The 1948 film, The Snake Pit, tells the story of a writer named Virginia Cunningham.
Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) is a patient at the Juniper Hill State Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that only treats female patients. Some days, Virginia knows where she is and some days, she doesn’t. Some days, she knows who she is and other days, she doesn’t. Sometimes, she hears voices and other times, the silence in her head is her only companion. Sometimes, she’s paranoid and other times, she’s quite lucid.
Virginia has been admitted against her will. Her husband, Robert (Mark Stevens), visits frequently and sometimes, she knows him and sometimes, she doesn’t. Through flashbacks, we see how Virginia and Robert first met. Robert worked at a publishing house. Virginia was a writer whose work kept getting rejected. Robert and Virginia fell almost immediately in love but Virginia always refused to consider marrying him. In fact, she even disappeared at one point, because things were getting too serious. However, one day, Virginia suddenly declared that she wanted to get married. Afterwards, her behavior became more and more erratic.
In the hospital, Virginia is treated by Dr. Kik (Leo Genn), who is depicted as being a compassionate and progressive psychiatrist, even as he puts Virginia through electroshock treatment. (Remember, this film was made in 1948.) With Dr. Kik’s guidance, Virginia starts to piece her life together and get to the cause of nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, it often seems like every step forward leads to two steps back and Virginia still reacts to every bit of pressure by acting out, even biting one unhelpful doctor.
The hospital is divided into levels. With each bit of progress that a patient makes, she’s allowed to move to a new level that allows her just a bit more freedom. Everyone’s goal is to make it to the final level, Level One. Unfortunately, Level One is run by Nurse Davis (Helen Craig), a tyrant who is in love with Dr. Kik and jealous of the amount of time he spends on Virginia. Davis starts to goad Helen, trying to get her to lose control. And what happens if you lose control? You end up in the Snake Pit, the dreaded Level 33. Being sent to Level 33 means being abandoned in a padded cell, surrounded by patients who have been deemed untreatable.
At the time that it was released, The Snake Pit was a groundbreaking film, the first major American studio production to deal seriously and sympathetically with mental illness. Seen today, it’s still effective but you can’t help but cringe at some of the techniques that are used in Virginia’s treatment. (Electroshock treatment, for instance, is portrayed as being frightening but ultimately necessary.) The film works best as a showcase for Olivia de Havilland, who gives an absolutely brilliant and empathetic performance as Virginia. Neither the film not de Havilland shies away from the reality of Virginia’s condition nor does it make the mistake of sentimentalizing her story. For me, de Havilland’s best moment comes when she learns that she bit another doctor. At first, she’s horrified but then she starts to laugh because the doctor in question was such a pompous ass that he undoubtedly deserved it. de Havilland handles the character’s frequent transitions from lucidity to confusion with great skill, without indulging in the temptation to go over-the-top. Arguably, The Snake Pit features de Havilland’s best lead performance.
(Olivia de Havilland is, at 103 years old, still with us and living, reportedly quite happily, in France.)
Olivia de Havilland was nominated for Best Actress but she lost to Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda. (A year later, De Havilland’s won an Oscar for The Heiress.) The Snake Pit was also nominated for Best Picture but ultimately lost to Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Hamlet.