Olivia de Havilland is easily one of my favourite actresses. I say this having only seen her in three films prior to The Snake Pit, but she never fails to captivate me. I have never understood why she (and her sister Joan Fontaine) were frequently cast as the ‘plain girls’ as they are both beautiful… still I am not going to focus on that for now. What I will say is how much work she put into this role, including sitting through psychiatric lectures and actually watching a number of the treatments depicted in the film.
The Snake Pit is one of those films that was rather big upon the time of release and has since faded somewhat, but still finds its way onto a number of Top 1000 films lists. I mean it was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture. I have no explanation of this as it was a very good film, it’s just what happens to films.
The reason it gained a bit of notoriety at the time was due to it being one of the first films in the mainstream to deal with mental illness in a more profound way. Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia, a woman in a psychiatric hospital after she has had a breakdown… not that she remembers that or most things. She experiences a lot of time loss and is unable to recall simple facts about her life without a lot of prompting.
The whole point of the film is to watch her doctor, the remarkably patient (and somewhat dishy) Dr. Kik, help her to uncover the reason behind her illness and, ultimately, cure her. Along the way the film renders bare the state of the American mental health system complete with use of electric shock treatments, hydrotherapy and the open plan wards where patients are unable to escape from each other.
There is a rather interesting shot used as Virginia finds herself condemned to Ward 33 (which houses the worst patients in the hospital) where it zooms out from her position to the point where the writhing movements of the surrounding patients make the room resemble the titular snake pit – the idea of a treatment where something that would make a sane person go mad can help someone regain their sanity. Her cure comes from using talking therapies over the more archaic methods employed in the hospital, and at the time, to the point that her recovery (although sped up for the sake of the film) feels very much plausible.
Upon release this was an accurate and unflinching representation of the state of care for the mentally ill, complete with dances between mentally ill patients of the adjoining male and female wards (something that actually happened apparently) over half of the then 48 US States went through reform for these hospitals and censors in the UK had to qualify that this was not a representation of UK hospitals. In many ways, this film may have actually improved the lot of the mentally ill in America. How many movies can say that?