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The Snake Pit


Starring Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham, The Snake Pit is outdated in a number of important ways, as state mental hospitals have been dramatically changed since this movie came out in 1948.  We now have a variety of powerfully effective major tranquilizers that were not available when the movie was made.  However, some features of the film are still current.  In the film we have some of the same issues as you will find in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest---nasty as well as nice doctors and nurses.  Some mental health professionals burn out and become part of the problem rather than part of the cure for the patients.  This will forever be a part of the world of mental health services until we find a way to dramatically restructure the health care environment.  (For example, if clients/patients were more in control, then nurses/doctors would either be consistently caring or unable to find a job.)


The following is the New York Times review of this film done by Bosley Crowther when it first came out:


" Mary Jane Ward's powerful novel, The Snake Pit, is hardly one which Hollywood might have been expected to choose for transcription to the screen.  For it puts forth fully and frankly the case history of a young woman in a mental institute, wherein she proceeds through experiences which are not of the most beguiling sort.  Yet it must be said to the credit of Anatole Litvak and Twentieth Century Fox (in the person of Darryl F. Zanuck) that they saw the special merit in this book and they had the imagination and temerity to buy and prepare it for the screen.


"And, most particularly, it must be said to their credit that they approached this extraordinary job with a sense of responsibility to treat fairly a most delicate theme.  They followed the book with rare fidelity.  They stuck rigidly to documented facts, and they shunned the obvious temptation to melodramatize insanity.  The consequence is that their picture…is a true, illuminating presentation of the experiences of a psychotic in an institute.  It is a cryptic but a trenchant revelation of a crying need for better facilities for mental care.  And although it is frequently harrowing, it is a fascinating and deeply moving film.


"The most striking aspect of this picture is the forcefulness with which it makes us feel the dark confusion distress, and anguished yearnings of a person who is mentally ill.  And this it does from a literal, straightforward, and quietly objective point of view, with only one impressionistic intrusion, by catching the drama in the behavior of one thus torn….


"Telling the poignant story of a young married woman who is slowly returned to sanity from a mental derangement brought on by a complex of great depth, it goes with her through the experiences of electroshock treatment, narcosynthesis, hydrotherapy, and the revulsions of living in wards with the violently insane.  And, by following, through flashbacks, the drama of her earlier life, it gives a good Freudian explanation for her illness, on which to base her cure."


When you see them give her repeated shock treatments, keep in mind that they are holding her down and not using muscle relaxants.  Such treatments sometimes resulted in broken bones and other physical injuries.  The hydrotherapy sometimes included having the patient wrapped in wet sheets or sprayed by a hose.  The emphasis was on abusive forms of controlling the patients, as they did not know what else they could do.

We have now through a movement called "deinstitutionalization", emptied out and closed down many of these huge mental hospitals only to leave the people who desperately need our help without any resources and wandering our streets as the homeless.


One of the touching scenes is towards the end of the film when the group sings "going home" and another fine part of the film is where de Havilland's character reaches out and helps another patient---which is often one of the most effective and genuine forms of treatment available to those in desperate need.


The treatment aspects of the film are rather crudely handled.  On the wall you will see Sigmund Freud's picture and a traditional "couch" for psychoanalysis is located in Dr. Kik's office…..but he does not practice any of Freud's techniques---and that is understandable, as they are inappropriate with such a client.  Also, the doctor's quick and assertive determination of what has made her ill is not what a competent physician would do, however, in terms of the movie and limited time, it works reasonably well.


The film received a number of nominations for academy awards (Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Screenplay) but only won the award for Best Sound.  However, the New York Film Critics Awards gave the best Actress award to de Havilland.  (Other films by de Havilland include Gone With the Wind.)  The best film that year was John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which is clearly a superior film based on a better book by B. Traven---be sure to watch it when you have the opportunity.

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