state. But the film doesn't pull any punches either. Virginia thinks the hospital is like a zoo early in the film. Later, she explains to Dr. Kik when befriending another patient that "a sick animal knows how to care for another sick animal."
Except for the bureaucratic review board doctors and Nurse Davis (Helen Craig), a precursor to the strict, disciplinarian Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, most of the doctors and nurses are shown as sympathetic and humane. Dr. Kik and later his friend Dr. Terry (Glenn Langan) are portrayed as caring doctors who want to cure Virginia.
Virginia best explains the film's title when she tells Dr. Kik "I remembered once reading in a book that long ago they used to put insane people into pits full of snakes. I think they figured that something which might drive a normal person insane, might shock an insane person back into sanity." Director Litvak dramatizes Virginia's speech by shooting at a high angle and pulling back (with photographic effects) as if from God's point of view to make the mental hospital look like a pit of wriggling, overcrowded snakes i.e. mentally ill patients. It's a fantastic visual metaphor to accent the snake pit description. I think one of the shocks of THE SNAKE PIT is that this mental hospital is full of female patients. Audiences are familiar with crazy male characters (think Renfield from DRACULA) but never before had American audiences seen an abundance of mentally ill women: young and old, wives, grandmothers, girlfriends, sisters. Mental illness doesn't discriminate.
Olivia de Havilland gives one of the performances of her career in the juicy role of Virginia Stuart Cunningham in THE SNAKE PIT. De Havilland puts vanity aside, wearing little make-up and looking haggard in many scenes. She's often tied down to a gurney or wearing a straight-jacket, certainly not the glamorous De Havilland from her Errol Flynn movies. Virginia is the kind of role that in today's film community, Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Sandra Bullock, or Meryl Streep even would have been fighting to play. De Havilland would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1948 but would lose out to Jane Wyman for JOHNNY BELINDA (Wyman played a young deaf, mute girl).
The rest of the cast is uniformly good. Leo Genn's Dr. Kik is a bit stereotypical with his pipe smoking but he plays the role as a sympathetic, innovative psychiatrist and not some Dr. Frankenstein. Kik may have the most soothing doctor's voice in the history of film. One familiar face in a supporting role is Celeste Holm as Virginia's inmate friend Grace. Holm appears briefly in the early part of THE SNAKE PIT. Holm had won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress the year before in 1947's GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT. And Natalie Schafer who entertained me as a child as Mrs. Thurston Howell III i.e. Lovey on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND plays a very different role as Virginia's cold, unloving mother. Director Litvak must have liked Schafer as he cast her again in his 1956 film ANASTASIA.
The one supporting character I found most revealing is Gordon, Virginia's boyfriend, played by Leif Erickson (no, not the Viking Leif Erickson). He's not in the film very long but Gordon represents a substitute father that Virginia becomes involved with. Virginia may have turned out fine with Gordon but he's killed in a car accident. Virginia blames herself for his death and begins to reject the love of any man.
Director Anatole Litvak would not have a prolific film career but a steady one. Besides THE SNAKE PIT, Litvak's other well known films include SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948) with Barbara Stanwyck and ANASTASIA (1956) starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner. He would make several war documentaries during WWII. This is the first Litvak film I've seen but his handling of an important social issue like mental health is even handed and powerful. At times, Virginia's plight looks bleak but Litvak shows compassion and empathy for Virginia and all the women who deal with their debilitating illnesses. THE SNAKE PIT never gets maudlin or preachy.
One final contributor to acknowledge is 20th Century Fox Producer Daryl Zanuck, never one to shy away from a provocative subject. Without Zanuck's belief that THE SNAKE PIT should be made, the reforms and legislation that improved mental hospitals throughout the country after THE SNAKE PIT'S release might not have happened so swiftly.
So don't let the title fool you. THE SNAKE PIT is the farthest thing from a horror film. But it accurately depicts the horrors and struggles of mental illness in a searing and realistic way. It might make you look at the man or woman talking to themselves on a downtown street corner in a different light.