Snake Pit, The (1948): Litvak’s Mental Illness Melodrama, Starring Olivia de Havilland in Oscar Nominated Role

Set in a mental institution, “The Snake Pit,” based on Mary Jane Ward’s fictionalized memoirs, is one of Hollywood’s first films to deal in a serious way with mental breakdown and the painstakingly slow recovery process.
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox, Anatole Litvak’s film is uneven, containing many intelligent sequences but also some that are just lurid and sensationalistic.
Olivia De Havilland plays Virginia Stuart Cunningham, who is placed in an asylum by her loving husband Robert (Mark Stevens), after realizing that she needs professional help.
The kind, thoughtful and caring Dr. Mark Kirk (Leo Gann) takes a special interest in her case, and Virginia becomes his favored patient. Needless to say, the place is overcrowded with patients and understaffed, but somehow Dr. Kirk spends most of his time with her. He wants to prove that mental institutions are not “snake pits,” as the public stereotype goes.
The movie has lost some of its 1940s shock value. Committed to reformist goals, the filmmakers hoped that their film would help improve the conditions at mental health institutions. Watching the film from today’s perspective allows us to see its long-enduring impact on other Hollywood films about madness, including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
The central love story is not particularly compelling, but it’s surrounded by interesting footage about life in an asylum, done in a semi-documentary style that draws on Litvak’s previous experience.
The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning one for best sound recording. Olivia de Havilland was nominated for an Oscar for her stark, gritty performance, but lost out to Jane Wyman’s deaf-mute girl in “Johnny Belinda.”
Initially, Litvak choice of the leas was Ingrid Bergman, but the actress, then at the height of her popularity declined, based on her feeling that “it all takes place in an insane asylum and I couldn’t bear that.” Instead, the role went to Olivia de Havilland, who scored a great victory, winning an Oscar nomination and a citation from the New York Film Critics. After the film’s success, Litvak confronted Bergman, “Look what you turned down!” “It was a very good part,” Bergman replied, “but if I had played it, I wouldn’t have got an Oscar for it.”
Litvak conducted pre-production research to lend authenticity to his picture that, despite its grim subject, was both a critical and commercial success. “The Snake Pit” also became an “event” movie with real impact. It is credited by some historians for calling attention to mental problems and to changes of practice and legislation in as many as 26 states
Oscar Nomination: 6
Picture, produced by Anatole Litvak and Robert Bassler
Director: Anatole Litvak
Screenplay: Frank Partos and Millen Brand, based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward
Actress: Olivia de Havilland
Scoring (Drama or Comedy): Alfred Newman
Sound: Thomas Moulton
Oscar Awards: 1
Sound
Oscar Context
In 1948, “The Snake Pit” competed for the top Oscar with Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” which won Best Picture, Actor, and other awards; the ballet-drama “The Red Shoes,” which broke box-office records in the U.S.; Jean Negulesco’s melodrama “Johnny Belinda;” and John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” which won in three of its four nominations, including Director and Screenplay for John Huston.
The most nominated picture, and thus the biggest loser, was “Johnny Belinda,” receiving 12 nominations, but winning only one Oscar, Best Actress for Jane Wyman as the deaf-mute girl Belinda McDonald. Olivia de Havilland won her second Best Actress Oscar in the following year, for “The Heiress.” “The Red Shoes” deservedly won the technical awards in color, a distinction that increased the number of winning films.
Running Time: 108 minutes

 

 

Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter