Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Snake Pit (dir by Anatole Litvak)


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.

Screwball Comedian: Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE (Warner Brothers 1935)


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We’re about a quarter of the way through the baseball season, so let’s take a trip to the ballpark with Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE, a 1935 comedy based on a story by Ring Lardner, one of the best baseball writers of the early 20th Century. Brown, known for his wide mouth and comical yell, is an admittedly acquired taste; his “gosh, golly” country bumpkin persona is not exactly what modern audiences go for these days.  But back in the 30’s he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, specializing in sports themed comedies  revolving around wrestling (SIT TIGHT), track and field (LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD), swimming (YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL), polo (POLO JOE), football ($1,000 A TOUCHDOWN), and racing (boats in TOP SPEED, airplanes in GOING WILD, bicycles in SIX DAY BIKE RACE).

ALIBI IKE is the final chapter in Brown’s “baseball trilogy”. The first, 1932’s FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD, found him…

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The Fabulous Forties #34: This Is The Army (dir by Michael Curtiz)


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The 34th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set is the 1943 musical, This is The Army.

This Is The Army is based on a Broadway musical that was specifically conceived and written by Irving Berlin as a way to boost wartime morale.  The show, which was a collection of patriotic songs and comedic skits, was performed by members of the U.S. Army.  The film version starts with dancer Jerry Jones (George Murphy) being drafted at the start of World War I and putting together an all-army revue called Yip Yip Yaphank.  (Interestingly enough, this was also the name of a real-life show that Irving Berlin put together during World War I.)  The show is a big hit and, when the soldiers in the cast receive their orders to head to France, they literally march off the stage and out the theater.  It’s actually a pretty rousing scene but it’s almost immediately followed by a very sad one, in which we learn that only three members of the cast survived the war.  Jerry Jones is shot in the leg and when he returns home, the former dancer now walks with a cane.

Twenty-five years later, another world war has broken out.  Jerry’s son, Johnny (Ronald Reagan), has joined the army.  Johnny is ordered to put together another revue, in the style of Yip Yip Yaphank.  At first, Johnny is reluctant but orders are orders.  Soon, Johnny and the cast of This Is The Army are touring the U.S. and even performing in front of President Roosevelt (played by Jack Young, though, from a historical perspective, wouldn’t it be neat if President Roosevelt had appeared as himself in a film with Ronald Reagan?).  Along the way, Eileen (Joan Leslie) tries to convince Johnny to marry her even though Johnny wants to wait until the war is over.

It’s really not much of a plot but then again, the film is about showcasing the musical performances.  The soldiers sing.  The soldiers dance.  The soldiers tell jokes and imitate people who were famous in 1943.  There are several scenes that attempt to wring laughs from soldiers dressed up like women.  What’s interesting is that, at a time when the army was still segregated, the performances in This Is The Army feature both white and black soldiers.  Irving Berlin apparently demanded that black soldiers be allowed to appear in both the stage show and the film and, as a result, the unit that performed This Is The Army was, for a time, the only integrated unit in the U.S. Army.

Of course, that makes it even odder that there’s an extended sequence in which white soldiers perform while wearing blackface and standing on a set that’s been designed to resemble a pre-Civil War plantation.  It’s a scene that pops out of nowhere and then it keeps going and going and going and I could only stare at the screen in shocked horror as it played out.  It’s an odd contradiction that the same Irving Berlin who demanded that black soldiers be honored on stage and screen was also apparently the same Irving Berlin was put a minstrel show sketch into the middle of This Is The Army. 

Interestingly enough, George Murphy later retired from acting and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964.  Murphy’s success inspired his co-star, Ronald Reagan, to run for governor.  If Murphy had never been a senator, Reagan would probably never have been a president.  Both Reagan and Murphy give likable performances in This Is The Army and it’s easy to see how that likability, while it may not have often translated into great acting, did eventually lead to political success.

This Is The Army is a time capsule film, one that is mostly interesting as a view into the psyche of 1940s America.  The humor is often corny and the storyline is predictable but there’s also a very sad subtext to the film.  Since both the film and the stage show were performed by actual enlisted men, you watch with the knowledge that some of the men singing and joking on stage won’t return from the war.  Often times, during the performances, we see random people in the audience crying as they realize the same thing.  Even in an otherwise light-hearted film, the sobering realities of life during wartime are right beneath the surface.

Shattered Politics #4: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (dir by Frank Capra)


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So, when you read that I was going to be reviewing 94 political films here at the Shattered Lens, you probably knew that one of them would have to be the 1939 best picture nominee, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

So, we all know that story right?  The senator from an unnamed state dies.  The weak-willed Governor (Guy Kibbee) has to appoint a new senator.  Political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) demands that the governor appoint one of his cronies.  The state’s reformers demand that the Governor appoint a never-seen crusader named Henry Hill (who, whenever I hear his name, makes me think of Ray Liotta snorting cocaine in Goodfellas).  The Governor’s children demand that he appoint Jefferson Smith (James Stewart, of course!), who is the head of something called the Boy Rangers.  The Governor flips a coin.  The coin lands on its edge but it also lands next to a newspaper story about Jeff Smith.

So, of course, Mr. Smith goes to Washington.

Now, as the movie quickly makes clear, Jeff Smith is immediately out-of-place in Washington.  For one thing, he’s actually excited to be there.  He’s convinced that he’s there to make America a better place.  When a bunch of drunken reporters (led by the great Thomas Mitchell) make Smith look foolish, Smith responds by running around Washington and punching them out.  (That whole sequence probably serves as wish fulfilment for a lot of politicians.)  When his cynical legislative aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) tells him that he’s too naive to survive in Washington, he wins her over with the purity of his idealism.  When his mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains), is revealed to be a part of Washington’s corrupt culture, Smith is stunned.  When Taylor tries to destroy his political career, Smith responds by giving the filibuster to end all filibusters.  He’s one man standing up against a culture of corruption and…

And there’s a reason why, 76 years later, aspiring political candidates still attempt to portray themselves as being a real-life, modern Jefferson Smith.

This is one of those films that everyone seems to agree is great and, of course, there’s many reasons to love Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  There’s the lead performance of Jimmy Stewart, of course.  While this may not be his best performance (I prefer the more layered characterization that he brought to It’s A Wonderful Life and Anatomy of a Murder), it is Stewart at his most likable and, most importantly, he makes you feel Jeff Smith’s pain as he discovers that Washington is not the great place that he originally assumed it to be.  Claude Rains was always great when it came to playing good men gone wrong and he’s perfect as Sen. Paine.  Thomas Mitchell and Jean Arthur are perfectly cast and I always enjoy seeing the bemused smile on the face of Vice President Harry Carey as Smith conducts his filibuster.

But I think the best thing about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is that it actually makes you believe that there are Jeff Smiths out there who actually could make a difference.  And, until Judd Apatow gets around to remaking the film with Adam Sandler, audiences will continue to believe.